Experts address impact of climate change at USC Price forum
By Matthew Kredell
The USC Schwarzenegger Institute and the USC Center for Sustainable Cities, both housed within the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, brought together some of the nation's most prominent scientists and local leaders April 8 for a meaningful discussion on the draft National Climate Assessment (NCA), a sobering look at the impacts projected to result from climate change.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, who passed some of the world's most sweeping policies on climate change, renewable energy and energy efficiency during his time as governor of California, compared the climate assessment to his regular health checkups, which he joked have become more important as he has gotten older and “realized that I'm less and less of a machine.”
Regular physicals may seem routine but they are important to diagnose issues while preventative measures can still be taken to prevent major disasters in the future.
“The National Climate Assessment is our physical,” said Schwarzenegger, who was introduced by Price Dean Jack H. Knott. “These scientists have done thorough research and they can tell us our condition and give us a prescription for what we need to do to improve the health of our climate.”
In conjunction with the forum, Schwarzenegger sent a letter to President Obama and leaders of Congress calling for them to take action on the warnings of a report they have largely ignored in the past.
Hilda Blanco, interim director of the Center for Sustainable Cities and a lead author on the NCA report for the Southwest region, explained that Congress mandated in 1990 that this important scientific report, coordinated by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, be conducted every four years to closely evaluate the impact of climate change in our nation.
However, this is only the third report following releases in 2000 and 2009. After the 2000 report received criticism from some conservative groups, President George W. Bush's administration ignored the requirement for overall national assessments. The 2009 report was prepared by the Bush administration, and released as President Obama was taking office. Obama's administration focused on more pressing economic issues.
“I think this is the first report that has the opportunity to get a lot of attention and get people concerned about these issues,” Blanco said. “The fact that climate change is occurring faster than ever imagined makes for a very scary type of report. This forum was an opportunity for us to bring together a number of informed comments that we will then present to the NCA as a whole.”
Among the alarming findings from the Southwest Region Chapter and the research highlighted at the Forum:
- Sea level is projected to rise between 1 and 1.4 meters by the year 2100, putting at risk from flooding 480,000 people, a wide range of critical infrastructure, vast areas of wetlands and nearly $100 billion in property along the California coast.
- Streamflow totals in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, the Colorado, the Rio Grande and in the Great Basin ranged from 5-to-37 percent lower between 2001 and 2010 than the 20th century average flows. Snowpack and streamflow amounts are projected to continue declining, decreasing water supply for cities, agriculture and ecosystems.
- California produces about 95 percent of U.S. apricots, almonds, artichokes, figs, kiwis, raisins, olives, pistachios, walnuts, and other high-value crops that are irrigation-dependent and particularly vulnerable to extremes of moisture, cold and heat. Climate change may require a northward shift in crop production, displacing existing growers and affecting farming communities.
- Heat-related illnesses will increase due to the projected rise in regional temperatures combined with the way cities amplify heat. Disruptions to urban electricity and water supplies will exacerbate these health problems.
- Wildfire will continue to increase as the climate changes, impacting people and ecosystems. Wildfire season in the western U.S. has lengthened by more than two months in the past 20 years. Fire models project a doubling of burned area in the southern Rockies by 2070 and up to 74 percent more fires in California.
A full draft of the NCA Southwest Region Chapter report can be viewed at http://ncadac.globalchange.gov/download/NCAJan11-2013-publicreviewdraft-chap20-southwest.pdf.
Five scientists whose research contributed to the findings of the report spoke at the forum: Philip Duffy of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory with an overview of modeling used for the report, Thomas Swetnam from the University of Arizona on forests and fire hazards, Rupa Basu of the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment on the impact on public health, Matthew Heberger of the Pacific Institute Water Program on rising sea levels, and David Pierce from Scripps Institution of Oceanography on water resources.
Duffy warned that, although research is produced using many different climate models to improve accuracy, there will always be a level of uncertainty to future climate because it is impossible to know future production of greenhouse gases, natural variability and the climate system's response to greenhouse gases.
“It would be a mistake to think that if we only wait a few years, the uncertainty in future climate is going to go away or shrink substantially, and therefore we should postpone action,” Duffy said.
The NCA draft is open for public comments until April 12. Nine local leaders offered their comments at the USC forum: Dan Jacobson of Environment California; Jon Parfrey of Climate Resolve, Monica Gilchrist of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA, John Simpson of Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Dan Dunmoyer of Farmers/Zurich Insurance, Sven Hackmann of Siemens Smart Grid, David Abel of Verdexchange Institute, UCLA professor Woodrow Clark and USC Price professor Dan Mazmanian.
“While reducing global warming is critical in protecting California's environment, it does not have to be counter to our economy,” Jacobson said. “In two reports we released in 2008 and again in 2012 called 'Greening the Bottom Line,' we look at institutions, businesses, schools and nonprofits in California and the data is clear — businesses that are making the move toward solving climate, putting up solar and being energy efficient not only are reducing carbon emissions by millions of tons but also saving money by the tune of millions of dollars.”
According to the NCA, comments will be sorted by chapter and provided to the authors. Members of the public can submit a comment on http://review.globalchange.gov. The report is expected to be delivered to the President in late 2013, with the finalized government version available early in 2014.
“It was a little doom and gloom, but I feel like that's necessary because I don't think we are taking it as seriously as we should, at least mainstream-wise,” said Hovanes Gasparian, a first-year master of public policy student at USC Price who attended the forum. “I know amongst academia we are alarmed and aware of it, but I don't think mainstream America realizes how serious these effects are. I think the takeaway message is that progress is being made and solutions are coming up, but we need to mobilize and come together around this issue.”