Five Questions for John Holdren
On the U.S. Climate Assessment
15 May 2014
Last week, the federal government released its National Climate Assessment, the most comprehensive report to date on the climate impacts already being felt in the U.S. Saying climate change “has moved firmly into the present,” the report documented how drier regions are growing drier, heat waves more intense, and large swaths of forest dying from insect infestations. Yale Environment 360 asked John P. Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, five questions about the report and about plans by President Obama to intensify actions to rein in CO2 emissions and adapt to rising seas and other changes. 1. Do you believe that last week’s National Climate Assessment has the potential to shift the debate about climate change in the United States?
I think people are coming to understand from what they see around them, and from what they see on their televisions and on the Web, what is actually happening to climate in this country. The third U.S.
John P. Holdren
National Climate Assessment will only reinforce and increase that understanding. I think public awareness of the impacts of climate change has been increasing recently and will continue to increase, due in part to the dissemination of scientific evidence and information through efforts such as the climate assessment. 2. The assessment runs to 840 pages and reports in great detail on the many changes already affecting the U.S. From your point of view, what were some of the most surprising findings?
There are a number of findings in this report that sound an alarm bell signaling the need for action to combat the threats from climate change. For instance, the amount of rain coming down in heavy downpours and deluges across the U.S. is increasing; there’s an increase that’s already occurring in heat waves across the middle of the U.S.; and there are serious observed impacts of sea-level rise occurring in low-lying cities such as Miami, where, during high tides, certain parts of the city flood and seawater seeps up through storm drains. These are phenomena that are already having direct adverse impacts on human well-being in different parts of this country.
3. With the local and regional impacts of climate change becoming increasingly evident, and with government officials and scientists putting a new emphasis on communicating those impacts, do you think the public will begin putting more pressure on political leaders to take action to slow climate change?
I think we’re going to see increased public support for government action advancing the different components of the President’s Climate Action Plan
. That means more support for actions to boost preparedness and resilience in communities, more support for domestic emissions reductions, and more support for U.S. leadership in the international arena. It’s already true that strong majorities of Americans understand the climate is changing, that people are mainly responsible for that, that damage is already being done, and that we need to take more action. 4. How would you assess the state of preparedness for adaption to climate change in the U.S., especially in highly vulnerable regions such as the East Coast and arid regions of the Southwest?
In regions, states, and communities across the country, people are already taking many positive steps to incorporate into their planning and decisions climate change information that is increasingly becoming available. There are also individual sectors — fisheries for instance — that are experiencing the effects of climate change-related problems, such as ocean acidification, and are beginning to take measures to address them. These kinds of localized actions are exactly the sorts of measures the administration is working to support by making scientific information, such as that contained in the third National Climate Assessment, and relevant data, such as those provided through the President’s Climate Data Initiative
, increasingly open and available. The state of climate change preparedness continues to grow stronger. 5. Beyond this climate assessment, what are the key steps that the Obama administration will now be taking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for rising sea levels and other climate impacts?
We in the administration have already made important progress to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the United States through the measures outlined in the President’s Climate Action Plan — including by developing fuel economy standards for heavy-duty vehicles; proposing a number of energy conservation standards, as well as standards for greenhouse-gas emissions from new fossil-fueled power plants; releasing a national strategy to cut emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas — and more. Going forward, we will be taking every step necessary to fully implement all of the measures described in the president’s plan, including those aimed at cutting carbon pollution in America, increasing preparedness for and resilience against climate change impacts that can’t be avoided, and leading international efforts to address climate change as a global challenge.
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