August 14, 2017
On August 4, the administration of US President Donald J. Trump formally notified the United Nations (UN) of its intent to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, while a forthcoming report points to the increasing effects of climate change.

In providing formal notification, Trump confirmed his June announcement that he would pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord. However, in line with Trump’s desire for a better deal, Washington stipulated that the United States would be willing to re-engage with the terms of the Accord on “terms more favorable to it.”

This move by the Trump administration raises more questions than it answers. Will the United States play a constructive role at COP23, the UN climate change conference in Bonn this fall, or will it be relegated to the sidelines? How will the rest of the world respond to US participation at COP23 and the 2018 Facilitative Dialogue to follow? More broadly, how will Washington engage in a process that is now driven by a framework (and a responsibility) for emissions reductions that it has rejected?

Adding to these questions, the administration’s official notification was followed by a reminder of just how real, and how serious, the implications of a changing climate are.

The administration is reportedly reviewing the final draft of a forthcoming Climate Science Special Report, part of the National Climate Assessment, required by the Global Change Research Act of 1990 to be conducted every four years. The draft report concludes, among other things: “Recent data adds to the weight of evidence for rapid global-scale warming, the dominance of human causes, and the expected continuation of increasing temperatures, including record-setting extremes.”

While the nuances of climate science may be complicated, and the projected impacts and future scenarios can seem abstract when compared to the war in Syria, tensions with Russia, and the constant political hum of Washington, several takeaways from the report are not only relevant, but reality for many in communities in the United States and around the world.

1. Temperatures have, and will continue, to rise.

As reported earlier this summer, scorching summers, once a rarity, “have become commonplace” around the world. For any who have sweated out the summer months in the sweltering southeast or dry Great Plains, this is unlikely to be welcome news.

However, discomfort could be the least worrisome of the implications of warmer temperatures. Extremely high temperatures —nearly 120 degrees—grounded flights at Phoenix’s international airport earlier this summer, while the June heatwave that struck southern Europe, causing deadly fires in Spain and Portugal, was linked to climate change.

The  “State of the Climate Report,” released last week and led by the NOAA Center for Environmental Information released seemed to corroborate the draft report’s finding, noting that 2016 surpassed the previous year as the hottest on record, while ocean temperatures also reached new highs last year.

2. Extremes are becoming more commonplace—and more frequent.

This includes extreme heat and precipitation. To grasp the implications of extreme rainfall, look no further than Baton Rouge, still recovering from the worst rainstorm in its history in August 2016. As a report by Climate Central points out, the impacts of flooding extend beyond physical damage to homes and businesses to loss of life and livelihood, and even emotional trauma, including anxiety and depression.

As the report notes, “The forlornness of families and the mental health maladies from their trauma are less visible than physical scars etched in urban streets.” Those left to recover and rebuild from natural disasters are the poorest and most vulnerable residents, “condensing the more vulnerable Americans in the most vulnerable regions.”

3. Sea level rise will increasingly become a problem for coastal communities.  

Global mean sea level is rising, and rates of tidal flooding, particularly in the Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities, are going up, and will continue to increase in “depth, frequency, and extent.”

Many communities across the United States are already facing what has been dubbed “chronic inundation”—roughly translated to flooding every other week. The number of affected communities is only expected to increase as sea levels rise. Chronic flooding could impact communities from New York to Maryland’s Eastern Shore to Oakland, affecting small businesses, home values, mobility and transport, and vulnerable populations along the way.

This includes popular tourist destinations, like Miami, where The New Yorker has reported on challenges residents, city planners, and homeowners face in dealing with increasingly regular coastal flooding. In Charleston, South Carolina, the city’s sustainability project manager has noted that the still-ongoing debate in the United States as the reality and cause of climate change is somewhat irrelevant compared to facts on the ground, as climate change is “happening right now.”

4. All Climate is Global.

The draft report under review by the Trump administration concludes that “understanding the full scope of human impacts on climate requires a global focus because of the interconnected nature of the climate system.”

In short, human activity around the world will have a demonstrable effect on the United States, and vice versa. Thus, the Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement, and his refusal to participate unless the terms are more favorable to the immediate interests of the United States, not only ignores US responsibility, but also belies a misunderstanding of how and where the impacts of climate change will be felt and by whom. A better deal for the United States is one in which the impacts of climate change are mitigated, an outcome that will require cooperation, shared responsibility, and yes, shared costs by all countries around the world—including the United States. 

Ultimately, as Washington continues to dither over political—to borrow a phrase from US Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt— questions of whether the science is “settled,” scientists, and increasingly citizens and communities, continue to point to the warning signs that climate change is a real and present danger.  

Ellen Scholl is an associate director at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center. You can follow her on Twitter @EllenScholl.

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