Let’s Look at Past Successes to Encourage the Vision of a Brighter Environmental Future

Too often the tone of environmental discourse —Crisis! Dire failure!—promotes hopelessness and paralysis. Brock Bernstein, President of the National Fisheries Conservation Center (Global Ocean Health is a program of NFCC), takes a different view. He was recently asked to write a blog entry for the journal Integrated Environmental Assessment and Management, and we think it’s an important message.

By Dr. Brock B. Bernstein

Pervasive doom and gloom dominates much of the popular news about the environment. Global warming, sea level rise, ocean acidification, drought, wildfires, overfishing, or overpopulation—it all contributes to a feeling of despair and hopelessness, particularly among young people. This struck home for me on a personal level during a recent conversation with my college-aged son and a few of his friends—they felt they were “totally screwed” because of the inevitable impacts of climate change.

Cuyahoga River fire, 1952. Courtesy clevelandmemory.org

One value of getting older is that you’ve seen more and have a longer history to draw on. I grew up in southern California from the 1950s through the 1970s when environmental problems were severe and visible – air pollution (I remember frequent episodes of eye-burning smog that caused incessant coughing fits during water polo practice) and sewage contamination that led much of Santa Monica Bay’s beaches to be permanently closed to swimming (1,2). While I was in graduate school, I visited a colleague in Cleveland in the late 1960s, just a couple of years after the Cuyahoga River caught on fire again, because it was so polluted that, as Time Magazine put it, the river “oozes rather than flows” (Time, August 1, 1969).

Los Angeles smog

Smog over Los Angeles basin. Credit: Al Pavangkanan, CC BY 2.0.

And yet, we’ve solved many of these and other problems that seemed so overwhelming at the time, and we’ve made major progress on newer ones such as the ozone hole. One useful thing about getting older is that it provides some protection against the shifting baseline phenomenon in which our perceptions are dominated by more recent information while the past recedes in our collective memory and is not part of our current awareness. For good reason, environmental advocates typically focus on shifting baselines that cause us to see current, degraded conditions as normal. For example, the average size of top-of-the-food chain fish, such as swordfish, has declined substantially since the 1800s (3), to the extent that most people cannot even imagine a 400-pound swordfish. Yet shifting baselines also diminish our awareness of past successes and the effort that went into them. My son and his friends were only vaguely aware of southern California’s decades-long battle against air and water (2) pollution. As a result, they have no experience of hard-won success to draw on as they consider what their future holds. And because they’re not in the engineering facilities and meeting rooms where solutions to California’s current extreme drought and likely drier future are being crafted and implemented, they—and much of the rest of the public—don’t appreciate the stunning speed with which solutions such as stormwater capture and the potable reuse of treated wastewater are being developed and implemented.

Read more here

National Climate Assessment Released

May 6th, 2014, National Climate Report Overview

Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present. Corn producers in Iowa, oyster growers in Washington State, and maple syrup producers in Vermont are all observing climate-related changes that are outside of recent experience. So, too, are coastal planners in Florida, water managers in the arid Southwest, city dwellers from Phoenix to New York, and Native Peoples on tribal lands from Louisiana to Alaska. This National Climate Assessment concludes that the evidence of human-induced climate change continues to strengthen and that impacts are increasing across the country.

Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter, and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced. Winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours. People are seeing changes in the length and severity of seasonal allergies, the plant varieties that thrive in their gardens, and the kinds of birds they see in any particular month in their neighborhoods.

Other changes are even more dramatic. Residents of some coastal cities see their streets flood more regularly during storms and high tides. Inland cities near large rivers also experience more flooding, especially in the Midwest and Northeast. Insurance rates are rising in some vulnerable locations, and insurance is no longer available in others. Hotter and drier weather and earlier snow melt mean that wildfires in the West start earlier in the spring, last later into the fall, and burn more acreage. In Arctic Alaska, the summer sea ice that once protected the coasts has receded, and autumn storms now cause more erosion, threatening many communities with relocation.

Scientists who study climate change confirm that these observations are consistent with significant changes in Earth’s climatic trends. Long-term, independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges, and many other data sources all confirm that our nation, like the rest of the world, is warming. Precipitation patterns are changing, sea level is rising, the oceans are becoming more acidic, and the frequency and intensity of some extreme weather events are increasing. Many lines of independent evidence demonstrate that the rapid warming of the past half-century is due primarily to human activities.

The observed warming and other climatic changes are triggering wide-ranging impacts in every region of our country and throughout our economy. Some of these changes can be beneficial over the short run, such as a longer growing season in some regions and a longer shipping season on the Great Lakes. But many more are detrimental, largely because our society and its infrastructure were designed for the climate that we have had, not the rapidly changing climate we now have and can expect in the future. In addition, climate change does not occur in isolation. Rather, it is superimposed on other stresses, which combine to create new challenges.

This National Climate Assessment collects, integrates, and assesses observations and research from around the country, helping us to see what is actually happening and understand what it means for our lives, our livelihoods, and our future. The report includes analyses of impacts on seven sectors – human health, water, energy, transportation, agriculture, forests, and ecosystems – and the interactions among sectors at the national level. The report also assesses key impacts on all U.S. regions: Northeast, Southeast and Caribbean, Midwest, Great Plains, Southwest, Northwest, Alaska, Hawai’i and Pacific Islands, as well as the country’s coastal areas, oceans, and marine resources.

Over recent decades, climate science has advanced significantly. Increased scrutiny has led to increased certainty that we are now seeing impacts associated with human-induced climate change. With each passing year, the accumulating evidence further expands our understanding and extends the record of observed trends in temperature, precipitation, sea level, ice mass, and many other variables recorded by a variety of measuring systems and analyzed by independent research groups from around the world. It is notable that as these data records have grown longer and climate models have become more comprehensive, earlier predictions have largely been confirmed. The only real surprises have been that some changes, such as sea level rise and Arctic sea ice decline, have outpaced earlier projections.

What is new over the last decade is that we know with increasing certainty that climate change is happening now. While scientists continue to refine projections of the future, observations unequivocally show that climate is changing and that the warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. These emissions come mainly from burning coal, oil, and gas, with additional contributions from forest clearing and some agricultural practices.

Global climate is projected to continue to change over this century and beyond, but there is still time to act to limit the amount of change and the extent of damaging impacts.

This report documents the changes already observed and those projected for the future.

It is important that these findings and response options be shared broadly to inform citizens and communities across our nation. Climate change presents a major challenge for society. This report advances our understanding of that challenge and the need for the American people to prepare for and respond to its far-reaching implications.

Read the full report here