Do you need a weatherman?

Richard Houghton

Acting President & Senior Scientist
Richard A. Houghton

The third National Climate Assessment report was released to the public earlier this month, the first and second appearing in 2000 and in 2009, respectively. Do you remember those?  Will we remember this one?  Within the context of the many national and international reports on climate change that have appeared over the last 20 years (five assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [IPCC], the recent summary by the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS], and various National Academy of Sciences [NAS] reports), it is unlikely that this report will be remembered.

What will be remembered is that sometime during the first few decades of the second millennium everyone began to notice the effects of a changing climate. After decades of warnings from scientists, climatic disruption is beginning to be experienced – heat waves, severe storms, droughts, floods, or sea-level rise. “You don’t need a weatherman to tell which way the wind blows.”  But you may need a climate scientist to tell you which way it will blow. Predictions are more compelling when there’s a little evidence to go along with them.

John Holdren, who is President Barack Obama’s adviser for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, called the latest report of the National Climate Assessment the “loudest alarm bell to date signaling the need for urgent action so that we can combat the threats and the risk from global climate change in this country.”

And yet, not all of us are in agreement – at least not publicly. In Washington and in some states, it is still politically dangerous to admit to climate change, or to its causes, because such an admission requires endorsing a solution that requires some taxation or regulation of the oil, gas and coal industries. And those industries are big supporters of political candidates.

Nevertheless, things are changing – slowly. Cities like San Francisco, Portland, and Seattle have divested of fossil fuels.  This May, Stanford University became the twelfth prominent American University to divest its $18.9 billion endowment of fossil fuel stocks. And earlier in 2014 the Woods Hole Research Center divested its considerably smaller endowment of stocks from the largest 200 fossil fuel industries.  Thank you, Bill McKibben.

There is still a long way to go, and much to do, and the climatic disruption will get worse before it gets better; but it’s difficult (and increasingly foolish) to deny that climate is changing. And, if you’re a political leader, it’s criminal – because the government’s job is to look after the public interest.

There will be another National Climate Assessment four years from now.  I wonder where the world will be then – in terms of climate and in terms of public (and political) involvement.  I’d like to think that I’ll be thanking the American public for leading our leaders in acknowledging that it’s time to slow, stop, and reverse climate change.