On July 11 the Union of Concerned Scientists released a major report, Confronting Climate Change in the U.S. Northeast: Science, Impacts, and Solutions.  The report identifies a wide range of signficant, harmful, likely impacts on cities and ecosystems in a nine-state region. In the absence of federal support under the current administration for national and regional-scale climate change impacts assessments like this, the Union of Concerned Scientists is filling in a gap that should not be there in the first place, doing a job the government should be doing but is currently unwilling to do.

The UCS report is the result of a comprehensive regional assessment of high caliber and credibility: it relies on peer-reviewed scientific information from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Fourth Assessment Report and other scientific assessments, state-of-the-art climate models, and a vast collection of climate and ecological data. Covering a nine-state region, the study was the culmination of a two-year collaboration between UCS and a team of more than 60 independent scientists and economists, and is the natural follow-on to a UCS study published last year that lists the regional climate changes projected for the northeast: for example, a potential average temperature increase of 10+ degrees F in New England winters and summers by 2100.

To some, the news stories covering the UCS study should sound familiar.  The UCS report closely resembles earlier reports, including the New England Regional Assessment, the Metropolitan East Coast Assessment, and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Assessment, that were part of the National Assessment of Climate Change.  These reports, as well as a dozen other regional assessments that were also wide-ranging, collaborative, multi-year analyses of the impacts of climate change, were prepared in the late 1990s and distributed widely around 2000. The National Assessment reports were federally funded and administered by the U.S. Global Change Research Program.  In contrast, the UCS effort was funded entirely with grants from nine foundations. While the UCS report credits the National Assessment for providing a foundation on which the new assessment was built, it is not referenced even once in the dozens of news stories covering the UCS study.
Climate change and climate science have advanced since that time, and updated assessment work is needed in every area. Climate change impacts and response strategy assessments should be going on in every region of the United States — today, yesterday, five years ago, and five years from now — and should have support from the highest levels of government.  They are not. Bush administration officials pulled the rug out from under the National Assessment process, forbidding federal agencies to use the information in it, to refer to it in publications, to use it in strategic planning, to conduct any analogous follow-on assessment work, or to base public policy on its findings — findings that apparently represented too much of an inconvenient truth for the administration. Thus, a nationwide network of scientists and stakeholders who participated in the 2000 assessment was disbanded and largely disappeared, and this major study almost vanished from public consciousness. 

This is a case of termination and suppression winning out over compliance with the Global Change Research Act of 1990. Under the law, another scientific assessment dealing with a range of impacts was due out in 2004, and yet another should be in the wings for a 2008 release.  In their place, the Climate Change Science Program is in the process of developing a set of “synthesis reports” on various topics that, while intellectually interesting and potentially useful, do not substitute for the kind of integrated climate change impacts assessment that is needed for national preparedness in dealing with the challenge of global warming.

The UCS report concluded that:

By late this century, if the higher-emissions scenario prevails:
• The extreme coastal flooding that now occurs only once a century could strike New York City
on average once every decade.
• Increasing water temperatures may make the storied fishing grounds of Georges Bank unfavorable for cod.
• Pittsburgh and Concord, NH, could each swelter through roughly 25 days over 100°F every summer—compared with roughly one day per summer historically—and even typically cool cities such as Buffalo could average 14 days over 100°F each year, amplifying the risk of heat-related illnesses and death among vulnerable populations.
• In Philadelphia, which already ranks tenth in the nation for ozone pollution, the number of days failing to meet federal air-quality standards is projected to quadruple (if local vehicle and industrial emissions of ozone-forming pollutants are not reduced).
• Only western Maine is projected to retain a reliable ski season.
• The hemlock stands that shade and cool many of the Northeast’s streams could be lost—much like the American elm—to a pest that thrives in warmer weather, further threatening native brook trout in the Adirondacks and elsewhere.
• Climate conditions suitable for maple/beech/birch forests are projected to shift dramatically northward, while conditions suitable for spruce/fir forests—a primary source of sawlogs and pulpwood as well as a favored recreation destination—would all but disappear from the region.
• As their forest habitat changes, many migratory songbirds such as the Baltimore oriole, American goldfinch, and song sparrow are expected to become less abundant.
• Parts of Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and other areas in the Northeast are likely to become unsuitable for growing certain popular varieties of apples, blueberries, and cranberries.
• Unless farmers can afford cooling technologies, milk production across much of the region is projected to decline 5 to 20 in certain months.

Some impacts of global warming are projected to be similar under either of the two emissions scenarios presented in the report:
• Atlantic City, NJ, and Boston are expected to experience today’s once-a-century coastal flooding once every year or two on average by the end of the century.
• The lobster fisheries in Long Island Sound and the coastal waters off Rhode Island and south of Cape Cod are likely to decline significantly by mid-century, and cod are expected to disappear from these southern waters by century’s end.
• The number of days over 90°F is expected to triple in many of the region’s cities, including Boston, Buffalo, and Concord, NH.
• Hotter, longer, drier summers punctuated by heavy rainstorms may create favorable conditions for more frequent outbreaks of mosquitoborne disease such as West Nile virus.
• Most of the region is likely to have a marginal or non-existent snowmobile season by mid-century.
• Warmer winters will shorten the average ski and snowboard seasons, increase snowmaking requirements, and drive up operating costs.
• Spruce/fir forests such as the Great North Woods are expected to lose significant area, diminishing their value for timber, recreation, and wildlife habitat. Certain species that depend on these forests, such as the Bicknell’s thrush, are projected to disappear from the region.
• Weed problems and pest-related damage are expected to escalate, increasing pressures on farmers to use more herbicides and pesticides.

Copyright 2007 Union of Concerned Scientists

Climate change impacts will occur nationwide and vary region-by-region and socioeconomic sector-by-sector. We need an administration that will talk honestly with the public about these issues. And we need a Climate Change Science Program that is not tied in knots, unable to provide effectively the needed national climate change intelligence capability to more fully understand the issues and help deal with them.