A committee of scientists, business leaders, and policy experts, formed by Congress in 2009 to look at how the US could confront the challenge of climate change, has released a report highlighting the urgent need for the United States to curb the carbon emissions responsible for global warming. The committee, which is part of the National Research Council, has warned that rapid action is needed to avoid climate shifts that will be both dangerous and likely irreversible.
According to the new report, which is titled “America’s Climate Choices,” it makes most sense to start dramatically curbing greenhouse emissions now, because the longer climate change goes unmitigated the more difficult it will be to stop. The committee noted that many of the worst effects of climate change aren’t likely to make themselves felt until years after carbon emissions have already been released into the atmosphere. By that time it will be too late to do anything, so waiting to see how bad the problem gets before acting to prevent it is not a viable option.
“The goal of the America’s Climate Choices studies is to ensure that climate decisions are informed by the best possible scientific knowledge, analysis, and advice, both now and in the future,” said committee chair Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at the University of California in Los Angeles.
The new report also re-examines the evidence for climate change, concluding that human activities like the burning of fossil fuels are indeed to blame for recent planetary warming trends. Neither natural variation in the Earth’s atmosphere nor sunspots and other types of solar activity can explain decades of warming that have led to melting ice caps and glaciers, rising sea levels, and other changes in the world around us.
Perhaps most important of all, “America’s Climate Choices” makes some general recommendations for how the US can still avoid the worst effects of climate change. The authors note that comprehensive federal polices which compliment state and local efforts will be needed to make the kind of cuts in greenhouse emissions required. Though it doesn’t endorse specific policies, the report does point out that putting some kind of price on carbon would be an effective way to reduce the burning of fossil fuels. It also recommends devoting more research to green technologies, and urges the US take a leadership role in international climate change negotiations.
Most of the findings of the National Research Council do not sound particularly new; in fact leading climate scientists have been calling for deep cuts in greenhouse emissions and a shift to low-emissions technologies for years. However the report is significant partly because it is a completely US-based effort, and backs up the most important findings of other major research bodies, such as the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The report’s conclusions also serve as a reminder that the scientific evidence for climate change is as real as it ever was, if not more so.
Yet sweeping policies to curb greenhouse emissions will not likely be enacted by the federal government during the next couple years, as many members of Congress are opposed to the idea and even doubt that global warming exists. Republicans and conservative-leaning Democrats in Congress are not just blocking climate legislation from moving forward, but are actively trying to dismantle existing laws like the Clean Air Act that could wean the US off fossil fuels. Some, like Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, claim climate change is actually a hoax concocted by an international network of scientists intent on controlling the world.
The doubts of politicians aside, “America’s Climate Choices” serves as both a reminder that the threat of catastrophic global warming is still with us, and a practical guide to addressing the problem. Though the current Congress is unlikely to implement the report authors’ suggestions, these recommendations may be more closely headed by future political leaders who want to address the most important environmental challenge the country has ever faced.
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