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U.S. Science Assessment Points to Present-Day Climate Impacts

Several U.S. media have published near-final drafts of a report for the United States government documenting dramatic changes in America’s climate. It sharply contradicts frequent assertions by the leak-obsessed Trump administration, and set off alarms that the White House would attempt to censor the report’s findings before approving its official release.

“Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans,” states the draft obtained by The New York Times. “Many lines of evidence demonstrate that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.”

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Compiling data from 13 U.S. government agencies, the report found that Americans are already feeling the effects of average temperatures that have risen “rapidly and drastically since 1980.” The southern half of the continent is now the warmest it has been in more than 1,500 years.

In one especially stunning forecast, the report projects that the global climate will be 2.0º warmer at the end of this century than today. If that proves accurate, the additional heat would push average global temperatures to more than 3.0ºC above pre-industrial times—well beyond most threshold estimates for the unavoidable onset of catastrophic climate disruption.

“Even if humans immediately stopped emitting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere,” the reports,” the world would still feel at least an additional 0.3ºC of warming compared with today.” That alone would push the increase in average global temperatures dangerously close to the 2.0° that world leaders pledged in Paris in 2015 not to breach.

The report was compiled as part of a quadrennial National Climate Assessment mandated by Congress. The reports, which survey climate change and its impacts in the United States, are overseen by the National Academy of Sciences. The Academy “has signed off on the [most recent] draft report, and the authors are awaiting permission from the Trump administration to release it,” the Times notes.

But the science “directly contradicts” claims by Trump and members of his cabinet “who say the human contribution to climate change is uncertain, and that the ability to predict the effects is limited.”

The Environmental Protection Agency and 12 other offices must now sign off on the report by August 18, the Times writes. And American climate scientists, noting the opportunity that provides for political interference, “say they fear the Trump administration could change or suppress the report.”

The EPA’s Trump-appointed administrator, Scott Pruitt, rejects the scientific consensus that carbon dioxide from fuel combustion contributes to global warming. Science deniers influential in Trump’s circle, including former EPA transition advisor Myron Ebell, have urged the administration to give “political direction” by withholding both the latest report and the larger National Climate Assessment of which it is part, the Times says.

“It’s a fraught situation,” Princeton geoscientist Michael Oppenheimer told the paper. “This is the first case in which an analysis of climate change of this scope has come up in the Trump administration, and scientists will be watching very carefully to see how they handle it.”

Providing evidence that scientists’ fears are hardly imaginary, the Guardian reports that “staff at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) have been told to avoid using the term climate change in their work, with the officials instructed to reference ‘weather extremes’ instead.”

An email distributed to employees of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service itemized words and phrases to eliminate from the agency’s communications with the public. “’Climate change’ is in the ‘avoid’ category, to be replaced by ‘weather extremes. Instead of ‘climate change adaption’, staff are instructed to use ‘resilience to weather extremes’. The primary cause of human-driven climate change is also targeted, with the term ‘reduce greenhouse gases’ blacklisted in favour of ‘build soil organic matter, increase nutrient use efficiency’. ‘Sequester carbon’ is ruled out and replaced by ‘build soil organic matter’.”

In the case of the Academy’s assessment of current climate science, however, any last-minute administration censorship will be a case of locking the barn door after the horse—or an entire herd of them—has bolted.

The Washington Post boasted its own acquisition of a draft even more recent than the Times (while acknowledging “there is no substantive difference” between the versions). It also pointed out that one of the report’s lead authors, Toronto-born Texas Tech climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe (@KHayhoe), had tweeted the observation: “Important to point out that this report was already accessible to anyone who cared to read it during public review & comment time. Few did.”

The Times, meanwhile, made its version of the draft available to read online—either to give everyone the chance to read what its reporters had, or to put it on the record before the politics introduce any changes.

Meanwhile, polls indicate that Trump’s relentless attacks on climate science and policy are, if anything, drawing Americans’ attention to the real present-day consequences of a disrupted climate.