August 22, 2017
Aimee Delach

Influential climate report makes its way to the public bypassing federal agency review. 

It began with President Trump’s selection of noted climate deniers to high-profile cabinet positions. It escalated when he signaled his intent to turn back the clock on renewable energy in favor of coal, and began pursuing more oil and gas drilling on our public lands and waters. Then the Trump administration propelled the issue to a whole new level by withdrawing the U.S. from the historic Paris Climate Agreement, eliminating federal climate science programs, research, and positions, and wiping climate science from the pages of federal agency websites.

But the administration’s outright war on climate science also prompted a remarkable development: somebody released the near-final draft of a major report on “the state of the science relating to climate change and its physical impacts” to the public via The New York Times, bypassing final review by thirteen federal agencies.

A Primer on the Climate Science Special Report

The “Climate Science Special Report” (CSSR) is a major source of scientific information for the National Climate Assessment (NCA), a report mandated every four years by a 1990 law called the Global Change Research Act. The next NCA is due in 2018 and is expected to summarize observed and probable climate change impacts across U.S. regions and sectors (such as agriculture, public health, forests, etc.). It was no secret that the CSSR was under development; a “third-order draft” (or third draft) of the CSSR was released for public comment in December. What’s unusual is the unauthorized release of the “Fifth-Order” or “Final Clearance Draft,” which begins on page 545 of the file obtained by The New York Times.

This new draft of the CSSR, which incorporates both public comments received in response to the earlier draft and the results of an experts’ panel convened by the National Academy of Sciences in March, was submitted to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) in June. Under normal circumstances, it would be working its way through a routine final approval process. But these circumstances are anything but normal.

First of all, the OSTP only has one-quarter of the staff it had under President Obama and President Trump has yet to nominate someone to lead the agency. So, it’s not quite clear how the agency would manage to approve the release of a climate science compendium. And that, pardon the cheap climate metaphor, is only the tip of the iceberg.

The program that officially releases the NCA is comprised of thirteen different departments and agencies, each of which must sign off on the Final Clearance Draft. One of those agencies is the Environmental Protection Agency, now led by climate change denier Scott Pruitt. Another is the Department of the Interior, administered by Secretary Ryan Zinke who, despite claiming to accept climate change, recently rattled off six glaring errors about climate science and policy in the span of just three minutes during a recent congressional hearing. Given this cast of characters and the not-so-subtle dismantling of our federal government’s engagement on climate science, it is not surprising that the final draft report mysteriously made its way into the hands of The New York Times for public dissemination.

So now that the information has been made public, what exactly does it say? The latest, near-final draft delves into greater detail than previous draft versions, but describes a strikingly similar and dire prognosis:

  • There is “very high confidence” that global temperatures have increased by 1.8 degrees F since the beginning of the 20th century, and it is “extremely likely that human influence has been the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20thcentury”
  • Similarly, there is “very high confidence” that “Average annual temperature over the contiguous United States is projected to rise.” The exact amount of warming depends on our emissions trajectory, but without any action it could increase by nearly 12 degrees F.
  • There is “very high confidence” that high temperature extremes have outpaced low temperature extremes over the past 20 years, and extreme precipitation events have been increasing in frequency and intensity in many areas.

The final draft report includes detailed sections about the contributors to climate change, how climate models work and what assumptions they entail, as well as individual chapters on temperature, precipitation, storms, floods, droughts, sea level rise, Arctic and ocean impacts, and more. For an extra dose of existential terror, the report also includes a chapter on compound effects and “tipping points” – events that are difficult to model, but could nonetheless occur, like drought simultaneously striking multiple agricultural regions, or ice melt triggering major changes in ocean circulation. While unlikely, these kinds of “mega-events” could cause massive widespread ecological damage and intensified misery for human communities.

Looking Into the Future

What does the future hold for this report, as well as the other parts of the Climate Science Special Report and the broader National Climate Assessment? That still remains to be seen, as does whether the abrupt release of the near-final draft will affect the final federal approval process. In a related and potentially ominous twist, over the weekend the administration disbanded the 15-member advisory committee that was helping to finalize the NCA.  The future remains uncertain for these highly influential reports, but what perhaps remains even more alarmingly unclear is what the future could hold for the climate and people, habitats and wildlife that depend on it.

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Aimee Delach

Aimee Delach

Senior Policy Analyst, Climate Adaptation
Aimee Delach develops and analyzes policies to help land managers protect wildlife and habitat threatened by the impacts of climate change.

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