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Bringing the National Climate Assessment to the World

Monday, May 19, 2014

The 2014 National Climate Assessment was released by the White House on May 6. Its lead finding is that climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present and its impacts are increasing across the country. The report explores how climate change affects important sectors, like transportation, health, water, and agriculture.

When National Climate Assessment Chair Jerry Melillo spoke at Volpe a month before the report was released, he talked about key elements of the report's evolution, including the following:

  • How the 1,400-page report was created
  • The 300 experts who wrote the chapters
  • The extensive review process that began in January 2013
  • The thousands of public comments, which each received a response
  • And, perhaps most importantly, the report’s philosophy

Jerry Mellilo

“The approach the authors took was very holistic, looking at the climate system writ large,” Melillo said. “They talked about evidence for climate change in all components of the system.”

During his talk at Volpe, Jerry Melillo discussed how the recently released National Climate Assessment includes a regional perspective, which will be useful to transportation practitioners, whose work often centers on a single state, area, or city. (Volpe photo)

Frameworks for Decision Making

The U.S. Global Change Research Program, which coordinates and publishes the National Climate Assessment report, was mandated by Congress in 1990. This third iteration of the National Climate Assessment, the second version since 2009, introduces decision-making frameworks and emphasizes how researchers and policymakers can use the complementary strategies of adaptation and mitigation to address climate change.

Researchers who think about adaptation do not ask is climate changing, but rather, can society manage climate change? A big part of this report’s focus on adaptation hinged on bringing private interests into the academic, public-interest fold.

“There is a major move afoot to promote partnerships—public-private partnerships—that would encourage the use and interpretation of national climate change information,” Melillo said.

Public-private partnerships bring “different perspectives of what should be in, what should be out, and this was very typical of the report as a whole,” he added.

Regional Impacts of Climate Change

The report’s regional perspective will be particularly useful to transportation practitioners, whose work often centers on a single state, area, or city. Climate researchers traveled across the country and observed climate change to unearth real-world results, not just projections, for 10 regions. For instance:

  • The northeast will be challenged by heat waves, increased rainfall, and rising sea levels.
  • The southeast, meanwhile, is facing drought, insect outbreaks, and increased wildfires.
  • In Alaska, the temperature has warmed at double the rate of the rest of the nation, with receding sea ice and shrinking glaciers.

Melillo has already gotten requests to drill down to the state level, which would provide even more detailed data on which to base transportation decisions.

Modern Storytelling and Open Data

If the National Climate Assessment report is going to impact the nation’s long-term plans for climate change, it has to provide the public with the research that forms the foundation for its findings, Melillo said.

That’s why an effort was made with the online version of the report to integrate text, video, graphics, and images for the reader and help convey results in an attractive and interactive interface. And that’s why users can download datasets throughout the report, to invite inspection, scrutiny, and dialogue.

Climate Change: A Global Problem

The National Climate Assessment sticks to climate change that’s happening within America’s borders—a tall order, to be sure. But as Melillo and other researchers would tell you, climate change is a global problem that, if unaddressed in Miami, Mumbai, Beijing, and Sao Paolo, will forever change the food we eat, the products we buy, and the way we get around.

“Even if we were to take heroic unilateral action, we would not be able to completely solve the problem,” said Melillo. “It requires commitment from India, China, Brazil—all the major emitters.”

The views of the presenter do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. DOT.

Green plant growing through dead soil.