Blog Post

Climate and Environment in Peril—But What Else is New?

Jun 13, 2018 | Joel Darmstadter

Compared to other major global policy dilemmas confronting the country’s leadership—immigration, foreign trade, treaty commitments (to name a few)—one pressing issue has been almost totally sidelined by the president’s inner circle. It is the challenge of climate change and global warming. This conscious federal blackout has occurred despite the fact that over a year ago, a report to Congress by at least one respected member of the president’s cabinet, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, underscored the severe and multiple risks posed by global warming, saying, among other things, that “this warming is projected to fuel more intense and frequent extreme weather events that will be distributed unequally in time and geography. Countries with large populations in coastal areas are particularly vulnerable to tropical weather events and storm surges….” Moreover, consistent with the National Intelligence submission, an exhaustive supportive analysis was issued shortly afterward by the government’s US Global Research Program.

A measure of the administration’s reflection on these 2017 reports was not just to ignore them, but—perhaps as a way of signaling its steadfast dissent—to move swiftly in retreating from the Paris climate accords and in nullifying EPA’s Clean Power Plan (CPP), jointly designed to moderate and reduce US carbon emissions. More recently, EPA has proposed weakening future automotive fuel-efficiency targets adopted concurrently with the CPP.

With National Intelligence Director Coats’s urgent message of early 2017 having failed to stir even a moment’s second thoughts at the White House on global warming issues, it may be futile to expect that renewed statements of alarm may spur any move to overcome such complacency. At the same time, persons with some respect for intellectually honest research, may sense a renewed urgency for climate-change policy once they ponder the following verbatim extract from this year’s National Intelligence Worldwide Threat Assessment, presented to the US Senate Intelligence Committee, February 13, 2018:

Environment and Climate Change

The impacts of the long-term trends toward a warming climate, more air pollution, biodiversity loss, and water scarcity are likely to fuel economic and social discontent—and possibly upheaval—through 2018.

  • The past 115 years have been the warmest period in the history of modern civilization, and the past few years have been the warmest years on record. Extreme weather events in a warmer world have the potential for greater impacts and can compound with other drivers to raise the risk of humanitarian disasters, conflict, water and food shortages, population migration, labor shortfalls, price shocks, and power outages. Research has not identified indicators of tipping points in climate-linked earth systems, suggesting a possibility of abrupt climate change.
  • Worsening air pollution from forest burning, agricultural waste incineration, urbanization, and rapid industrialization—with increasing public awareness—might drive protests against authorities, such as those recently in China, India, and Iran.
  • Accelerating biodiversity and species loss—driven by pollution, warming, unsustainable fishing, and acidifying oceans—will jeopardize vital ecosystems that support critical human systems. Recent estimates suggest that the current extinction rate is 100 to 1,000 times the natural extinction rate.
  • Water scarcity, compounded by gaps in cooperative management agreements for nearly half of the world’s international river basins, and new unilateral dam development are likely to heighten tension between countries.

The views expressed in RFF blog posts are those of the authors and should not be attributed to Resources for the Future.