National Academies Report Warns of Climate Emissions Crisis

This post was written by NWF climate scientist Dr. Amanda Staudt.

As the US Senate prepares to consider clean energy and climate legislation, a new report lays out in novel ways the direct connection between what our leaders do today with impacts on people and wildlife in the future. The bottom line: taking a path of inaction now would commit us to clear and devastating consequences.

Today, the National Academy of Sciences came out with another powerful report on climate change science and the implications for policy action. Climate Stabilization Targets: Emissions, Concentrations, and Impacts marks the fourth Academy report in just two months that, taken together, make an incredibly compelling case for immediate and aggressive action to limit carbon emissions.

Two conclusions of this report stand out for me:

  • Limiting the impacts of climate change requires “deep emissions reductions” of 80% or more

  • “[T]he world is entering a new geologic epoch” and our policy decisions will determine how long it lasts and how significant the disruptions to Earth’s environment.

In other words, we are fundamentally changing how Earth’s environment is evolving, but immediate & decisive policy action can limit how much and how severely. Strong statements from a body that tends to take a conservative view of what the science says about climate change.

What’s especially interesting about this latest report is that it explicitly links policy choices about emissions to resulting amounts of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and finally to the likely impacts on natural and human systems. Previous scientific syntheses have done this sort of analysis in a more piecemeal fashion, with different groups of scientists assessing each step of the procession. Indeed, that piecemeal approach was used in the three reports the Academy released in May: one study committee addressed how to limit the magnitude of climate change (i.e., the policy choices), while another examined the science of climate change, within which the topics of how the climate might change and the impacts on various sectors were addressed separately. Thus, the reader is left to track down the connection between specific policy choices and likely outcomes.

Now, at last, some of the country’s top climate experts have devoted nearly a year to carefully laying out for us the connections between the choices we make today and the long-term climate consequences. This sort of study is science informing policy at its very best. It is why we have a National Academy of Science.

So what are our choices and what are the consequences?

Climate chart

To be honest, the report is complex and explores many of the scientific subtleties involved in making these sorts of statements. I had to do some connecting the dots to lay out the choices the way I did above and I wish that the authoring committee could have taken the analysis just that one step closer to what will effectively inform policy making. That said, this report is so chock full of useful information that I expect it will become indispensible for anyone working at the interface of climate science and policy.

And, if this report doesn’t convince policy makers why we need to address climate change now, I really don’t know what will. Once the connections between policy choices and consequences are made this obvious, it’s awfully hard to consciously commit future generations to these sorts of impacts.