The U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) coordinates and integrates federal
research on changes in the global environment and their implications for society. The USGCRP began as a presidential initiative in 1989 (Reagan – Bus) and was mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990 (P.L. 101-606), which called for "a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change."
This report itself is written in typical science outreach style. There is no alarm and very little risk presented. The wording is subdued with little descriptive value. Little thought appears to have been given to allowing for an understanding of the implications for the facts reported. This is a predictable and lamentable characteristic of climate science reporting. But the risks are immense, unprecedented and something that society has never experienced.
The reason that it appears that little thought has been given to the description of the meaning of the impacts of the results in the report, or one of the most important reasons, is that describing a future experience, that has never before been encountered, is anything but an easy task. Simply reporting the facts is straightforward and without much risk of error. One of the riskiest statements in the entire report is "Some of the changes have been faster than previous assessments have projected."
So to help with the understanding of the implications of the facts presented in this report, consider the image on the right. This image was produced on page 91 of the report, but there was no text directly relating to the image, only a related discussion of the health related effects of a warming climate. However, the reference for this image was 240 words and included three major papers and three major modeling groups. If you pay attention to the authority given by references, the information shown in this image has its own gravity.
The implications of this image are beyond extreme. Austin, Texas is located in the middle of Central Texas. This is my hometown, so to me, this is personal. To those who are not local, impacts relative to what will happen in Austin will be widespread across the U.S.
In Austin, we normally have 12 days of 100 degree plus heat per summer based on temperature records that go back to 1854 (for reference, Dallas has 18). Because of climate change, Austin is projected to have, on average, between 90 and 120 days of 100 degree plus heat every year and 180 days (graph not shown) of over 90 degree heat. This is more 100 degree days than Phoenix, Arizona. Their average is 89 days. This is an astonishing thing see in a report, but maybe what is more astonishing is the lack of description of the implications of such a change.
Phoenix is located in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. This is a traditional cactus and gravel desert with little to no water, blistering temperatures and no trees or grass to speak of. Austin has our beautiful Hill Country streams and magnificent live oak forests. If these temperature projections are correct, and there is no reason to believe that temperatures will be any lower than depicted, Austin’s summers will be a third more extreme than those of Phoenix Arizona and about ten times more extreme than Austin summers are on average.
This is an incredible statement to make. What it means is that all life, outside of air conditioners, as we know it, will simply cease to exist in Austin. There is absolutely no way that the vast majority of native plants and animals around Austin could endure a summer that is a third again hotter than an average Phoenix summer. What I have just told you is what is implicitly assumed from the information in this image. Now let me add a complicating science concept into the understanding of the impacts of this "warming" (I said complicating, not complicated). Consider this: this concept is very simple. Science is conservative by nature (the industry of science). A scientist must be absolutely certain about the results of his or her discoveries or they will not be able to publish their papers in the academic journals. The old saying about "publish or perish" is absolutely true. If a scientist is wrong, the journals will not publish his or her work. If the scientist can not publish his or her work, the scientist will perish – there is no point in practicing science without being able to publish scientific discoveries.
There is a quote from the report in the third paragraph of this paper that states the obvious "Some of the changes have been faster than previous assessments have projected." Our climate could also be changing faster now, it could have crossed through a climate threshold and likely has, but the principle of conservative science is still valid. Because scientists are conservative by nature, their results, their publications, their discoveries and their computer projections – area all conservative. This means that the projections of 100 degree days is also likely to be conservative.
The graph above comes from USGCR. It is a combination of several sources (another weighty reference) and shows the atmospheric load of greenhouse gases measured as carbon (carbon dioxide and methane mostly) from the burning of fossil fuels. The black line with the circles represents the actual atmospheric gas measurements, the purple line is the A1F1 supercomputer climate model projection, more commonly known as the worst-case scenario from the IPCC 2007 Report. What the actual measurements (black line) show, is that atmospheric carbon loading is increasing faster than the worst-case scenario from the climate models. So our climate, right now, is changing faster than the worst scenario that the climate scientists can calculate.
Temper this understanding with the realization that scientists publications are conservative. Are their models so conservative that the actual carbon emissions are greater than the models show, or are our emissions rising at a rate that is even greater than expected? It matters little really. What matters is that climate science projections are conservative. Whether they are conservative because feedback mechanisms are increasing the speed at which our climate is changing, or that scientists are just darned careful with what they say is not really important. The results are the same for you and me.
At the end of the 21st century (2090 to 2100), my grandkids (if I ever get any) will still be alive, and maybe even my 16 year old. At that time, Austin is projected to have on average, of between 90 and 120 days (conservatively) of 100 degree plus heat every year. This kind of heat is something that very few on this planet have ever experienced. What will happen is complete and utter devastation.
The environment in Austin will simply disappear; the trees, grass, wildflowers insects, mammals and reptiles; very few if any will remain. The desert is occupied by a different set of animals. A desert as hot as one that is a third hotter again than the Sonoran has very few life forms at all. Some desert animals will move into the the devastated Hill Country, but not many. There will be no slow transition. This takes centuries. The desertification here will happen in only decades. There will be no more water, no more live oak forests, just like Phoenix, Arizona. ont> The streams and the river and the deer and the raccoons and possum will disappear. This will happen, not in a hundred years, but far before then.
Even half of this increase is far more than the Central Texas environment can deal with as an average number of 100 degree days in the summer. But some may say – we had 68 days of 100 degree heat last year in the summer of 2009. Yes that is true, but it was the second highest number of 100 degree days ever to occur and the old record is likely suspect. There were a few years in Austin when the weather station was on the university campus, situated too close to a building. At this time (in 1923 and 1925) there were 67 and 69 days of 100 degree heat. The third place record was 42 days. The hottest year since was 2008. This year saw the third ranked most number of 100 degree days at 50 – breaking the previous record by 20%. It is little less than statistically absurd to say that the 1923 and 1925 records are valid when the third place record is 27 days less. So in all likelihood, 2009 shattered the all time 100 degree day record by 17 days.
Now you may be thinking that this record breaking is statistically absurd as well, and you would not be wrong except for one little thing. The dataset is changing. The scientists have said that our climate has changed beyond its normal variation. The "change" in climate change has already begun. We have crossed a threshold and have entered into a new era of climate.
In August I returned from two and a half weeks filming some of the 52 million acres of dead trees in the Rockies. The trees have been killed by a warming climate. Stress due to warming has created a natural beetle infestation that is 20 times larger than the largest beetle infestation ever recorded. These are mountain pine beetles and they kill trees in order to reproduce. Just two and half degrees of warming in the Rocky Mountain West, approximately twice as much as the average global increase, has caused this catastrophe that increased 18 million acres between 2007 and 2008. It is completely out of control and is not expected to stop until all of the beetle’s food is dead (they only eat live trees). The forest professionals are now concerned that the infestation will turn into a continent wide event, in the not to distant future.
So I come home from this trip and I find trees dying in Austin. They were dying because of the greatest drought ever recorded in Austin. Greater than the Dust Bowl and greater than the drought of the 1950s. There were elm, hackberry and oak, creek plum and ash juniper as well as several species of shrubs that were dead. Some of these may come back next spring, The elm is one that can stand a few drought induced defoliations, but not likely much of the rest of this list. Fortunately there were only thousands of individual trees dead, not millions of acres like what is happening in the Rockies. And we have had some rain now, so the immediate threat is over, for now.
This climate change thing is so much bigger than people realize, and it will happen a lot sooner than the end of the century. This date is simply a calendar time frame. We are already feeling the effects now – 18 million acres of trees dead last year in the Rockies. That would be nearly eight trillion trees, in just one year.
The squirrels, cicadias, crickets, toads, crawfish and snakes, salamanders and bats – they all will disappear. They will not just move on, there will be mass extinctions, or at least mass death. They will not be able to move on because there will be no place for them to go. Ecosystems do not just reproduce themselves at the drop of a hat. An environment is something that takes centuries to become established. Our climate is out of control now, we do not have decades much less centuries to reestablish ecosystems anywhere. Even if we did – many of the animals that live here now are not migratory animals. Some would survive through what is called range expansion. This is basically random animal movements that serve to spread an animals population into an area that is hospitable for them. But most animals around here would not move if they had the chance – they do not know how.
Plants would not migrate either, at least not in time periods as short as decades. Plants do migrate, but not to far-northern Wisconsin or upstate New York in less than a century, at least not most plants. This is the scale of this temperature change – Wisconsin and New York will have Texas-like temperatures at the end of the century. It is 1300 miles from Austin to northern Wisconsin and 1500 to New York City. Can these places take the Texas heat? Likely, they will be able to take it no better than Austin takes heat a third more intense than the Sonoran Desert.
To put this into perspective, so that you can better understand why there will be mass death of plants and animals in the relatively near future in the Austin area, the actual warming will be even greater than the 90 to 120 days of 100 degree plus heat per year, because our climate change is already faster than the worst-case scenario.
I HAVE TO REPEAT THIS ONE MORE TIME BECAUSE IT IS SO IMPORTANT. It will be greater than ten times hotter than normal, greater than twice as hot as last year’s record shattering heat wave and a third hotter than Phoenix, Arizona in the middle of the Sonoran Desert. These will be the average temperatures. The extremes will be even hotter. Last year’s likely record setting 68 days of 100 degree heat was about six times hotter than average. So when we have a heat wave in the year 2090 like we did last year when we experienced 100 degree days six times more than normal, we will see six times greater than the normal 2090 average days of 100 plus degree heat, or some 600 days per year… Get the picture?
Read the Executive Summary of Global Research Change Program. No read the whole report. This is extremely serious, and deserves your full and undivided attention. The two Issues I have spoken o fin this discussion are just row of several hundred that are equally as impelling. the report says what I have been trying to get across here for the last two years. Can the Earth support the kind of changes that have already begun with impacts that are worse than expected, that will only intensify, that will happen still faster than expected with impacts that will be ever worse than expected? No, absolutely not, nothing near so. The Rockies are showing us that just a few degrees can kill a forest. The scientists say that forests across the continent will likely die. The foresters say that it will take one hundred years to grow back, but in a hundred years, the average temperature in the Rockies will be 13 degrees warmer than it is now. This beetle pandemic and great tree death in the Rockies has been caused by 2.5 degrees of warming.
Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, A State of Knowledge Report from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, 2009, page 90.