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Sep 5, 2017 | 12:01 GMT

4 mins read

Muddying the Waters of Climate Science

Cars and trucks sit swamped in floodwaters in Houston.
(THOMAS B. SHEA/AFP/Getty Images)

After dumping more than a meter of rain on Texas and Louisiana in two separate landfalls, Hurricane Harvey, now a tropical depression, is slowly dissipating. The massive amounts of rain the storm generated have caused unprecedented flooding in the region, submerging much of Houston, the fourth most populous U.S. city. As the floodwaters start to recede and the arduous recovery begins for millions of people, scientists studying Hurricane Harvey will try to determine whether and how climate change influenced its course and intensity. Analyzing the storm will take years, and drawing clear links between a single weather event — however historic — and overall climate trends may prove impossible. But whatever conclusions researchers reach, their findings will do little to influence the U.S. government's climate policy.

A Tempest in a Teapot

In early August, The New York Times released the third draft of the Climate Science Special Report, a portion of the larger National Climate Assessment. The document — a compilation of scientific information and advancements published every four years — sparked a controversy after the Times erroneously reported it had obtained the draft through a leak, an assertion it later corrected. But the contents of the report were hardly shocking, least of all for climate scientists. Drawing from recent peer-reviewed literature, the Climate Science Special Report (a fifth draft that has since been released) emphasized the increasing variability in weather patterns today and the likelihood that extremes in precipitation and temperature will become more common. It also acknowledged the lingering limitations of climate modeling, along with the challenges of attributing individual events to climate change, while at the same time detailing the developments in these fields since 2014.

The White House has yet to issue a statement about the report, saying it would wait until after all comments from the 13 federal agencies involved had been incorporated. (Aug. 18 marked the deadline for final comments on the Climate Science Special Report, due for publication in October.) President Donald Trump has, however, disbanded the government's advisory panel on climate change by failing to renew appointments to it before their expiration Aug. 21. The defunct panel was responsible for translating the content of the National Climate Assessment, which will be published next in 2018, into layman's terms for use in and beyond the government. But the administration's action, or inaction, with regard to the advisory panel doesn't constitute a strategy for managing the risk that the climate poses to infrastructure, for example.

Staying In

Regardless, the Climate Science Special Report is meant to inform the U.S. administration's policy decisions, not dictate them. It aims to join science with policy, not just in the federal government, but also in local communities and businesses in the United States. And in the absence of a clear stance from the Trump administration, a growing number of corporate, state and municipal leaders are taking their own steps to address climate change.  

When Trump announced the United States' exit from the Paris Agreement, several states, cities and businesses came out against the decision. The leaders of California, New York, Virginia, North Carolina, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Rhode Island and Connecticut joined corporate giants such as the Intel Corp., Walmart, Google, Amazon and the Microsoft Corp. in affirming their continued commitment to the accord. Together, they formed the We Are Still In alliance, which accounts for an estimated $6.2 trillion in the U.S. economy. Gov. Jerry Brown of California and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, meanwhile, teamed up to create America's Pledge, a project aimed at tracking local and industrial efforts to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and quantifying their effects.

More than federal policy, each state's economic and social priorities will determine its attitudes, as well as its actions, on climate change. States that depend more on energy production to generate revenue, such as Texas and Wyoming, will be loath to join initiatives to reduce emissions compared with New York or California, which have the political will and means to do so. Furthermore, no matter how the Trump administration responds to the National Climate Agreement once it's published next year — or to the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in the meantime — the United States will face the same obstacles to reducing emissions. The transition to alternative energies, for example, will be a long and slow process, though it is already underway. The data from America's Pledge, once available, will offer a clearer picture of the progress the United States has made to that end. For now, however, the Climate Science Special Report — and the hubbub surrounding it — have illustrated that national policy isn't the only factor guiding the discussion over climate change.

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