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The National Climate Assessment – Thank You

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 6:54 PM GMT on May 11, 2014

The National Climate Assessment – Thank You

After more than four years of preparation and review, the National Climate Assessment was released last week (May 6, 2014). I was surprised at the attention that it got in the press, especially after following the three recent IPCC assessment reports. The headline on Science Friday was Another Climate report but Who is Listening. Many have treated the report as a one-time event, with the most common headline being that climate change is already here.

Aside from straightforward reporting about the assessment and its content, there was also a strand of political reporting; there is always a political conversation. Climate Progress has a blog entry on cable TV coverage, with Al Jazeera America the outlet with the most coverage. There is also an entry on the worst TV reactions to the National Climate Assessment.

Here we have the standard response to the release of the climate assessment. There is straightforward reporting and the attempt to reach as many people as possible - the effort to get it out there. Aside from the reporting, there is flurry of politicization, claims that the National Climate Assessment (NCA) is a political document, attempts to correct facts about the motivations of the document, a set of statements about the document showing that this is our last chance to avoid the worst effects of climate change and a set of statements that if we do respond to climate change it will be our economic ruin. Then, poof, it’s largely gone.

The National Climate Assessment (NCA) is a review of climate change and its impact on the U.S. – as stated on their website, “The National Climate Assessment summarizes the impacts of climate change on the United States, now and in the future.” With a major focus on “now,” the NCA is largely based on observations. There is a summary of highlights, and within that summary there are short descriptions of observed changes in our climate. There are graphics, many with nice, simple interactive features that clarify the text. There is the capability to find, easily, an url and link directly to the graphics. Here is Arctic Sea Ice Decline comparing September 1984 and September 2012. There are 12 categories in report findings, with a short finding statement for each category, for example, in the infrastructure category, “Infrastructure is being damaged by sea level rise, heavy downpours, and extreme heat; damages are projected to increase with continued climate change.”

Compared with previous assessments there has been remarkable progress in making the document both communicative and web accessible. Here is a figure of Sea Surface Temperature Changes from Average:

Figure 1: Sea surface temperatures for the ocean surrounding the U.S. and its territories have risen by more than 0.9°F over the past century. (Figure source: adapted from Chavez et al. 2011 1). (That's supposed to be a superscript after the date.)

In the online NCA document if you hover over the superscript, then the full reference pops up. If you click on the “Details/Download” below the figure in the original document, then you get brief metadata about the figure. In addition there is a supplemental graphic that shows what is meant by “ocean surrounding the U.S. and its territories.” You can download the figure. Here is the link to go check it out. This information associated with the figure is a great step forward in allowing traceability to the original source of information and supports transparency.

I know many of the people involved in the assessment. I have also worked on information technology to improve the usability of climate data and climate knowledge in planning. My first blush is that what has been produced by the team, led through most of the project by Kathy Jacobs, is a huge accomplishment. It is an enormous task to assess the scientific literature, to assemble information and to manage expert and public review. This report also has a great effort in improved communication, an effort which Susan Joy Hassol has earned accolades. On top of that are important advances to place the document online, taking advantage of and facilitating evolving methods of reporting and communication. I also want to mention Ken Kunkel, who I know did an enormous amount of novel analysis and interpretation for the NCA. These and the many other people involved in the NCA deserve tremendous thanks.

I have a proposal that was recently funded and part of that proposal is to evaluate the usability of the NCA in adaptation planning. More than a report at a given moment of the state of the climate in the U.S., the National Climate Assessment is a document that serves as a translation of the observations, projections and literature on climate change. The translation is from the science community to those who need to use climate-knowledge in planning. The NCA focused on the U.S., and there are both regional and sectoral descriptions of the impacts of climate change. Sectoral refers to things like public health, energy and agriculture. In fact, I have already used some of the figures from the technical reports that contributed to the NCA in previous blogs and in the project I worked on for Isle Royale National Park. To me, this document is not simply a press release and a flurry of politicized reporting. It is a document to use, and in its use to improve the usability of climate information and, ultimately, to improve future NCAs.

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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.