Elected officials must start planning for what many climate scientists say will be an altered US landscape in coming decades. Disruptive weather and rising seas, if they happen, are events too big for governments to ignore.
Fortunately, the National Research Council, a scientific body set up to advise the US government, has taken a valuable step in that essential process. It released a report March 12 with nine recommendations on how the federal government can help local governments, businesses, and citizens begin to cope with the changes expected later in this century.
First, the report offers this warning: "As a result of human activity, the average temperature of Earth will soon leave the less-than-1 degree Celsius range that it has maintained for more than 10,000 years." The US climate "is no longer stable, but will continue to change in new and often surprising ways," it adds. It calls for deeper research into how specific regions will be affected and on ways to lessen or adapt to changes.
Though federal leadership will be "essential," the report does not recommend a central agency to deal with the effort. It suggests a need to support existing governments in adapting to climate change.
Americans may already be seeing early signs of a warming climate, including a northward shift of the migration of bird species and agricultural growing seasons.
In California, more than $100 billion worth of homes, businesses, and public facilities are at risk from extreme coastal storms if sea levels rise as anticipated. Nearly a half-million people along its Pacific Coast could be affected, according to another report.
A third study released this week at a scientific meeting in Copenhagen, Denmark forecasts that seas worldwide will rise beyond the seven to 23 inches estimated in 2007 by the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Now, the "best estimate" is a rise of more than three feet – and that already assumes that greenhouse-gas emissions will be significantly reduced in the future.
Local authorities have begun to act. In Las Vegas, which is likely to get hotter and drier, golf courses are tearing up much of the water-loving turf in favor of rocks, and the water department is paying customers $1.50 per square foot to use native landscaping. Many localities are imposing lawn-watering bans or fines for water-wasters like leaky sprinklers.
Long-term planning goes far beyond these conservation efforts. It includes where to build bridges, levees, and dikes, and what kind of building to allow in coastal areas or areas prone to stronger storms.
Longer growing seasons in northern states may offer opportunities to plant new crops there. But all areas of the US are also likely to face various agriculture challenges as crop-growing regions creep northward. Developing plant varieties that can resist heat and drought may be part of the answer.
The best solutions won't necessarily be tied to the amount of money spent or large public works projects. In low-lying Bangladesh, a poor developing nation that faces growing problems with typhoons and ocean surges, a better civil defense network cut casualties when typhoon Sidr hit in 2007.
The children being born today are counting on Americans to think long term as they confront the challenges of climate change.