Global warming is caused by human activity, according to new federal report

Global warming is caused by human activity, according to new federal report

The current administration produced a report that… acknowledges climate change is caused by human activity?

The US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), a massive effort across 13 federal agencies, just released Volume I of their mandated report on climate change, which claims in no uncertain terms that climate change is caused by human activity, a position that directly contradicts the White House’s stance on the issue.

 Before we dive in, a little bit of context: since 1989, the mission of USGCRP has been to “build a knowledge base that informs human responses to climate and global change through coordinated and integrated federal programs of research, education, communication, and decision support.” This newest report, officially titled the National Climate Assessment, is the fourth one the group has produced, and by far its most controversial – not because of the assessment itself, which adheres to what pretty much every scientist on Earth agrees is true, but because the Trump administration has already said and done so much to undermine it.


“It is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of observed warming since the mid-20th century.”

- Climate Science Special Report (CSSR)


The report, which checks in at more than 800 pages, is parceled into 15 chapters that examine the various facets of the extremely complex phenomenon we term climate change. After the early chapters provide some general information about what drives climate change and lay out the methods used to detect climate change phenomena and attribute it to specific causes, the report moves into an extended discussion of the effects: temperature and precipitation changes, extreme weather, “changes in land cover and terrestrial biogeochemistry,” sea level rise and other ocean changes, and arctic changes. The two chapters that close the book focus on potential methods of mitigation, and on the extreme likelihood of what the report terms, politely, “potential surprises.” Here is a key finding, stated with very high confidence:

“The physical and socioeconomic impacts of compound extreme events (such as simultaneous heat and drought, wildfires associated with hot and dry conditions, or flooding associated with high precipitation on top of snow or waterlogged ground) can be greater than the sum of the parts. Few analyses consider the spatial or temporal correlation between extreme events.”


 In other words: not a whole lot of work has been done around the links between and among extreme weather events that aren’t explicitly linked in space or time. It’s tough, for example, to wrap our minds around the fact that something that happened years ago in the Arctic could affect something happening right now in the tropics.

(An aside: this section echoed the claims of Robert Jay Lifton in his just-released book The Climate Swerve – which I reviewed here – about the necessity of shifting perspectives around climate change – Lifton talks a lot about how hard it is to find the link between seemingly disparate extreme events. sinkhole’s Brendon Barnes interviewed Lifton on last week’s episode of The Tumbledown, for those interested in learning more.)

This final chapter of USGCRP’s review also points to the unpredictability of positive feedback loops, which have the potential to amplify changes at an exponential rate, and can lead to “tipping elements” from which there is no likely return in our geologic era (for example, the melting of the Greenland ice sheet). And, worse still, “future changes outside the range projected by climate models cannot be ruled out, and climate models are more likely to underestimate than to overestimate the amount of long-term future change.” So essentially, climate models tend to undersell the bad news, which means that when you read reports on climate change, you should just go ahead and assume it’s going to be worse.  

The press around the report is…limited. In this New York Times analysis, Brad Plumer claims that no report is going to change the minds of party-aligned politicians, or those who reject science. I poked around the National Review, The American Spectator, and The American Conservative, and found no mention of the Climate Science Special Report (CSSR). Fox News’s Shepard Smith acknowledged it in this 42-second clip.

The silver lining here, and it’s not much, is that despite the current administration’s attempt to dismantle Obama-era regulations such as the Clean Power Plan and President Trump’s vow to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, anonymous insiders on the project said there was “little evidence of political interference during the writing process,” though some references to the Paris Agreement were taken out.

Speaking of the Paris Agreement

On Monday, many of the world’s nations met in Bonn, Germany, for the 23rd “Conference of the Parties” (COP23), at which international and environmental leaders are convening to encourage cooperation on combatting climate change.

The Paris Agreement, which took place at COP21 in 2015, held countries that signed on – which as of this writing is every single nation on Earth, except Syria and the United States – to common standards: they all agreed to the goals of reducing global emissions and limiting global warming to less than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, among other targets. Although the standards weren’t particularly strict, the agreement did accomplish something incredible by bringing together nations from around the world to agree on a few things: climate change is real, human activity causes it (or at least exacerbates it), and change is necessary and requires global cooperation.

This year’s climate talks feel more urgent than ever for many countries, coming as they do in a particularly brutal year of extreme events, and “will be vital in building the rules that will enable the Paris deal to work,” according to The Guardian’s Damian Carrington.

Though the conference is being held in Bonn, Germany, it is actually being ‘hosted’ by Fiji—a small, developing country that experienced over $1 billion in damage from 2016’s Cyclone Winston, which means that loss and damage, a touchy subject, may end up as a major point of discussion this year. Essentially, climate change has been brought on by developed countries and their emissions, but some of the poorest, smallest countries have experienced the brunt of environmental blows. Fiji’s elevated role isn’t the only reason that loss and damage may come up: the Warsaw International Mechanism (WIM) plans to share information on climate insurance for vulnerable countries.

Small, poor countries that tend to be the most severely affected by climate change can’t really afford to deal with the effects, which means they’ll be looking to the bigger countries – who are most responsible for climate change, anyway – to subsidize the costs. However (and unsurprisingly): “rich country representatives on the WIM stymie progress on all fronts related to finance.”

Though Trump has vowed to pull the US from the Paris agreement (countries in the pact are prohibited from leaving before November 2020), many US states and cities are still on board with the goals set by the accord. The federal government’s role in this conference will likely depend on how determined the Trump administration is to promote its pro-coal policies.

Plastic on the beach, plastic in your sheets

 There’s plastic in the ocean and your pantry and your vehicle and all your devices and, oh yeah, in your stomach and intestines and even, possibly, your lymph nodes. This report from Orb Media examines microplastics – tiny fibers of plastic that “have been shown to absorb toxic chemicals linked to cancer and other illnesses, and then release them when consumed by fish and mammals.”

Microplastics have many origins. They come from synthetic household fibers (i.e. clothes, upholstery, and carpets), tire dust, paint dust, plastic waste that has ended up in the world’s oceans, and a few other major sources. Because plastic isn’t biodegradable, the pieces just get smaller and smaller until they’re microscopic. They’ve completely infiltrated our food chain and drinking water –an estimated 94% of US tap water contains microplastics, according to a 2017 study. These tiny plastic fibers—dust-sized particles released as you walk across a carpet, can absorb environmental toxins (such as those from household cleaners) that can be inhaled or otherwise easily consumed. The studies of potential effects on human health have just begun.

So, what now? There are a few methods of mitigating this problem as we move forward that people are already implementing, such as waste-to-energy systems (a lucrative business), new materials for the clothing industry, recyclable packaging (currently, more than half of all plastic packaging can’t be recycled), and devices that capture plastic fibers from your laundry. There’s also just some basic things we can do, like recycling properly and not purchasing single-use plastics.

Some other interesting things you might have missed this week:

Don’t totally lose faith in this dumpster-fire of a planet! The ozone layer is making a comeback. Aren’t you glad you put down that Farrah Fawcett spray?


This new method of potential earthquake prediction—an historically unstable science, some might say—has me wanting to leave Seattle sooner rather than later for fear of the imminent “Big One”.   


Planning your next getaway? Before you do, check out these 10 places in the US with the best views of the Aurora Borealis.

header image: "last house on holland island," baldeaglebluff / flickr

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