Tom Wilbanks on what America must do to respond to climate change

In May 2010, the National Academy of Sciences released three reports confirming the strength of climate change science and recommending U.S. strategies to cope with climate change. Dr. Tom Wilbanks of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory chaired the NAS report on climate change adaptation in America. He summed up the underlying message of the reports.

Tom Wilbanks: Climate change is real, we have to act both to limit emissions and keep climate change moderate rather than severe. And we have to take action now to determine how to adapt to the impacts that are sure to come.

The reports are part of a broad and comprehensive climate change study – requested by the U.S. Congress in the spring of 2009 – called “America’s Climate Choices.”

Tom Wilbanks: They recommend that the nation adopt a kind of carbon budget, a total amount of carbon emissions to be acceptable to the U.S. over a 40-year period, which would require that we start reducing carbon emissions pretty soon to stay within that budget.

Wilbanks said the reports recommend that the American government coordinate a national response to climate change. They suggest that America’s water supply, food, and infrastructure systems could be vulnerable to climate change impacts such as sea level rise. He said that short-term adaptations might be relatively simple and cheap, but longer-term solutions will require increased levels of research and investment. Wilbanks explained that the three NAS reports will be followed by one more panel report, called the Panel on Informing Effective Decisions and Actions Related to Climate Change. Then, the National Research Council will synthesize all the reports into a final report.

Tom Wilbanks: The overarching report – which comes out in the fall 2010 – will look at what’s come out of all four panels and how it adds up to a coherent national strategy.

The reports released in May 2010 include: Advancing the Science of Climate Change, Limiting the Impacts of Climate Change, and Adapting to the Impacts of Climate Change.

Tom Wilbanks: The Science panel says we should broaden support for science related to mitigation and adaptation. The Limiting report says we should take action now to set targets now for limiting emissions of greenhouse gases from the US. The Adapting panel says we should foster widespread practice of doing vulnerability assessments and provide technical assistance so people can act on matching up adaptation options with their vulnerabilities.

The report offered examples of options for sea level rise, for example: Hardening coastal infrastructure so it can handle higher water levels and storm impacts, insurance for climate change impacts, and altering development and land use practices to move human settlements and activities away from vulnerable coastlines.

May 24, 2010

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