Public misconceptions of climate change have thwarted urgently needed U.S. efforts to reduce emissions blamed for global warming, according to a report from the National Research Council of the National Academies.
The media sometimes present aspects of climate change that are well-established as if they were “matters of serious debate,” according to the report released today in Washington. Groups opposed to policies limiting carbon-dioxide emissions are influencing some reporting, according to the study, which was requested by Congress in 2008 when Democrats were in the majority. It was prepared by a committee of scientists, engineers and economists.
Climate change is happening and is "very likely’’ caused by the burning of fossil fuels, said committee chairman Albert Carnesale, chancellor emeritus and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. The U.S. should respond with “aggressive emissions reductions” of greenhouse gases from power plants, factories and transportation, and plan for adapting to effects of global warming, such as rising seas, with a national strategy, the council said.
“We’re talking about a challenge that is a matter of decades and indeed where some of the consequences are quiet, delayed, and so public understanding and support is essential,” Carnesale said in an interview.
The National Research Council, based in Washington, provides information for government decision-makers under the auspices of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering and the Institute of Medicine.
The Earth’s average surface temperature has increased by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) over the past 100 years, with about one degree occurring over the past three decades, according to the report. A “preponderance” of scientific evidence shows that the release of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases is the “most likely” cause of most warming during the past 50 years, the report found.
Melting ice, rising average sea levels and reduced snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere can be linked in part to warming, the report said. In the U.S., temperatures have increased by more than two degrees during the past 50 years. Extreme weather, such as drought and heavy downpours, is more frequent and intense.
Public support for science associating human activity with warming fell after thousands of e-mails were hacked from computer servers at the University of East Anglia’s Climate Research Unit in the U.K. in November 2009. The stolen e-mails included discussions among climate researchers about keeping some scientific papers out of a report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which is charged with summarizing science on the topic for policy makers around the world.
Members of the U.S. Congress, led by Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, faulted the IPCC at about the same time for exaggerating how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting.
The UN panel and former Vice President Al Gore shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for their warnings on global warming. Three separate probes last year cleared the university of data manipulation.
“Those revelations were made while we were in the midst of our study,” Carnesale said. The committee “independently reaffirmed the basic finding that climate change is occurring, that’s its very likely caused primarily by human activities and it poses significant risks.”
The report’s proposals would “impose massive costs without meaningful benefits,” Inhofe said in an e-mailed statement today. “Unilateral U.S. action would be fruitless without comparable actions by China and India.”
The research council said the U.S. should work with other countries to develop technology that can cut emissions and advance research on the causes and effects of climate change.
In 2009, President Barack Obama signed an international agreement known as the Copenhagen Accord that aims to limit the global temperature rise since industrialization to 3.6 degrees. Congress in 2010 failed to pass legislation to create a cap-and-trade system to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
Last month, the Republican-controlled House passed legislation prohibiting the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases blamed for climate change. The Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, rejected the measure.
Media coverage has a role “in the increasing polarization of public beliefs about climate change, along lines of political ideology,” the report said.
“Fully understanding climate change is a difficult task even for scientific experts,” according to the report. “People who have less experience with quantitative data and less time to develop such detailed understanding must rely on other sources that may or may not provide trustworthy information.”
Putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, either through a cap-and-trade program or a tax, is a critical step in addressing climate change, Carnesale said. EPA regulation is a “complementary” policy rather than a substitute, he said.
State, local and business efforts to respond to climate change will fall short without federal policies and programs, according to the report.
“America’s response to climate change is ultimately about making choices in the face of risk,” William Chameides, the committee vice chairman and dean of the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, said in a statement.