National Climate Assessment


Dean_Fikar/iStock/Thinkstock

If you've ever tried to make sense of the technical details in a climate science paper or even the public-facing reports released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), it will be perfectly clear how difficult and complex climate science is. No doubt this complexity is one of the reasons the general public is less certain of the causes and implications global warming than climate scientists are.

In 2009, a Pew poll measured the exact opinion gap between scientists and the American public on the question of whether humans were primarily responsible for global warming. The study found that 84% of scientists (not just climate scientists, but all scientists) were convinced, but only 49% of the general public in the United States felt the same way. Five years later, the public still hasn't come to the same level of confidence that human activity is the main contributor to global warming, or that global warming will have serious repercussions that manifest in the form of rising sea levels, extreme weather events, drought and ecosystem upheaval. In light of this persistent problem, the scientific community has been debating the best way to communicate the facts about climate change to the public.

Earlier this week, the U.S. government released the National Climate Assessment (NCA), which is a U.S.-focused cumulative summary representing years of climate change research, very clearly explaining what scientists know about the probable causes and projected effects of global warming. If you haven't had a chance to visit the NCA site, you really should take a look. I think it is an excellent example of scientific education in action. As a written document and as a Web experience, it presents a clear explanation of current thought about climate change, and it amplifies the scientific message with stunning images that emphasize the power wielded by natural forces like the ocean and the weather.

The best place to start looking is the section of the report labeled "Highlights" and especially the regional breakdown. One of the greatest strengths of the report is that it gives U.S. residents a way to zero in on the part of the country where they live and read about the predicted effects of climate change right in their own neighborhood. Since I live in Georgia, I immediately turned to the Southeast. The report presents three "key" takeaways: rising sea levels, increased heat and a strain on water resources.

But if you look at the current observations and future predictions for Hawaii and the Pacific Islands, some of the threats are similar (rising sea levels, decreasing freshwater availability) but others are unique (threats to marine ecosystems, including coral reefs).

If you're a U.S. resident and climate change has often seemed distant and abstract to you, I really recommend you read through a few sections the site, to make the global into something that is a little more tangible and local.