Climate change took center stage as business leaders and heads of state poured into Davos, Switzerland, recently for the World Economic Forum. The WEF Global Risks report, launched each year in advance of the Forum, cited “extreme weather events,” “natural disasters,” and “failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation” as the most dangerous challenges facing the global community. So it came as no surprise when world leaders used the event to sound the climate alarm yet again.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for global cooperation on climate action, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi characterized climate change as the “greatest threat to the survival of human civilization as we know it.” Even business moguls jumped into the fold, with the CEOs of BlackRock and the Mahindra Group hailing climate action as an “economic opportunity” worth up to $6 trillion over the next two decades.
Meanwhile, it seems America’s president has trouble understanding the difference between climate and weather. During a cold snap late last year, Donald Trump tweeted that America “could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.” The conflation of daily weather with long-term climate trends sent eyes rolling across the scientific community and even prompted the Weather Channel to issue a public response.
Macron chimed in with his own dig in Davos: “When you arrive here and see the snow, it could be hard to believe in global warming,” the French president said, drawing chuckles from a packed room of politicians and business leaders.
But really, this is no laughing matter. Trump’s laissez-faire approach to climate change is already taking a significant toll on U.S. policy. After stacking his administration with unapologetic climate deniers, Trump moved to slash environmental regulations, cut funding for the EPA and pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, made public in January, made no mention of climate change for the first time since 2008.
This stubborn stance not only defies that of world leaders and the majority of American voters, but also flies in the face of the federal government’s own scientists. Late last year, 13 federal agencies released an exhaustive report detailing how climate change impacts the United States—and vice-versa. The report contained “some very powerful, hard-hitting statements that are totally at odds with senior administration folks and at odds with their policies,” Philip B. Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center, told the New York Times last year. “It begs the question, where are members of the administration getting their information from? They’re obviously not getting it from their own scientists.”
At a time when the U.S. continues to stick out like a sore thumb on the international policy stage, it’s worth revisiting what the country’s top scientists had to say, although this administration is likely to deny it.
1. Humans are the cause of global warming.
Though it has since faded from the limelight, the Climate Science Special Report—which includes data and analysis from 13 federal agencies—initially made waves for its bombshell conclusion: “Based on extensive evidence, it is extremely likely that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, are the dominant cause of the observed warming since the mid-20th century.”
Even further, the federal scientists say with “very high confidence” that there is “no convincing alternative explanation supported by the extent of the observational evidence.” This includes solar output changes and natural patterns like El Niño—two factors commonly cited by so-called climate skeptics.
2. The Earth is warming rapidly.
Global average temperatures have increased by 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit over the past 115 years, federal scientists say, citing an analysis of decades worth of surface and satellite data. The Arctic is warming approximately twice as fast as the global average and, if it continues to warm at the same rate, Septembers will be nearly ice-free in the Arctic Ocean by the 2040s, which could dramatically affect sea levels worldwide.
By 2050, annual average temperatures are projected to rise by about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit in the United States relative to the recent past. If left unchecked, global average temperature could increase by 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.
3. Sea levels are rising faster now than in the past.
Global average sea level has risen by about 7 to 8 inches since 1900, with almost half of that rise occurring since 1993, and cities across the U.S. are already feeling the effects. The incidence of daily tidal flooding is up in more than 25 Atlantic and Gulf Coast cities. Tidal floods strong enough to cause minor damage—so-called “nuisance floods”—have increased five- to 10-fold since the 1960s in several of these cities, the federal scientists found.
They predict sea levels will continue to rise by at least several inches over the next 15 years and by 1 to 4 feet by 2100. That alone is unsettling, as 4 feet of sea-level rise would put large swaths of Miami Beach, Lower Manhattan and other coastal regions under water, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Seal Level Rise Viewer. But scientists warn that a “rise of as much as 8 feet by 2100 cannot be ruled out” and predict the East and Gulf Coasts of the U.S. will fare worse than the global average.
4. Ocean ecosystems are increasingly at risk.
The world’s oceans have absorbed about 93 percent of the excess heat caused by global warming since the mid-20th century—making them warmer, changing their patterns and putting marine ecosystems at risk. Oceans also absorb about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, making them more acidic and further threatening marine life.
Ocean heat content has increased at all depths since the 1960s, and the current rate of acidification is unparalleled in at least the past 66 million years, the scientists found. If emissions are left unchecked, they predict average sea surface temperature will rise by about 4.9 degrees Fahrenheit and average acidity will increase by 100 to 150 percent.
5. Extreme weather events are more frequent and intense.
Some weather extremes, such as heavy rainfall, heat waves and forest fires, have already increased in frequency, intensity and duration, the scientists found. Many extremes are “expected to continue to increase or worsen, presenting substantial challenges for built, agricultural and natural systems.”
All totaled, extreme weather events cost the U.S. more than $1.1 trillion since 1980, according to the report. To put this in perspective, the U.S. pledged $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund under the Paris agreement and ultimately delivered around $1 billion. Trump said the cash, which is intended to help vulnerable developing countries adapt to climate change, was “raided out of America’s budget.”
Yet studies continue to show that adaptation measures are significantly cheaper than waiting for climate-induced damage—and it’s not just about other countries: This administration isn’t investing in adaptation or mitigation at home, either. As such, America’s extreme-weather costs reached a record $306 billion last year, a trend that’s only expected to continue if mitigation and adaptation measures aren’t taken seriously.
6. The only way out is to reduce emissions.
“The magnitude of climate change beyond the next few decades will depend primarily on the amount of greenhouse gases (especially carbon dioxide) emitted globally,” the scientists concluded.
Some continued warming is inevitable due to current and past emissions. But “significant reductions in emissions” could limit global temperature rise to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) above pre-Industrial levels by the end of this century—the upper threshold set in the Paris agreement. In an apparent jab at the U.S. exit, the scientists noted that commitments under the agreement could “open the possibility” of capping global temperature rise, “whereas there would be virtually no chance if net global emissions followed a pathway well above those implied by country announcements.”
The bottom line
Donald Trump addressed the crowd on the last day of the World Economic Forum, making him the first American president to speak at the event in two decades. Predictably, he made no mention of climate change—though he spent some time bragging about regulatory rollbacks and declared, “Regulation is stealth taxation.” Trump also doubled down on his “America first” strategy, while noting that “America first does not mean America alone.”
Such lip service is unlikely to resonate with world leaders like Narendra Modi, who used his speech—the first WEF address by an Indian prime minister in 21 years—to call out nationalism and isolationism. “Many societies and countries are becoming more and more focused on themselves,” Modi said, adding that failure to address climate change shows an “alarming glimpse of our own selfishness.” Angela Merkel of Germany made similar warnings against the rise of “national egotism” and insisted the global community must “draw our conclusions without the United States” when it comes to climate change.
These words didn’t seem to influence Trump’s speech at Davos, and they’re unlikely to impact his administration’s climate policy moving forward—which will only put the White House further at odds with the global community and its own people.
Over 2,500 American cities, states, tribes, businesses and institutes of higher learning have already joined the We Are Still In coalition and declared their commitment to upholding the Paris agreement. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, speaking on behalf of the coalition in Davos, warned that Trump’s stance on climate only further isolates him from the rest of the world—saying when it comes to climate denialist policy, “There’s only one man in this parade.”