Landmark Report: Climate Change Is Already Wreaking Havoc in America's Backyard

Scientists hope to spur U.S. to action with dire warning; Obama plans push to amplify findings of definitive report.

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Climate change has moved from the corners of the earth into the American backyard, the country's leading scientists warned on Tuesday, saying they hoped a landmark report they prepared for the Obama administration would spur action to deal with the challenge.

The National Climate Assessment, compiled by 300 leading scientists and experts and weighing in at more than 800 pages, was adopted by scientists on Tuesday morning and formally released by the White House. Once a distant threat, climate change is a present-day danger, the report warns in stark language.

The scientists singled out sea-level rise, especially in Miami, drought and wildfires in the south-west, and heavy downpours as the biggest threats confronting Americans. The report, intended to be the definitive account of the effects of climate change on the US, is expected to drive the remaining two years of Barack Obama's environmental agenda.

“What this report shows is that climate change is happening now in our own backyards,” Thomas Karl, the director of the climatic centre at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told the Guardian. “There are a number of changes that have become faster and more apparent and stronger than we first anticipated.”

The White House is overseeing a series of events on Tuesday and later in the week to amplify the report's findings – including a series of interviews of President Barack Obama by television meteorologists – in an effort to drive the administration's climate agenda.

“This is actionable science,” the White House adviser, John Podesta, told reporters.

Scientists who worked on the report said they hoped the findings would focus Americans on the need to cut emissions that cause climate change, and to plan for the future consequences of climate change.

“I think maybe this report will be the turning point when people finally realise that this is about them,” said Susan Hassol, the chief science writer on the repor. “It's about them and their lives … Earlier, they had seen it as a distant threat – distant in time, distance in space, this is about poles, this is about island nations. They haven't seen it as a threat in their own backyard.”

The language of the report was deliberately straightforward. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved into the present,” the report begins. “Americans are noticing changes all around them. Summers are longer and hotter … winters are generally shorter and warmer. Rain comes in heavier downpours.”

The report is a compilation of published peer-reviewed science of the last several years, and details the effects of climate change on eight regions in the US. It notes that average temperature in the US has increased by about 1.5F (0.8C) since 1895, with more than 80% of that rise since 1980. The last decade was the hottest on record in the US.

Temperatures are projected to rise another 2F over the next few decades, the report says. In northern latitudes such as Alaska, temperatures are rising even faster.

Record-breaking heat – even at night – is expected to produce more drought and fuel larger and more frequent wildfires in the south-west, the report says. The north-east, midwest and Great Plains states will see an increase in heavy downpours and a greater risk of flooding.

Those living on the Atlantic seaboard, Gulf of Mexico, and Alaska who have weathered the effects of sea level rise and storm surges can expect to see more. Residents of coastal cities, especially in Florida where there is already frequent flooding during rainstorms, can expect to see more. So can people living in inland cities sited on rivers.

Some changes are already having a measurable effect on food production and public health, the report said.

In California, warmer winters have made it difficult to grow cherries. In the midwest, wetter springs have delayed planting. Invasive vines such as kudzu have spread northward, from the south to the Canadian border.

Some of the effects on agriculture, such as a longer growing season, are positive. But Takle said: "By mid-century and beyond the overall impacts will be increasingly negative on most crops and livestock."

Scientists said the findings confirmed earlier research. “What is new over the last decade is that we know with increasing certainty that climate change is happening now,” the report said. “Observations unequivocally show that climate is changing and that warming of the past 50 years is primarily due to human-induced emissions of heat-trapping gases.”

The findings are expected to guide Obama as he rolls out the next and most ambitious phase of his climate change plan in June – a proposal to cut emissions from the current generation of power plants, America's largest single source of carbon pollution.

The assessments are the American equivalent of the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports. This year's report for the first time looks at what America has done to fight climate change or protect people from its consequences in the future.

Suzanne Goldenberg is the U.S. environment correspondent of the Guardian and is based in Washington DC. She has won several awards for her work in the Middle East, and in 2003 covered the US invasion of Iraq from Baghdad. She is author of Madam President, about Hillary Clinton's historic run for White House.

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