THE BLOG

The Climate Post: Report Warns of Sudden Climate Change Impacts

12/06/2013 09:20 am ET | Updated Feb 05, 2014

Hard-to-predict sudden changes to Earth's environment are more worrisome than larger but more gradual impacts of climate change, according a panel of scientists advising the federal government. A 200-page report released Tuesday by the National Academy of Sciences repeatedly warns of potential climate "tipping points" beyond which "major and rapid changes occur." And some of these changes--happening in years instead of centuries--have already begun. They include melting ice in the Arctic Ocean and mass species extinctions.

Study co-author Richard Alley of Pennsylvania State University compared the threat of abrupt climate change effects to the random danger of drunk drivers: "You can't see it coming, so you can't prepare for it. The faster it is, the less you see it coming, the more it costs."

The report did have some "good news." Two other abrupt climate threats--giant burps of undersea and frozen methane and the slowing of deep ocean currents that could lead to dramatic coastal cooling--won't be so sudden, giving people more time to prepare.

Report authors say the threat of sudden climate change disaster requires an early warning system that would be integrated into existing warning systems for natural disasters. With improved scientific monitoring and a better understanding of the climate system, abrupt change could be anticipated and potential consequences could be reduced.

The National Academy of Sciences report follows the wrap up of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Warsaw, Poland, which produced the outlines of an emissions reduction deal to be agreed on in 2015. Though the pact's wording was vague, some decisions were more concrete. They include a multi-billion dollar framework to tackle deforestation and measures to boost demand for a clean development mechanism encouraging countries without legally binding emissions targets to use carbon credits. Participants also finalized details on how countries' emissions reductions will be monitored, reported and verified.

Saying the government should lead by example, President Barack Obama ordered federal agencies to increase their use of renewable energy from 7.5 to 20 percent by 2020. The new commitment is intended to reduce pollution and boost domestic energy independence.

Obama Environment Advisor to Step Down

The Obama administration will lose its second top environmental advisor, Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, in February. In the post she's held since 2009, Sutley helped spearhead the National Ocean Policy and contributed to Obama's climate plan.

"Under her leadership, Federal agencies are meeting the goals I set for them at the beginning of the administration by using less energy, reducing pollution, and saving taxpayer dollars," said President Obama in a statement. "Her efforts have made it clear that a healthy environment and a strong economy aren't mutually exclusive--they can go hand in hand."

Sutley's departure comes on the heels of Heather Zichal's exit last month and the resignation of Lisa Jackson, who left the EPA in early 2013. That leaves the big job of implementing--and defending--Obama's plan to cut carbon emissions on the shoulders of "new and existing power plant lieutenants," according to ClimateWire.

Iran Nuclear Deal Reached

International negotiators recently reached a deal to curb Iran's nuclear program for six months--pending a formal pact freezing or reversing progress at all of Iran's major nuclear facilities. Talks surrounding the formal pledge may begin as early as next week.

The deal, struck between Iran and five other major countries, brings a partial lifting of sanctions on Tehran. Oil sanctions imposed by the United States and the European Union will be maintained even though key parts of Iran's nuclear program will be rolled back.

"Iran has committed to halting certain levels of enrichment and neutralizing part of its stockpiles. Iran cannot use its next-generation centrifuges, which are used for enriching uranium," said President Barack Obama. "Iran cannot install or start up new centrifuges, and its production of centrifuges will be limited. Iran will halt work at its plutonium reactor. And new inspections will provide extensive access to Iran's nuclear facilities and allow the international community to verify whether Iran is keeping its commitments."

The temporary freeze that could start by early January represents the first time in about a decade that Iran has agreed to stop some of its nuclear activities. A poll by the Israel Democracy Institute suggests 77 percent of Israelis surveyed don't believe the deal will prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University's Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.