what it’s like to write the US national climate assessment: my personal story

“The BBC is calling,” read the text message that woke me. It was 7:30am and normally I’d be doing the school run by then. But it was the first week in August, and we were on vacation at the lake.

“I guess I could talk to them,” I thought; and without stopping to boil the water for tea or to check the morning headlines – two big mistakes – I answered the phone. Within seconds I was live on the radio, with the interviewer asking, “was it you who leaked the latest draft of the federal climate report to the New York Times?” I couldn’t believe my ears. “What? No!” I responded, flabbergasted … and that began the most intense media day of my and many of my colleagues’ lives, a marathon of skyping into live interviews with everyone from CNN to CBC between fielding calls from co-authors and print media outlets.

Why such an outpouring of interest over a draft report that had already been released in its entirety for public comment that previous January? Because of the unavoidable discrepancy between the content of the report, which summarizes the state of the science on climate change, and the publicly-stated position of the current U.S. administration, on whose behalf this report was being prepared and released. In plain language, the Fourth U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA4) Volume 1 states that climate is changing; humans are responsible; and the window of time to avoid serious and even dangerous impacts is closing fast. And so – from the authors who’d spend hundreds of unpaid hours working on it, to the federal employees who’d spent dozens of hours reviewing it, to everyone who knows how important accurate and up-to-date climate information is – many shared the same concern: would the administration even release the report?

Thanks to the so-called leak (the first version the Times posted was in fact the January draft, though they later updated it with a more recent version), the climate report received much more media attention than anticipated. And despite the fears some had expressed, Volume 1 was released right on schedule, in early November 2017. But those who hoped it would alter the administration’s public stance were disappointed. “The climate has changed and is always changing,” said White House spokesperson Raj Shah, even though Chapter 1 begins with the key message, “the global climate continues to change rapidly compared to the pace of the natural variations in climate that have occurred throughout Earth’s history,” and continues, “there are no convincing alternative explanations [for this warming, other than human causes] supported by the extent of the observational evidence.”

I wasn’t surprised. I’ve had thousands of conversations over the last decade with people who were dubious, skeptical, or even downright hostile to the idea that the climate is changing and humans are responsible. So I already knew that if someone is already not on board with climate science or is just disengaged and feels like it doesn’t matter, more information about ocean acidification or attribution of extreme weather events isn’t what’s going to change their minds. That’s because the most dangerous and pervasive myth that the largest number of people have bought into isn’t that climate isn’t changing (top figure), or that it’s just a natural cycle (middle figure). The problem is that we don’t think it matters to us (bottom figure). We see climate change as a distant issue, one that only impacts future generations or people or animals who live far away at the poles. And that is exactly what the second volume of the National Climate Assessment tackles head-on.

Read the rest of the essay here.