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The U.N. Climate Change Report Is Out. What Should The White House Do?


All right, so what can or should the Biden administration try to do here? With us now is Allison Crimmins. She's a climate scientist. She also heads the National Climate Assessment, which is a government report that evaluates how the U.S. is doing on climate change. Good morning, Allison.


KING: So this U.N. report just came out about a few hours ago. As you are reading it, what are the biggest and most immediate threats that you see to the United States?

CRIMMINS: Yeah, I think, you know, we've known for decades that the world is warming, so I don't think that is anything new necessarily coming out of this report. But as you mentioned earlier, these changes that we are seeing are widespread and very rapidly accelerating and intensifying. And I think it's both the changes but also the rate of changes that are so troubling and unprecedented in thousands of years.

And so those are the things that people in the U.S. are already observing in their own backyards. Those impacts, like wildfires in the West and in Alaska and the flooding that we see in the Midwest and the Northeast, the damage from hurricanes in the South and the impacts of sea level rise and ocean acidification along our coasts. So I think the overall message is that, you know, climate change isn't something that's happening far away to someone else in some far-off future time. It's really happening here and now to us.

KING: So as Becky reports, the U.S. is still one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters in the world. President Biden says he wants to cut emissions in half based on 2005 levels by the end of this decade. Last week, he did sign an executive order to develop stricter emission standards for cars. As you look at this report, as you look at the science behind this report, does that sound like enough to you?

CRIMMINS: Yeah, I think, you know, you mentioned a narrowing pathway to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. So that's 1.5 of global average temperature increase above preindustrial levels. And we're already, you know, about 1.1 degrees Celsius. So I - you know, I think what this report does a really good job of showing is that it's going to require significant sustained action to reduce emissions if we want to keep those sorts of numbers in reach.

And what I appreciate about this report is that, you know, that's not a policy statement. That's just science, so that's just action and reaction. What I would push back on something you said earlier about a deadline is I think this report also does a really good job of showing that every action counts, you know, so every additional bit of warming is going to lead to additional impacts that affect Americans in terms of their health and their transportation and their energy and their agriculture - all of the things we care about in the U.S. Every little bit of warming affects that.

And on the flip side of that, every action counts to avoid those impacts. So every bit of temperature, every tenth of a degree that we can avoid is going to be better. Every single action matters. Every year matters. So I think, you know, it's, again, not a policy statement but just a scientific statement that if we want to limit global warming and we want to limit those sorts of impacts that are affecting Americans right now, we need strong, rapid, sustained reductions in carbon dioxide and in methane and in other greenhouse gases.

KING: But policy...

CRIMMINS: And I think that...

KING: ...Would do that. And I know that you're - I know that you don't make policy. But I am wondering - you read this. You're looking at the science, and I know that your brain must be going to, here's a policy I'd like to see, just one, in order to help lower this by degrees, whether it's a small thing or a big thing. What comes to your mind?

CRIMMINS: I guess what comes to my mind is sort of the triumvirate of standards and investments and justice. And so I see the sort of transformations that are required to reach these numbers as something I'm excited for and look forward to. I think we can hit these sort of emission targets and transform our energy system, transform the way we use energy and the way we get around, our transportation, the way we run our homes. And I think we can do that while also making a safer, healthier, more just future. And so, you know, I don't see these as, you know, restrictions that we are burdened with if we want to meet some sort of deadline. I see these as an exciting opportunity for a, you know, more perfect union, a better U.S. and a healthier life for everyone.

KING: Allison Crimmins is the director of the National Climate Assessment at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. Thank you for being with us. We appreciate it.

CRIMMINS: Yes, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.