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2021 was not the year many people hoped for. In addition to the ongoing COVID-10 pandemic and emerging coronavirus variants, last year ushered in a laundry list of unprecedented weather events.

Canada and the Pacific Northwest of the United States were scorched by a record-breaking heat wave. An extended fire season in the American West sent blankets of smoke pollution rolling across the rest of the continent. In India, China and Germany, unseasonal rain storms brought on devastating floods. According to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NOAA), July 2021 was the hottest July on Earth since global record-keeping began in 1880.

Data clearly shows that these kinds of extreme weather patterns are driven by climate change. But is that fact driving policymakers to make meaningful inroads to address the climate crisis? Marshall Burke, the deputy director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, joins Michael McFaul on World Class podcast to review the latest data on what’s happening with the climate in the field and in the halls of Congress.

Listen here and browse highlights of their conversation below.

Click the link for a transcript of “Taking the Temperature on Climate Change."

Climate Policy in the United States


Changes in climate are going to affect most, if not all, of us in the U.S. And public opinion has certainly changed on this in the last 10 years. Many more Americans are on board that the climate is changing and that we should do something about it. There's much more support for climate legislation across the board from Democrats and increasingly from Republicans.

Anyone who works on climate was really excited to see the platform Biden ran on, because it was really the first mainstream presidential campaign where climate had played a fundamental role. There's been a lot of discussion aboutthe importance of climate, the damages from climate that are already happening, and what we need to do is take aggressive action in the future to deal with the problem.

But there are specific industries who are going to be harmed by this legislation, and they are quite organized in fighting this legislation, and in funding politicians who fight it, and in funding organizations, either transparently or not, that are fighting climate legislation.

We are closer than we’ve ever been to really meaningful legislation on climate change. The optimistic view is that we’re on the right trajectory and that we’re going to get some part of this done eventually. But we’re not there yet.
 

Progress is being made. Emissions are falling. But it’s also important for us to realize what we don’t know.
Marshall Burke
Deputy Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment


COP26: Climate Change on the Global Stage


A “COP” is a “Conference of the Parties,” which is an annual meeting of the signatories of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The main focus of Glasgow was to get countries to be very transparent about how they are going to achieve the ambitions for combating climate change that they articulated at the last major COP summit in Paris.

Was it a success? A lot of countries did come to the table in Glasgow and made commitments in ways that they hadn't done before. There were also new, important agreements on certain greenhouse gasses that we've learned recently are pretty damaging, like methane.

Where we failed to make progress was on something that's called “loss and damage.” Many developing countries argue that they are suffering the damages from climate change even though it is a problem that they have not caused, and they are seeking compensation from developed countries who have been the drivers of climate change. That issue was on the table in Glasgow, but it got put off until next year in Egypt.

The Forecast for the Future


Progress is being made. Emissions are falling in the U.S. They're falling in California. They're falling in the EU. They're pretty flat around the world. And these are not just the per capita emissions, but overall emissions are now going down in many parts of the world, which is a huge success.

Where has that progress come from? In part from government policies that have been successful in mitigation. But the driving factor has really been longer decadal investments by both the public sector and the private sector in technologies that allow us to produce energy in a clean way. It’s a combination of long-term public support through taxes and subsidies for the development of these technologies alongside private sector deployment of these technologies at huge scale.
 

We are closer than we’ve ever been to really meaningful legislation on climate change. But we’re not there yet.
Marshall Burke
Deputy Director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment


It’s important for people to know about these successes. But it’s also important for us to realize what we don’t know. Emissions in different parts of the world are falling, and that’s fantastic. But it’s also true that people are already getting sick, being harmed, and dying because of the changes we’re already experiencing.  We’re poorly adapted to the climate we live in now, much less the climate of a two-degree warmer or three-degree warmer future, and the science on that needs to be much more widely understood.

I think a huge role for us as academics is not only to do the research to understand those questions, but to get that information out into the world. The great thing about the Freeman Spolgi Institute and institutions like FSI is that it's part of our mandate to translate this research out into the broader world. The translation of what we already know is important, as is the imperitive to drill down on and study the things that we don't.

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Climate expert Marshall Burke joins the World Class podcast to talk through what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and what more needs to be done to translate data on the climate crisis into meaningful policy.

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Josie Garthwaite
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Smoke from wildfires may have contributed to thousands of additional premature births in California between 2007 and 2012. The findings underscore the value of reducing the risk of big, extreme wildfires and suggest pregnant people should avoid very smoky air.

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Quantification of the sector-specific financial impacts of historical global warming represents a critical gap in climate change impacts assessment. The multiple decades of county-level data available from the U.S. crop insurance program – which collectively represent aggregate damages to the agricultural sector largely borne by U.S. taxpayers – present a unique opportunity to close this gap. Using econometric analysis in combination with observed and simulated changes in county-level temperature, we show that global warming has already contributed substantially to rising crop insurance losses in the U.S. For example, we estimate that county-level temperature trends have contributed $US2017 23.9 billion – or 17% – of the national-level crop insurance losses over the 1991-2017 period. Further, we estimate that observed warming contributed approximately one third of total losses in the most costly single year (2012). In addition, analyses of a large suite of global climate model simulations yield very high confidence that anthropogenic climate forcing has increased U.S. crop insurance losses. These sector-specific estimates provide important quantitative information about the financial costs of the global warming that has already occurred (including the costs of individual extreme events), as well as the economic value of mitigation and/or adaptation options.
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Environmental Research Letters
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Marshall Burke
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jessicali_headshot.jpg

Jessica is a Research Data Analyst at the Center on Food Security and the Environment, where she supports Marshall Burke’s work on poverty and environmental issues using satellite imagery. She has previously worked as a Research Assistant at Columbia University and as a Health Equity Fellow at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She holds a BA in Economics from Sciences Po and a BA in Economics-Philosophy from Columbia University.

Research Data Analyst, Center on Food Security and the Environment
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Precipitation extremes have increased in many regions of the United States, suggesting that climate change may be exacerbating the cost of flooding. However, the impact of historical precipitation change on the cost of US flood damages remains poorly quantified. Applying empirical analysis to historical precipitation and flood damages, we estimate that approximately one-third (36%) of the cost of flood damages over 1988 to 2017 is a result of historical precipitation changes. Climate models show that anthropogenic climate change has increased the probability of heavy precipitation associated with these costs. Our results provide information quantifying the costs of climate change, and suggest that lower levels of future warming would very likely reduce flooding losses relative to the current global warming trajectory.

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PNAS
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Marshall Burke
Noah Diffenbaugh
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As climate change leads to increased frequency and severity of drought in many agricultural regions, a prominent adaptation goal is to reduce the drought sensitivity of crop yields. Yet many of the sources of average yield gains are more effective in good weather, leading to heightened drought sensitivity. Here we consider two empirical strategies for detecting changes in drought sensitivity and apply them to maize in the United States, a crop that has experienced myriad management changes including recent adoption of drought-tolerant varieties. We show that a strategy that utilizes weather-driven temporal variations in drought exposure is inconclusive because of the infrequent occurrence of substantial drought. In contrast, a strategy that exploits within-county spatial variability in drought exposure, driven primarily by differences in soil water storage capacity, reveals robust trends over time. Yield sensitivity to soil water storage increased by 55% on average across the US Corn Belt since 1999, with larger increases in drier states. Although yields have been increasing under all conditions, the cost of drought relative to good weather has also risen. These results highlight the difficulty of simultaneously raising average yields and lowering drought sensitivity.

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Nature Food
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David Lobell
Stefania Di Tomasso
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