Federal report cites Western heat

Wildfires in Nevada are getting hotter and longer.

Wildfires in Nevada are getting hotter and longer.

courtesy/bureau of land management

The National Climate Assessment can be read at

If the National Climate Assessment was created by the U.S. government in hope of getting different results than those produce by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, that hope has been dashed, several times.

The latest NCA, issued on the day after Thanksgiving by the Trump administration to reduce its visibility in news reports, found that very, very hot weather is becoming more common and very cold weather less so; that climate change is causing twice the normal wildfire damage to the Southwest, and it includes Nevada in its definition of the southwest; and that the rise of coastal shores will force migrations inland.

This is the fourth NCA since 1990. Three hundred people from 13 federal agencies worked on the report. The agencies included the Pentagon, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Department of State, Environmental Protection Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

On the Southwest, it has this to say:

“Climate changes will increase stress on the region’s rich diversity of plant and animal species. Widespread tree death and fires, which already have caused billions of dollars in economic losses, are projected to increase, forcing wholesale changes to forest types, landscapes, and the communities that depend on them.

“Tourism and recreation, generated by the Southwest’s winding canyons, snow-capped peaks, and Pacific Ocean beaches, provide a significant economic force that also faces climate change challenges. The recreational economy will be increasingly affected by reduced streamflow and a shorter snow season, influencing everything from the ski industry to lake and river recreation. … The region has heated up markedly in recent decades, and the period since 1950 has been hotter than any comparably long period in at least 600 years.”

University of Utah biologist William Anderegg told a Salt Lake television station, “These are not predictions anymore. These are observations. We can already see the future playing out around us as we see more wildfires, lower snowpack, and more droughts.”

The inclusion of Nevada in the Southwest by the researchers is worth examining. In the past, scientists have told us that the Great Basin is an unusual terrain formation and it is uncertain what the impact of climate change on the basin will be. Some have even said it could be colder in the future. More research is needed, they said.

But the new NCA does not take that anomaly status of the basin into consideration. It names Nevada, which is almost entirely within the Basin, as a Southwest state and thus assessed as one, though Nevada is normally treated as part of the Intermountain West. We asked a couple of scientists if there could be something askew in the model used by the NCA where the Great Basin is concerned.

Erica Fleishman, director of the Center for Environmental Management of Military Lands at Colorado State and a University of Nevada, Reno PhD, said she does not see anything “off kilter” about the model. She acknowledged the “few weather stations in Nevada” but said that “does not affect the inferences the assessment has drawn,” which she considers sound.

Glenn Miller, a professor of agriculture, biotechnology, and natural resources, said the linkage of Nevada with the Southwest bothers him.

“Like California, I have always thought that Nevada is two states,” he said. “Whatever the models will predict, I do feel that Northern Nevada and Southern Nevada—and the Southwest States—will be impacted differently. I do not know if either will get more or less water, but both areas will be warmer. I have asked the same questions to modelers at [the Desert Research Institute] and in Geography at UNR, and they either say they do not know, or that there are differences in the general rain patterns in the South verses the North.”

Climate economics

Nevada already knew it was facing serious problems as a result of climate change. A study published in the journal Science last year was titled “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States.” One of the authors of that study, University of California researcher James Risinig, told us, “There is certainly a lot of uncertainty about the impacts in that region, but we can give some general sense of what to expect,” he wrote in an email. “Across the state, unless there is strong action to curb emissions, there are going to be heat-related deaths that are about on-par with current vehicle accident deaths (13 deaths per 100,000 [people] per year), and considerable increases in per-person energy expenditures (the equivalent of $250 per person for current wages). We also expect increases in violent crime and decreases in the productivity of workers. All told, these impacts will cost Nevada about 4 percent of its total income.”

He further said that by mid-century—and the century is already 18 years gone—“Nevada is expected to have warmed by about 3 [degrees Fahrenheit], irrespective of climate policy,” Rising wrote. “By then, labor productivity will be down about a half percent, and there will be about 5-10 deaths per 100,000 people per year. That’s going to be a loss of about 1 percent of Nevada’s GDP. The rate of impacts increase in the second half of the century, about three times faster.”

He said Reno’s moderate growth has actually shielded it from some of the impacts of climate change and that Clark County will suffer more. That is no consolation to the rest of the state, since Clark County taxes support services in rural Nevada.

Meanwhile, changes driven by climate change are changing the Sagebrush state—by reducing the sagebrush, for one thing. Cheatgrass is pushing sagebrush out.

With the Trump administration headed by a climate change denier, state governments have become more important in the political dynamics. States and cities are shaping their policies in compliance with Paris and Kyoto agreements rejected by the White House. In 2007, Arizona, New Mexico, California, Oregon and Washington formed a coalition to promote emission curbs. Nevada was not invited to join because its policy stance was considered relatively primitive and undeveloped. That would be unlikely to happen today. Two years with Republican majorities in the Nevada Legislature gave way to returns to Democratic majorities. Climate skeptic Dean Heller was defeated for reelection and Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei is voting with Democrats on climate issues more often.

The Sandoval administration has long been supportive of programs for alternative energy and reduction of emissions.

Few journalism entities in Nevada covered the NCA report. We were able to find only one article, by Brian Bahouth on the Nevada Capital News website.

Donald Trump’s reaction to the report: “I don’t believe it.”