WASHINGTON – Despite years of study and analysis, the world is unprepared for climate change and needs to rethink basic assumptions that govern things as varied as choosing cars and building bridges, the National Research Council reports.
Current building, land use and planning practices assume a continuation of climate as it has been known in the past.
"That assumption, fundamental to the ways people and organizations make their choices, is no longer valid," the Council, the working arm of the National Academy of Sciences, said in a report released Thursday.
The Earth's average temperature has been rising over the last century and scientists attribute much of the increase to greenhouse gases added to the air by industrial processes and burning fossil fuels, such as in automobiles.
Indeed, last year the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which collected the work of more than 2,000 scientists, said climate change is "unequivocal, is already happening, and is caused by human activity."
Government agencies need to step up their efforts to provide guidance to decision makers, including the establishment of a national climate service, the report said.
The report said the national climate service should be linked closely to research. It noted there has been discussion of such an agency within, or led by, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which is the parent of the National Weather Service.
Last year, leaders in the earth science community proposed creation of a new Earth Systems Science Agency by merging NOAA and the U.S. Geological Survey.
"The United States faces unprecedented environmental and economic challenges in the decades ahead. Foremost among them will be climate change, sea-level rise, altered weather patterns, declines in freshwater availability and quality, and loss of biodiversity," the group warned at the time.
Facing such challenges at a time when the climate is changing means officials can no longer rely on the assumptions of the past, the new study says.
"Moreover, climatic changes will be superimposed on social and economic changes that are altering the climate vulnerability of different regions and sectors of society, as well as their ability to cope," the Research Council said.
The new study looked at the New York metropolitan area as an example, noting that decisions involving climate change include proposals for a 30 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
"Accomplishing the goal will take literally thousands of individual decisions in order to upgrade existing municipal buildings, including firehouses, police precincts, sanitation garages, offices and courthouses," the report said.
Such decisions include choices of energy-efficient lighting, refrigeration units, boilers, office equipment and heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems.
New York also faces complex challenges adapting regional transportation to potentially more damaging coastal floods, protecting water services, health and energy production.
Meanwhile, a British researcher was warning that climate change will mean higher medical costs, taxes, insurance rates and other costs.
"The hike in costs will be shared, climate change will affect all of our wallets," Alistair Hunt, a researcher at the University of Bath, said in remarks prepared for an international climate conference under way in Denmark.
As warmer than average summers are becoming more common, Hunt said, costs will rise for health care and maintenance of parks and highways and even because of property subsidence.
In addition to establishment of a climate service, the Research Council report made other recommendations, including focusing research on users' needs, building connections across disciplines, monitoring foreign research and expanding the work of NOAA, the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies.