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Science  27 Feb 2009:
Vol. 323, Issue 5918, pp. 1182
DOI: 10.1126/science.323.5918.1182
Extreme Weather.

Soaring greenhouse gas levels could spur more destructive weather like the 2008 U.S. Midwest floods.

Droughts, floods, fires, and crop failures—the extreme climate events of today—will become commonplace in the next 100 years if levels of greenhouse gas emissions continue to soar, a panel of prominent climate experts warned at two Capitol Hill briefings.

With U.S. President Barack Obama and Congress moving to shape new climate policy, the speakers on the panel assembled by AAAS and four other science groups urged swift, substantive action. Hoping to counteract any remaining doubts, they stressed that warming is already having a dramatic impact in the United States and around the world.

Reserves of mountain snow in the Western United States are declining, and most of the snowpack could be gone by the end of the century. Drought in the American Southwest, already decades old, could soon be exacerbated as rainfall plummets to levels last seen during the years of the Dust Bowl, the experts said.

“The impacts of climate change are not only unavoidable, they are already occurring, posing significant threats to critical resources like the availability and quality of water in the United States,” said Peter Gleick, president and co-founder of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment and Security.

At the briefings for Senate and House staffers, Gleick and other top climate scholars outlined the scientific perspective on climate change and offered some concrete suggestions for revising current law and environmental oversight to help humans mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change.

“The beginning of a new Congress and administration provided an opportunity to have these leading scientists inform the policy debates that are to come, with an update on the current state of climate science and options,” said Kasey White, a senior program associate at AAAS's Center for Science, Technology and Congress, which helped organize the briefings.

Although mitigation strategies are still being pursued, adaptation may be the watchword of the near future as the effects of climate change become more apparent. Eleven of the highest global mean temperatures on record have occurred within the past 12 years, said Susan Solomon, a former co-chair of the International Panel on Climate Change. Recent studies by Solomon and colleagues suggest that if atmospheric carbon dioxide levels reach concentrations of 450 parts per million by mid-century—a likely scenario, according to the researchers—rising sea levels and severe fluctuations in rainfall are inevitable.

“Every year of emissions means a commitment to climate change for more than 30 generations,” said Solomon, now a senior scientist at the U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ted Parsons, a University of Michigan law and environment professor, warned the staffers that the United States is currently going in the wrong direction in limiting climate change emissions. To bring emissions down, he noted, nations must transform the global energy structure through renewable fuels, carbon capture technologies, and more efficient energy consumption.

U.S. lawmakers could speed this process by supporting a “blended” plan that mixes a carbon cap-and-trade system with some form of emissions tax, Parsons said. He suggested that “markets should choose” which renewable energy sources and climate-friendly technologies become part of an emissions control plan, but that governments could help by raising the performance efficiency standards of cars and appliances.

The rest of the world will be watching closely as the Obama administration and the new Congress decide on a course for climate change policy, said former U.S. Senator Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation and the Better World Fund. The Kyoto Protocol, a global emissions reduction treaty never ratified by the U.S. Senate, expires in 2012. Wirth said U.N. climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark, in December 2009 will be a key event in negotiating a new emissions treaty.

The 9 January briefings were moderated by AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner and co-sponsored by the Ecological Society of America, Geological Society of America, American Meteorological Society, and the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. The talks were held in conjunction with the House Science and Technology Committee, the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

— Benjamin Somers and Becky Ham

Education AAAS Poll Seeks Ideas for White House Lectures

U.S. President Barack Obama has proposed a White House science lecture series, and users of a AAAS education resources Web site have some ideas for subjects that should be on the calendar: alternative energy, personalized medicine, and nanotechnology.

The AAAS Science NetLinks site created an informal poll in response to Obama's plan, and it has generated a strong response, said project manager Suzanne Thurston.

“We were really excited that Obama talked about science and specifically science education and public outreach, and we wanted to make sure that our users were aware of it,” said Thurston. The program will forward the poll's results to the White House, she said.

Using resources at the site, students can research and write letters to the president in support of their poll vote. Other resources include a “speed-dating” game in which students seek funders for specific research projects, and a science café to debate the science policy priorities of the new administration.

Since 1997, Science NetLinks has been a collaborating partner of Thinkfinity, a free collection of educational resources and teacher training supported by the Verizon Foundation. The NetLinks project contributes materials tied to specific standards of learning such as Benchmarks for Science Literacy, developed by AAAS's Project 2061.

— Becky Ham

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