The U.S. government’s Climate Assessment gets off to a poor start

Last week the U.S. Federal Government issued its fourth report on the Climate, as mandated every four years since 1990. Despite its being released on the day after Thanksgiving, it got plenty of airplay. But the report itself could do a lot better job of summarizing its pointed conclusions in a way that anyone, even a president or congressperson, could understand.

In this space I analyze writing, whenever possible going, not to news reports, but to original documents. As documents go, this one is massive, with 29 chapters covering everything from forests and oceans to indigenous tribes and human health. I’m going to assume that the research in here is comprehensive and balanced. The question is, does it make its point?

Let’s start with the organization. Here’s a list of chapters:

Where to start? About this report.

The most important question is: Where to begin? There’s not a good answer. Here’s how the “About this report’ begins:

The National Climate Assessment

The Global Change Research Act of 1990 mandates that the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) deliver a report to Congress and the President no less than every four years that “1) integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program…; 2) analyzes the effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity; and 3) analyzes current trends in global change, both human-induced and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years.”

That’s a justification but lacks content.

Maybe we should start with the Overview.

I’ve highlighted passive voice and meaningless qualifiers so you can see how they undermine the message. Commentary is mine.




Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur.

Commentary: As a thesis statement for the whole document, this is a good start.

 Americans increasingly recognize the risks climate change poses to their everyday lives and livelihoods and are beginning to respond (Figure 1.1). Water managers in the Colorado River Basin have mobilized users to conserve water in response to ongoing drought intensified by higher temperatures, and an extension program in Nebraska is helping ranchers reduce drought and heat risks to their operations. The state of Hawai‘i is developing management options to promote coral reef recovery from widespread bleaching events caused by warmer waters that threaten tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection from wind and waves. To address higher risks of flooding from heavy rainfall, local governments in southern Louisiana are pooling hazard reduction funds, and cities and states in the Northeast are investing in more resilient water, energy, and transportation infrastructure. In Alaska, a tribal health organization is developing adaptation strategies to address physical and mental health challenges driven by climate change and other environmental changes. As Midwestern farmers adopt new management strategies to reduce erosion and nutrient losses caused by heavier rains, forest managers in the Northwest are developing adaptation strategies in response to wildfire increases that affect human health, water resources, timber production, fish and wildlife, and recreation. After extensive hurricane damage fueled in part by a warmer atmosphere and warmer, higher seas, communities in Texas are considering ways to rebuild more resilient infrastructure. In the U.S. Caribbean, governments are developing new frameworks for storm recovery based on lessons learned from the 2017 hurricane season.

Commentary: Is this laundry list of random local efforts, lacking in numbers, really the most important thing to start with?

Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action. Decisions made today determine risk exposure for current and future generations and will either broaden or limit options to reduce the negative consequences of climate change. While Americans are responding in ways that can bolster resilience and improve livelihoods, neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.

Commentary: This is terrifying. But it is written in bland, jargon-laden language. What this document needs is not sensationalism but facts. And those facts belong in the summary. Without them, people will fall asleep, and they need to remain awake for this.

Are the Summary Findings any better?

The opening URL of the report takes you to a screen that looks like this:

We’ve already seen the Overview. Maybe the Summary Findings will give us the facts we’re looking for.

Summary Findings

These Summary Findings represent a high-level synthesis of the material in the underlying report. The findings consolidate Key Messages and supporting evidence from 16 national-level topic chapters, 10 regional chapters, and 2 chapters that focus on societal response strategies (mitigation and adaptation). Unless otherwise noted, qualitative statements regarding future conditions in these Summary Findings are broadly applicable across the range of different levels of future climate change and associated impacts considered in this report.

Hmm. Maybe the actual findings have what we are looking for. So let’s look at the first of the Summary Findings, “Communities:”

1. Communities

Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.

The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country. More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities. Future climate change is expected to further disrupt many areas of life, exacerbating existing challenges to prosperity posed by aging and deteriorating infrastructure, stressed ecosystems, and economic inequality. Impacts within and across regions will not be distributed equally. People who are already vulnerable, including lower-income and other marginalized communities, have lower capacity to prepare for and cope with extreme weather and climate-related events and are expected to experience greater impacts. Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities. Global action to significantly cut greenhouse gas emissions can substantially reduce climate-related risks and increase opportunities for these populations in the longer term.

This is more jargon-laden generalization. There are no numbers, no facts, no statistics, just “lower capacity” and “further disrupt” and the like.

This report has no entry point. It has made the first and most crucial error of executives summaries: Executive summaries should state facts and sample results, not homogenize and generalize.

I don’t attribute this failing to politics, because the report has plenty of challenging, quantitative, forthright results in it. It’s a failing of writing, not a failure of research.

The news reports get to the point better

Let’s take a look at how the media covered this report.

Here’s The New York Times:

U.S. Climate Report Warns of Damaged Environment and Shrinking Economy

WASHINGTON — A major scientific report issued by 13 federal agencies on Friday presents the starkest warnings to date of the consequences of climate change for the United States, predicting that if significant steps are not taken to rein in global warming, the damage will knock as much as 10 percent off the size of the American economy by century’s end.

Notice how the lead includes a number — the 10% reduction in the economy. Where was that number in all the summaries in the actual report?

Here’s the Wall Street Journal:

U.S. Government Report Warns of Economic Losses From Climate Change

‘Evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen,’ report says

The impact of global climate change is being felt across the country and, unchecked, could cause U.S. economic losses totaling hundreds of billions of dollars a year by the end of the century, says a new U.S. government report released Friday.

Many U.S. communities and companies are trying to counteract the effects of rising temperatures ranging from water shortages or flooding to worsening wildfires and air pollution. But those measures so far fall short, according to the latest installment of the U.S. National Climate Assessment.

“Neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being,” the report said.

Not as quantitative as the Times, but still clear, direct, and sobering.

Here’s how Fox News covered it:

Climate report warns of grim economic consequences, worsening weather disasters in US

The White House on Friday released a federal report that found that the impacts of climate change are being felt across the country, and “extreme weather and climate-related events” are going to worsen in the years to come — with a significant impact on the economy.

The National Climate Assessment finds that extreme weather disasters “”have already become more frequent, intense, widespread or of long duration and have cost the the U.S. nearly $400 billion since 2015.”

Again, surfacing the facts and the numbers.

The news reports focused on the economic numbers. I’m not sure that’s the right focus. But at least it is a focus. The report itself, but not focusing on anything, diffuses its impact and leaves its interpretation to the media.

If you’re writing a report, spend 10% to 20% of your time on the summary, even if it is only 1% of the content. That’s what people will read. And unless you make it as impactful and quantitative as possible, they won’t recognize the significance of what you wrote.

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One Comment

  1. If the intent is to include facts that scare without raising a commensurate level of concern to the “casual reader”, then the authors have done their job. You may be giving the authors the credit they deserve.