On January 27, 2023, the Sabin Center submitted comments on the draft Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5). Those comments, which are available here, highlighted key gaps in NCA5 and suggested additions and changes to address those gaps. This blog post describes the purpose and scope of the National Climate Assessment and the key takeaways and focus areas of the Sabin Center’s comments.
Scope and Purpose of the National Climate Assessment
The Global Climate Change Research Act of 1990 established the U.S. Global Change Research Program (the “Program”) for the purpose of “developing and coordinating a comprehensive and integrated United States research program which will assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of global change.” See Public Law 101-606 (11/16/90) 104 Stat. 3096-3104, § 101(b). Thirteen federal entities participate in the Program. Participating entities include the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Environmental Protection Agency, National Science Foundation, and the Smithsonian Institution, among others.
The Global Change Research Act requires the Program to prepare and submit to the President and Congress a National Climate Assessment at least once every four years that:
“1. Integrates, evaluates, and interprets the findings of the Program and discusses the scientific uncertainties associated with such findings
“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
“3. Analyzes current trends in global change, both human- induced and natural, and projects major trends for the subsequent 25 to 100 years.”
Id. § 106. According to the White House, the National Climate Assessment is a critical resource for “[p]eople who make risk management decisions,” a large group that includes “local government officials, city planners, utility managers, healthcare providers, adaptation specialists, educators, farmers, and small business owners.” While the Assessment “do[es] not prescribe or recommend specific policy interventions,” it can and does “inform actions [and] policy.”
The Fourth National Climate Assessment was published in November 2018. NCA5 is currently in development and is expected to be finalized later this year.
Key Takeaways and Focus Areas of the Sabin Center’s Comments on the Draft NCA5
The Sabin Center submitted 10 sets of comments on the draft NCA5. Those comments focused on the five topics described below and included the following highlights:
- Climate Change Resilience Planning in the Energy Sector: In one set of comments on Chapter 5 (Energy), we explained that costly investments are not the only tool for enhancing climate change resilience; rather, there are many non-capital-intensive actions, such as operational changes, planning updates, and/or design modifications with important resilience benefits. We explained that effective planning is essential to ensure that actions to enhance resilience are pursued in the most cost effective and efficient manner. We specifically urged the authors to acknowledge the need for effective climate resilience planning and to discuss the limited extent of such planning today by electric utilities, system operators, and others in the energy industry. See No. 175564 (Exhibit A).
- Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR): In four sets of interrelated comments on Chapter 10 (Oceans) and Chapter 32 (Mitigation), we offered suggestions for improving the discussion of CDR techniques, including by: (1) proposing academic literature on political and legal considerations for inclusion in the report; (2) urging the authors to note the need for additional research into political considerations and public acceptance; and (3) urging the authors to acknowledge the urgency of the need for research into ocean-based CDR in light of the growing scientific consensus that carbon management—and specifically CDR—will need to be deployed to stabilize Earth’s climate. See Nos. 175565, 175566, 175567, and 175572 (Exhibit B).
- Barriers to Climate Action by Local Governments: In one set of comments on Chapter 12 (Built Environment), we noted that the subsection on opportunities for climate mitigation and adaptation in urban areas was lacking analysis of the very concrete ways that local governments face legal barriers to climate policy adoption and implementation, including: (1) by state preemption and shaping of local law; (2) fear of litigation and protracted controversy; and (3) limited staff legal capacity. We explained that each of these factors makes it less likely that local governments will undertake the ambitious climate policies described throughout the chapter. See No. 175577 (Exhibit C).
- Legal Mechanisms for Overcoming Obstacles to Siting Renewable Energy Facilities. In one set of comments on Chapter 32 (Mitigation), we noted that the discussion of strategies to overcome local opposition to renewable energy facilities was incomplete. In particular the authors identified community engagement as a way to overcome opposition but did not address the actions that states or the federal government could take. For example, state legislatures can circumvent obstacles to siting renewable energy facilities by enacting legislation that includes one or more of the following features: (1) vesting state government entities rather than local governments with decision-making authority over siting decisions; (2) vesting state government entities with authority to set aside unreasonable local restrictions; (3) setting limits on the restrictions that local governments can impose on renewable energy facilities; and (4) imposing statutory deadlines for government decision-makers to reach decisions throughout the permitting process. We further noted that the federal government can impose limits on local restrictions, similar to how the Telecommunications Act of 1996 limited (but did not eliminate) the ability of local governments to block cell phone towers. See No. 175568 (Exhibit D).
- Relative Land Use Requirements and Climate Change Benefits of Solar Energy and Biofuels: In three sets of interrelated comments on Chapter 6 (Land Cover and Land-Use Change), Chapter 11 (Agriculture, Food Systems, and Rural Communities), and Chapter 32 (Mitigation), we offered recommendations for supplementing the analysis of the purported “competition for land between renewables and agriculture.” In particular, we suggested the authors note that: (1) solar and wind energy projects use relatively little agricultural land compared to the production of biofuels; (2) photovoltaic solar delivers far more energy per acre than corn ethanol; (3) corn ethanol delivers few, if any, climate change benefits; (4) any competition between renewables and agricultural uses can be mitigated by deploying systems that produce energy and agricultural products on the same land (g., agrivoltaics); and (5) despite the relative efficiency of solar energy projects, certain state and local governments have taken legislative action to limit or exclude large-scale solar energy projects from some or all agricultural land within their respective jurisdictions. See Nos. 175569, 175570, and 175571 (Exhibit E).
The complete collection of comments is here.
 Note that there is considerable overlap among the three sets of comments on land use, due to the fact that the commenting platform does not permit cross references among comments.
Matthew Eisenson is a fellow at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, where he leads the Renewable Energy Legal Defense Initiative (RELDI).