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Climate change is indisputable, despite political controversy

A statement from Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins

January 11, 2017

Recent developments in state and national politics have put climate change in the spotlight. As stories circulate in the media regarding positions on climate change within Wisconsin state government and the incoming presidential administration, several news outlets have published statements about climate change that do not align with established fact. Some have questioned the quality and findings of climate science conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

The Nelson Institute strongly stands behind the world-class scientific research being done in its Center for Climatic Research as well as in other programs, departments, centers and laboratories across UW-Madison and our partner institutions. This work is conducted under longstanding, rigorous and accepted standards of scientific research and experimentation and is peer-reviewed by leading scientists from around the world.

So what are the facts?

  • The global climate is warming, and greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon dioxide and methane, generated by human activities, are primarily responsible. The rate of warming is increasing.
  • Earth's average temperature has risen by 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius) over the past century. Wisconsin has warmed at a level consistent with the global trend. These are documented facts drawn from detailed, verifiable temperature records.
  • There has been no “pause” or “hiatus” in the overall global warming trend. Natural variation, including El Niño and La Niña periods, can be seen in the climate record, but the overall trend in global temperatures remains on a consistent upward trajectory.
  • The greatest increase in global warming has occurred in the past 35 years, with 15 of the 16 warmest years on record occurring since 2001.
  • The number of record high-temperature events in the United States has been increasing, while the number of record low-temperature events has been decreasing, since 1950. The U.S. has also witnessed increasing numbers of intense rainfall events, as has Wisconsin.
  • The amount of spring snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere has decreased over the past five decades and snow is melting earlier. In Wisconsin, winters have become shorter, and the average amount of time that our lakes are covered with ice has been reduced by three weeks over the past century.
  • Global climate models project the global average temperature to rise another 2 to 11.5 degrees F (1.1 to 6.4 degrees C) over the next 100 years, depending on greenhouse gas emission levels.
  • The global climate models (CMIP3) that have been used, together with actual temperature observations from around the state, to produce climate projections for Wisconsin have proven remarkably accurate. For example, the CMIP3 projections of global average temperatures, begun in the year 2000, accurately predict warming through the present.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has not disavowed its 2007 report, as some columnists have claimed.  The IPCC has not significantly changed its global temperature projections in subsequent reports.

What does climate change mean for Wisconsin?

Wisconsin’s climate has become warmer and wetter since the 1950s, a trend that is projected to continue through this century. These trends will have profound implications for human and natural systems.

The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI) formed in 2007 as a partnership between UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and other state campuses and agencies to study the potential consequences of climate change for the state’s economy, health, infrastructure and natural resources.

A few examples of the ways Wisconsin communities have benefited from this Wisconsin Idea partnership:

  • Information produced through WICCI working groups, which include dozens of public and private sector experts and managers from around the state, has helped state natural resource managers understand the risks of climate change and variability to coldwater trout streams, northern forests and other valuable natural and economic resources. These resources, and the tourism surrounding them, generate billions of dollars annually for the state’s economy and provide thousands of jobs.
  • Municipal managers in La Crosse, Milwaukee and other cities have utilized WICCI projections and analyses in stormwater management planning as the incidence of extreme rain events continues to increase. La Crosse worked with WICCI to secure a federal grant to improve stormwater infrastructure in the city.
  • The Wisconsin Department of Health Services utilized WICCI projections to create toolkits for health professionals to assess climate risks to human health from events such as extreme heat, floods, harmful algal blooms, and vector-borne diseases.

How would cuts in federal funding for climate research affect Wisconsin?

Wisconsin stands to lose millions of dollars annually if federal support for climate research is scaled back or eliminated.  For example, our Center for Climatic Research receives about 90 percent of its $3 million budget from federal sources.

Other research scientists across UW-Madison and other UW System campuses also draw millions of dollars to the state each year to study the causes and consequences of climate change. They work in a wide range of fields, including atmospheric physics, agricultural sciences, public health, economics, natural resource management, engineering and other disciplines.

These federal grants provide a significant number of jobs, and the money that flows into Wisconsin boosts local economies.

What does the future hold?

Climate change is one of the most critical issues facing humanity. It is vitally important that we understand its causes and consequences in order to inform decision-making at both state and national levels. Basing our public discourse on the best available science – on facts – is essential to safeguard our health, economy, infrastructure and natural resources. 

Scientists in the Nelson Institute and other UW-Madison units, along with colleagues in UW Extension and other UW System schools, have been working with municipal leaders, natural resource managers and others around the state to understand how our climate is changing and what actions might be advisable to adapt to change and protect the resources that our communities value. We are committed to continuing these partnerships, and to provide the highest-quality science to help our state’s citizens, businesses and government leaders make the best possible decisions in a changing climate.