The effects of climate change are steadily worsening and now threaten nearly every aspect of life in the U.S., according to a stark draft of a federal climate report released Monday.
Extreme weather events are growing more frequent and severe across the country, including wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves, droughts and floods. Warming is threatening water supplies, food supplies, energy systems, natural ecosystems and human health. Rising sea levels are chipping away at coastal communities.
And many of the nation’s most vulnerable residents, including low-income people, people of color and indigenous communities, are suffering the worst effects.
“As climate risks continue to increase in scale and frequency, multiple climate hazards and cascading climate impacts are disrupting essential societal systems in every part of the country,” the report states.
The draft constitutes the fifth installment of the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program that evaluates the effects of climate change on the United States. The previous installment was released in 2018.
The final report will likely be published sometime in 2023. The draft, which is being circulated for public comment, involves contributions from dozens of scientists.
The report lays out the growing threats to U.S. society in some of the starkest terms ever seen in the periodic assessments. The United States as a whole has already warmed by about 2.5 degrees F since 1970, compared to about 1.6 degrees of warming worldwide over the same period. The effects of climate change are “far-reaching and worsening,” the report states, and larger reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed immediately to avoid even worse outcomes.
Intensifying extreme weather events are among the most serious and wide-ranging threats to American life. In addition to the raw destruction they cause to human life and property, they also pose growing dangers to people's health, food and water supplies and the national economy.
Extreme heat is the biggest weather-related killer in the country and is a particular threat to people who are elderly, unhoused or who have preexisting health conditions. Wildfire smoke affects air quality across the country. Drought threatens water supplies, particularly in the beleaguered Colorado River Basin and other parts of the western United States.
The draft report places a new emphasis on the unequal burden of climate change, with low-income communities often being ill-prepared to deal with the impacts of a warming world after decades of under investment in critical infrastructure. Homes with aging insulation are less prepared to deal with rising energy prices resulting from climate change. Low-income and minority communities often have less tree cover, more pavement and higher levels of air pollution, making them more vulnerable to extreme heat and susceptible to adverse health impacts, the report found.
The focus on equity reflects a new push on the part of the climate science community to bridge physical and social sciences and better understand how people experience a warming world, said Paul Ullrich, a University of California, Davis, professor who contributed to the report.
“While physical science is well understood at this point, what we don’t understand is how climate change is driving inequity and impacting different demographics, income groups and populations,” he said. “That understanding really frames the decisions that have to be made particularly for adaptation planning.”
The report puts price tags on the climate damages America is facing. The United States now experiences a billion-dollar weather and climate disaster every three weeks, a dramatic increase. The country once averaged almost eight $1 billion weather events every year. In the past four years, it has experienced 80.
Those figures come as temperatures in the United States are accelerating upward. Global temperatures have increased faster in the last 50 years than at any point in the last 2,000 years. The United States is warming 68 percent faster than the world on the whole, though some scientists said that is not particularly surprising. Land warms faster than water, and much of the planet is covered by oceans.
But the result has nonetheless been devastating for the United States. The drought gripping the West is the most severe in the last 1,200 years. And present-day wildfires are more frequent and extreme than in the last two millennia.
“For many Americans, their primary experience of climate change is through its influence on extreme events,” the draft report says. “Many extremes, including heatwaves, heavy precipitation, drought, flooding, wildfire, and tropical cyclones/hurricanes, are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change, with a cascade of effects in every part of the country.”
In a change from past editions, the draft report said scientists can now quantify the impact of climate change on individual weather events with a high degree of confidence, thanks largely to advancements in scientific modeling.
Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at the processing firm Stripe who contributed to the report, pointed to the heat dome that encompassed much of the Pacific Northwest in 2021. The searing temperatures would have been so unlikely as to be virtually impossible in a cooler world, he said.
But with global temperatures rising, “It opens up the possibility to have events be more extreme than a world without climate change,” he said.
Climate change will be felt in every part of the country this decade, though the impacts vary by region, the draft report said. The Northeast is facing increasing risks to critical infrastructure, while observing shifting species and habitat ranges, especially in the ocean. In the northern Great Plains, rising temperatures and decreasing snowpack are reducing water supplies and threatening livelihoods in agriculture, recreation and energy. Intensifying drought in the Southwest endangers agricultural and livestock production.
The draft report also provides a preview of what the United States would be like if temperatures climbed by 2 degrees Celsius. Alaskan winter temperatures would increase by almost 9 F. The southern Great Plains would see eight more days above 105 F each year, while the Southeast would see six more days above 100 F annually.
Despite its grim predictions, the draft report finds that immediate action could still blunt the worst impacts of a warming planet. It echoes other recent reports that assert the world is on course for less than 3 C of warming, an improvement over past decades. But worse outcomes cannot be ruled out, Hausfather said.
“While we should plan for the most likely outcome, we should also hedge against the worst case outcomes,” he said.
Reprinted from E&E News with permission from POLITICO, LLC. Copyright 2022. E&E News provides essential news for energy and environment professionals.