Climate change continues to pose major risks to many aspects of American life, according to a major government climate report that was released today.
“Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action,” The report says. “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.”
The report is the work of more than 300 government and independent scientists. It’s the second volume to be released of the two-part National Climate Assessment, which reviews the science of the Earth’s changing climate, and what it means for people and the planet. It found that from agriculture to tourism, from rolling fields in rural areas to cities near the sea, Americans across the country are directly feeling the impacts of climate change.
“In this assessment, we’re worried about the American people, and climate change is having a huge impact on the American people,” says Don Wuebbles, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois, an author on both volumes I and II of the report.
This is the fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), a report that is issued at least every four years, thanks to the Global Change Research Act of 1990. It’s designed to help the government stay up-to-date on the current state of climate research.
“There’s about 12,000 papers published on climate every year, so it’s very important,” Wuebbles says. “Every four years, you’ve got 48,000 papers to evaluate and say ‘well what does the science tell us? What’s happened since the previous assessment?’”
The last full report (NCA3) came out in 2014, and it found that some impacts of climate change on the economy and infrastructure were “unavoidable.” That doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel: the report also said that reducing emissions now could help blunt future impacts of climate change.
The first volume of NCA4 was released this time last year. Volume I focused more on the science of climate change: its big takeaway was that climate change is real, says Robert Kopp, director of the Institute of Earth, Ocean & Atmospheric Sciences at Rutgers University and an author on the first volume. “It’s happening now, it’s having significant effects on us, those effects will get worse if we don’t do something, but it’s not too late to try to avoid the worst impacts,” he says.
The takeaway for Volume II is that the long term human, societal, and economic costs of climate change will far outweigh the benefits of allowing greenhouse gas emissions to continue unchecked. Some places are already acutely feeling those costs, the report says — like communities in Alaska and the Gulf Coast facing relocation or submersion by rising seas.
“It’s an awful lot of what we already knew, just amplified and strengthened” Gary Yohe, a professor of economics and environmental studies at Wesleyan University, says. Yohe reviewed the report for the National Academies before it was published.
While its findings aren’t surprising, they are sobering. The report itself says, “The last few years have also seen record-breaking, climate-related weather extremes. For example, since the Third National Climate Assessment was published, 2014 became the warmest year on record globally; 2015 surpassed 2014 by a wide margin; and 2016 surpassed 2015. Sixteen of the last 17 years have been the warmest ever recorded by human observations.”
In the face of these record-breaking extremes, the report looks at national issues, including air quality, transportation, health, energy, and international interests. But climate change isn’t impacting everyone in the exact same way. The report breaks down major concerns facing rural areas, urban areas, the coasts, indigenous peoples, and 10 distinct regions in the US. And the risks from climate change will be compounded by inequality: “Risks are often highest for those that are already vulnerable, including low-income communities, some communities of color, children, and the elderly,” the report says.
Volume II is designed to be a resource for people across the country looking for how to confront climate change at both a local and national level. As the report notes, many local groups (whether cities, utilities, or communities) have already started to take action, putting together programs designed to adapt to or mitigate climate change.
“I would hope [readers] would use it as a resource, to look for themselves in the sector where they are employed, in the region where they live, in the region where their grandchildren live, in watching the news of horrific extreme weather events or climatically related events — and use this as a resource to figure out why and how this might be part of the signature of a warming planet” Yohe says.
Yohe adds that if people get really interested, there are details in the report that go into the underlying scientific literature, which could provide even more localized data. “It’s up to everyone — especially in a world where the federal government has recoiled from its responsibilities — to get involved, and seek out local resources for that,” Yohe says.
When Volume I was ready to be released, there were fears that that the Trump administration would try to suppress the report given the President’s stated antipathy towards the subject of climate change. But those fears never materialized, Kopp says. “There was no attempt to block the release,” he says. “But there was also, in contrast to the third climate assessment, no resources beyond the bare minimum put into promoting the report.”
We’re seeing the same thing happening again this year, with the second volume released today, the day after Thanksgiving. But making a splash isn’t the purpose of these assessments, Kopp says. “The National Climate Assessment is part of a process to make informed decisions about climate change,” Kopp says. “It’s to be that trusted source of information at all levels of public and private planning in the US.”
Still, Wuebbles thinks the timing is awful. “There was no reason for it to come out on Black Friday, zero. The reality is that it could have come out any day next week and it would have been just fine.”