On the day after Thanksgiving, the Trump Administration quietly released the fourth US National Climate Assessment. The findings further underscore the United Nations IPCC Report published in October, showing that effects of climate change have already begun and our timeline to take action is all too short. Americans, including those coping with wildfires in California to those dealing with hurricanes on the East Coast and Puerto Rico, are already impacted and even more “substantial damages” will occur that threaten our physical, social, and economic well-being if we continue with business as usual.
If you’ve tracked science warnings in recent decades, this will come as no shock to you. However, the White House has confronted its own administration’s report with absolute denial. The President’s response was: “I don’t believe it,” which is in line with his prior statement that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to undermine U.S. manufacturing, and his pulling the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accords.
But we don’t have time to once again explain that water is wet. While debating unquestionable science, we might just drown in the effects of inaction. We need to cut greenhouse gas emissions now, and this means collective action from all areas of society.
Key Report Findings
Communities are already feeling the impacts and the burden is not born equally. The report confirms that we can expect more “frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events” that will cause severe damage to stressed ecosystems, unequal social systems, and deteriorating infrastructure. Vulnerable communities that are hit hardest by climate change also have the lowest access to resources to defend against these impacts. Those disproportionately affected by climate change include communities of color, low-income areas, older adults, and children. As the report clearly states, “Prioritizing adaptation actions for the most vulnerable populations would contribute to a more equitable future within and across communities.”
Rising temperatures are projected to threaten human health by increasing water- and food-borne diseases, heat-related deaths, asthma, and allergic illnesses. There will also be negative, long-lasting effects on mental health of affected communities. Climate change will alter the geographic range of disease-carrying insects, exposing a wider range of people to Lyme disease, Zika, West Nile, and dengue.
The report discusses the ways climate change will increasingly threaten Indigenous peoples’ physical, economic, and cultural well-being. Throughout the country, climate change is already forcing some to consider relocation, with great potential cost to maintaining cultural and community continuity. Residents of Shishmaref, a Native village in Alaska, have already faced decades of intensifying erosion, damaged streets, and loss of homes from warming temperatures. In 2016, the Shishmaref City Council voted by a narrow margin to relocate the village from where it has inhabited for centuries. As the report notes, communities are taking action to brace for climate change through traditional knowledge and some are pursuing development of clean energy on tribal lands to mitigate impacts. And as Victoria Hermann writes, “Residents of both Shishmaref and Kivalina [another Native Alaskan community] are represented and advocated for by formidable indigenous groups on the international stage. The Inuit Circumpolar Council itself, and its permanent participant seat on the Arctic Council, provide a means to voice dissent, concerns, and expertise for Inuit residents from vulnerable communities across Alaska in official governance forum.”
Ecosystems will be severely impacted by climate change, this report concludes. Warming temperatures and changes in amount and timing of snow and rainfall will restrict availability of clean water in parts of the country. This not only threatens access to a vital resource, but also hydropower production in western states. Water supplies for U.S., Caribbean, Hawaii, and Pacific Island communities are threatened by drought, floods, and contamination from sea level rise. “Rising water temperatures, ocean acidification, retreating Arctic sea ice, sea level rise, high-tide flooding, coastal erosion, higher storm surge, and heavier precipitation events” are all projected to continue.
We can expect increased wildfire frequency and changes in disease outbreaks in forests which will restrict forest carbon sequestration along with economic activity, recreation, and subsistence activities. Unless we achieve substantial and sustained cuts in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions, we should expect that humans will be forced to interact with natural environments drastically different than today.
Economic impacts are a central focus of the report. Climate change is projected to increasingly destroy infrastructure and property, disrupt labor productivity, and threaten vitality of communities. Major US crops are expected to decline due to increased temperatures and changes in water access, soil erosion, and disease. Rising temperatures are projected to affect power generation and result in higher electricity costs and increased demand for energy. There are few to no areas of our economy that will not be negatively affected by climate change. Agriculture, fisheries, tourism, property values, energy production, transportation infrastructure, and our healthcare system will all be critically impacted and strained as we navigate devastating effects.
We must alter what is produced, the inputs and resources used for production, implement more efficient technologies, and substantially increase both short- and long-term investment in fundamental changes to our economy and how it operates.
Where Do We Go Next?
This report is a sobering reminder of the interconnectedness of our social, environmental, and economic systems. Climate change will impact our public health, international security and trade, access to critical natural resources, food production, energy use, and transportation. Governments and industries across the country have a role in removing barriers and implementing solutions. A challenge of this magnitude and complexity requires multi-stakeholder engagement and to quote Congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley, “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power.” Impacted communities are already pushing for climate justice in growing numbers and representatives from these movements must be integral in developing solutions.
Research and reports are necessary to affirm evidence of climate change, but data alone will not bring the societal transformation that is required. We need simultaneous action to cut emissions, develop carbon sequestration efforts, and mitigate the impacts already being felt. Fortunately, much of the technology we need either exists, or is within our grasp. We know how to generate renewable energy, and increasingly sophisticated batter storage technology makes it possible to move to 100% clean energy by 2050. Regenerative agriculture and reforestation could sequester existing carbon from fossil fuels.
What we need is a sea change in policy, corporate, and consumer action. Policy shifts should be led by elected officials committed to climate action and resistant to fossil fuel funding and influence. Businesses have a responsibility to set goals for renewable energy and waste reduction. Those with access to resources can lend their platforms and support to impacted communities to share their direct experience and expertise.
Solutions can be exciting and widely beneficial, instead of fearful and burdensome. As the report states, “Mitigation and adaptation actions also present opportunities for additional benefits that are often more immediate and localized, such as improving local air quality and economies through investments in infrastructure.” There are costs to addressing climate change, but they are dwarfed by the costs of inaction. We can and must scale up solutions today, and Green America offers action steps of how to make change on both individual and collective levels.