There’s no doubt about it, a government report concludes, climate change is already wreaking havoc across every corner of the US. This means more damaging wildfires in California, more storms dumping intense rain on Texas, more coastal flooding at high tides in Florida, and other mayhem ahead.
The new report, released Friday afternoon, concludes “that the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising.”
This sweeping report was a collaboration between more than 300 federal scientists and outside experts. It is the second part of the congressionally mandated Fourth National Climate Assessment, and it’s all about how climate change is (and will continue) impacting the people and economy of the US. The first part, released last November, overviewed the latest climate science.
“We care about a changing climate because it is loading the dice against us, it’s taking the risks we already face naturally and exacerbating them,” said Katharine Hayhoe, an author on one of the report’s chapters and a climate professor at Texas Tech University.
Take Hurricane Harvey, a major hurricane that stalled on the Texas coast for days, dropping record rain for the Houston area. Multiple studies have since found that this intense rainfall event was much more likely because of human-induced climate change.
For Andrew Light, one of the report’s reviewers and a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, a key takeaway from the report is that “climate change is right now negatively impacting every part of the US economy.”
Agriculture, tourism, fisheries, and other parts of the economy “are vulnerable to the growing impacts of climate change,” said the report. It projects each of these sectors could see hundreds of billions of dollars in yearly losses by the century’s end due to climate impacts.
Climate change will also reduce Midwest agricultural productivity to levels of the 1980s without major technological advances, according to the report.
Despite all these worrying trends, the Trump administration is ignoring the issue, and that’s a mistake, said Light, a former State Department official.
President Donald Trump last year vowed to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement, and his administration is in the process of rolling back climate rules for oil and gas sites, coal plants, and cars. However, this new report is the second big government climate report released under his watch. (In response to last year’s report, the Trump administration’s Raj Shah had told BuzzFeed News, “The climate has changed and is always changing.” )
A related carbon emissions report, also released Friday, concluded that switching to natural gas from coal, and energy efficiency, along with the economic recession, has led US fossil fuel emissions to decline about 1% a year over the last decade, which has made North America responsible for 18% of global greenhouse emissions by 2014. In the report, scientists project US carbon emissions to range from a 3% increase to a 12.8% decrease by 2040, compared to 2015 amounts, depending on emissions rules. Moreover, the ability of forests and waters to naturally suck up greenhouse gas emissions “will likely diminish in the future,” per the report.
Some observers complained the administration had purposely timed the release of the reports to the Friday after Thanksgiving in a bid to deflect attention from its findings that the US government understood global warming was real.
When asked repeatedly about the timing of the report during a news conference, federal officials said it was to give people more time to review the contents before upcoming science conferences and urged people to focus on its contents, rather than its release on Black Friday. News reporters were given an hour to read the 29 chapter report ahead of its unveiling.
There are 10 chapters in the report devoted to how climate change is already playing out in different parts of the country, including the Northeast, Southeast, Midwest, the Caribbean, the northern and southern great plains, the Northwest, the Southwest, Alaska, and Hawaii. There are also chapters on the impacts to specific sectors of the economy, from energy to agriculture to transportation, as well as human health. The release comes as wildfires spread in California’s drier-than-normal fall, a symptom of global warming, have claimed more than 80 lives, with hundreds more still missing.
“The report also points out that climate change is not affecting everyone equally,” Brenda Ekwurzel, one of the report authors and director of climate science at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said in a statement. “Low-income communities and communities of color, as well as indigenous peoples, often suffer most.”
Moreover, the study makes clear: “We’re not adapting fast enough. It’s going to be cheaper to adapt and prepare now. The more climate changes, the greater the costs,” Hayhoe said. “What more can we scientists say?”
“The conclusion is there is hope,” Light told BuzzFeed News. “We can turn things around. We are still in the zone to turn our economy to making money off climate solutions versus making it worse.”
But time is running out fast. An October report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggested the world only had a few decades, if even, to keep global future warming below 2 degrees Celsius and prevent practically all coral reefs from dying, more substantial sea level rise, and other catastrophic impacts.
This post was updated with comments on the report's release timing from federal officials.