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Dire assessment warns of intensifying climate-related risks across the country

The new report contradicts everything on climate change coming from Trump White House.

A researcher reaches into melted Arctic ice to see how salty the water may be at Barrow, Alaska. CREDIT: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images
A researcher reaches into melted Arctic ice to see how salty the water may be at Barrow, Alaska. CREDIT: David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Climate change is already costing Americans huge sums of money — as well as their lives in increasing numbers — as storms become more damaging, heat waves more deadly, wildfires more common, and diseases more widespread, according to the federal government’s 4th National Climate Assessment, released Friday.

The 1,000-plus-page assessment, produced by 13 federal agencies that conducted regional workshops in over 40 cities, concluded that climate change has already caused irreparable harm to communities across the United States. It also reaffirmed the scientific consensus that human activity, such as burning fossil fuels, is the primary cause for the warming temperatures.

The United States is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, on average, than it was a century ago, according to the assessment, and will warm at least another 3 degrees, and perhaps much more, by 2100, unless the world moves swiftly to curb its use of coal, oil, and gas.

With significant reductions in emissions, global temperature increase could be limited to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, or less compared to preindustrial temperatures. Without significant reductions, though, annual average global temperatures could increase by a staggering 9 degrees Fahrenheit, or 5 degrees Celsius, or more by the end of this century compared to pre-industrial temperatures, according to the assessment.

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“Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts,” the report says. “The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate.”

On a Friday conference call with reporters, David Easterling, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s technical support unit, emphasized that only the researchers who worked on the report developed its conclusions and that there was no external political interference in its creation.

The assessment, released by the U.S. Global Change Research Program, is a congressionally mandated report on what the past, present, and future of climate change means for the United States. The assessment was originally scheduled to be released at the American Geophysical Union annual conference in December.

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Climate activists and many scientists view its release on the Friday after Thanksgiving as an attempt to bury the report, which states that human-caused climate change has already produced irreparable harm to communities across the United States. Speakers on the conference call declined to explain why the report was released on the day after Thanksgiving.

“The decision to release this damning report when families are beginning to celebrate the holidays and newsrooms are short staffed is a brazen attempt to bury the truth from the public that we must act now to move off fossil fuels and stabilize the climate,” Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said Friday in a statement.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, on Friday noted that “no matter how hard they try, the Trump administration can’t bury the effects of climate change in a Black Friday news dump — effects their own federal government scientists have uncovered.”

“The president says outrageous things like climate change is a hoax engineered by the Chinese and raking forests will prevent catastrophic wildfires, but serious consequences like collapsing coastal housing prices and trillions of dollars in stranded fossil fuel assets await us if we don’t act,” Whitehouse said in a statement.

The first volume of the report, released last year, assessed the existing body of climate change science. The second volume, released on Friday, provides the technical, scientific assessment of impacts, risks, and adaptation relating to climate change.

Information about the dire future for the planet due to greenhouse gas emissions — as long as world governments hesitate to take the major steps needed to prevent catastrophic climate change — has been coming out at a rapid pace this autumn.

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In October, the U.N.’s International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that policymakers must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent of 2010 levels within 12 years to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.

On Wednesday, one day before the release of the latest national climate assessment, the U.N.’s World Meteorological Organization released its latest annual greenhouse gas bulletin in which it reported that the atmospheric concentrations of the three gases most responsible for climate change — carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide — reached record highs in 2017.

According to Dr. Danny Richter, vice president of government affairs for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL), the new climate assessment makes it clear the world needs to act quickly to reduce emissions and stabilize the climate.

In the United States, CCL, a climate action advocacy group, hopes to see Democrats and Republican work together on the issue.

“Solving climate change is simply too urgent to get caught up in partisan politics,” Richter said in a statement. “Specifically, we hope to see bipartisan legislation that puts price on carbon pollution and returns the revenue to people, which would help the U.S. reduce emissions at the scale and pace we need.”

Here are the new national climate assessment’s main conclusions:

  • Temperatures have risen 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit since 1901, all due to human activities.
  • Globally, 16 of the last 17 years have been the warmest years on record, dispelling any forecasts of a “hiatus” or “pause” in warming.
  • Fighting climate change will save hundreds of billions of dollars in public health costs alone, and save thousands of lives a year.
  • Climate change doubled the area burned by wildfires across the West between 1984 and 2015, and has increased the wildfire season by 80 days in some places. In California, wildfires have killed a record number of people in 2018.
  • By 2100, annual acreage burned could increase by as much as six times. Historically, the U.S. has spent an average of $1 billion a year to fight wildfires. In the first eight months of 2017, costs exceeded $2 billion.
  • Communities of color, the elderly, children, and low-income communities are particularly vulnerable to climate change, according to the report. Allergy-induced conditions like hay fever and asthma are becoming more frequent and severe.
  • Warming is expanding the range of mosquitoes and ticks that carry vector-borne diseases like Zika, West Nile, Dengue, Chikungunya, and Yellow Fever.
  • Drier conditions in Arizona and California have led to greater growth of the fungus that leads to Valley Fever. Before 1999, such infections were limited to the tropics, but Cryptococcus gatti, the species that causes these infections, is now established in Northwest soil.
  • The Midwest is projected to have the largest increase in heat-related premature deaths by the end of the century — an additional 2,000 deaths per year.
  • West Nile cases are projected to double by 2050, with a $1 billion annual price tag in hospital costs and premature deaths.
The coal-fired Brandon Shores Power Plant, on March 9, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
The coal-fired Brandon Shores Power Plant, on March 9, 2018 in Baltimore, Maryland. CREDIT: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
  • Economic losses from climate change could reach hundreds of billions of dollars annually for some sectors. Climate impacts along the coastlines are exacerbating pre-existing social inequities. The Southeast, for example, is expected to lose over a half-billion labor hours by 2100 due to extreme heat.
  • Agricultural crop quality and quantity is projected to decline across the United States due to increased flooding, temperatures, drought, and other climatic changes.

“The contrast between this report and the Trump administration’s actions couldn’t be starker,” Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute said Friday in a statement. “Trump’s own scientists have pulled the fire alarm, but Trump is just laughing maniacally and pouring more gasoline on the fire.”

Siegel urged House Democrats to reject Trump’s “suicidal climate denial” and chart a Green New Deal that phases out fossil fuel extraction, decarbonizes the economy, and expands living-wage jobs.

Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who is pushing for the creation of a House committee that would work to craft a Green New Deal, emphasized the report’s findings demonstrate that lawmakers need to start addressing climate change as soon as possible.

“That’s why we need a Select Committee on a Green New Deal, & why fossil fuel-funded officials shouldn’t be writing climate change policy,” she tweeted Friday.