We’ve all heard the lament from those who oppose government action to stem climate change: Tackling this challenge would devastate the U.S. economy. Anyone who still believes that needs to sit down with the second volume of the fourth National Climate Assessment, issued November 23 by the federal government.
The authors of the new report have begun to put dollar signs next to projected climate damage, specifically within the United States, The Washington Post reported. In a worst-case climate-change scenario, the document finds, labor-related losses by the year 2090 as a result of extreme heat — the sort that makes it difficult to work outdoors or seriously lowers productivity — could amount to an estimated $155 billion annually. Deaths from temperature extremes could take an economic toll of $141 billion per year in the same year, while coastal property damage could total $118 billion yearly, researchers found.
“This report makes it clear that climate change is not some problem in the distant future. It’s happening right now in every part of the country. When people say the wildfires, hurricanes and heat waves they’re experiencing are unlike anything they’ve seen before, there’s a reason for that, and it’s called climate change,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, climate science director at the Union of Concerned Scientists and a report author.
That view was echoed by Susanne Torriente, the chief resilience officer for Miami Beach. “We don’t debate who caused it,” she told The Washington Post. “You go outside, the streets are flooded. What are you going to do about it? It’s our reality nowadays.” Miami Beach is already spending hundreds of millions of dollars to adapt to rising sea levels.
The report warns that the country is particularly unprepared for the upheavals that will come as rising sea levels swamp coastal cities: “The potential need for millions of people and billions of dollars of coastal infrastructure to be relocated in the future creates challenging legal, financial, and equity issues that have not yet been addressed.”
In its response to the document, the White House told the BBC that the report was “largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that... there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population.”
The National Climate Assessment is more limited in scope than the October report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that explored what it would take for the world to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. But the new report, Umair Irfan wrote in Vox, echoes the same basic themes about climate change:
It’s already happening.
It’s going to get worse.
It’s going to cost us dearly.
We can still do something about it.
As the government report put it, global warming “is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us.” The report, which was based on the work of 300 scientists, concluded that humans must act aggressively to adapt to current impacts and mitigate future catastrophes “to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.”
“It’s not that we care about a 1-degree increase in global temperature in the abstract,” said Katharine Hayhoe, an author of the report and an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University. “We care about water, we care about food, we care about the economy—and every single one of those things is being affected by climate change today.”
There was sobering news for every region of the country. Across the Southeast, massive wildfires—like those seen now in California—could soon become a regular occurrence, smothering Atlanta and other cities in toxic smog, the report warns. In New England and the mid-Atlantic, it says, oceanfront barrier islands could erode and narrow. And in the Midwest, it forecasts plunging yields of corn, soybeans, wheat, and rice.
The Chicago Tribune’s Tony Briscoe wrote: "Midwest farmers will be increasingly challenged by warmer, wetter and more humid conditions from climate change, which also will lead to greater incidence of crop disease and more pests and will diminish the quality of stored grain."
Concerned commercial fishermen in California and Oregon have headed to court, Scientific American reported, contending that oil and gas companies have hurt the fishing market in the Pacific Ocean by raising temperatures on Earth. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations is seeking financial compensation for its losses from 30 companies.
Republican Senator Susan Collins represents Maine, where the lobster industry has been affected by warming seas. She tweeted that the National Climate Assessment "should cause all of us, including the Administration, to take a harder look at the consequences of inaction & use what is known about climate risks to inform policy."
The best policy, in our view, is a national carbon fee, which would fire up the free market to accelerate the nation’s transition away from fossil fuels. Every member of the 116th Congress should read the highlights in the new report and then do his or her part to help our country meet this central challenge.