'Past the point of incremental changes': The United States is warming faster than the rest of the world
Emphasizing that mitigating the climate emergency and planetary heating is within policymakers' power, a new draft federal report released Monday outlined the impacts the crisis has had on U.S. communities so far and warned that extreme weather, wildfires, and climate-linked public health crises will only worsen without far-reaching action.
The finalized Fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5) is expected to be released in 2023, but federal agencies including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation, and NASA released the draft as global leaders attend COP27, the United Nations' annual climate conference.
The report notes that the country, the largest emitter of carbon in history, is warming faster than the Earth as a whole, with the continental U.S. 1.3°C (2.5°F) warmer than it was in the 1970s. The planet has warmed 1.1°C or 2°F above preindustrial temperatures.
Millions of people in the U.S. have already had firsthand experience with the impacts of the climate crisis, says the report. More than 3,000 homes and other structures were destroyed by wildfires in California in 2021, and a heatwave across the Pacific Northwest last year killed 229 people.
As climate scientists have consistently warned, hurricanes are growing more severe as a result of the continued extraction of fossil fuels and the climate crisis. Hurricane Harvey was directly responsible for at least 88 deaths in Texas in 2017, and more than 6,000 people left Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory that year.
The NCA5 warns that "more severe wildfires in California, sea level rise in Florida, and more frequent flooding in Texas are expected to displace millions of people" in the United States.
"The things Americans value most are at risk," reads the report. "Many of the harmful impacts that people across the country are already experiencing will worsen as warming increases, and new risks will emerge."
Four decades ago, disasters costing $1 billion or more took place roughly once every four months, but 20 such events were recorded in 2021, averaging about one every three weeks. A massive winter storm in Texas, flooding in California and Louisiana, the deadly heat wave in the West, and four tropical cyclones were among the billion-dollar disasters that hit the country last year, killing nearly 700 people and costing an estimated $145 billion.
This year, Hurricane Ian caused more than $20 billion in damage, while other billion-dollar disasters in 2022 have included flooding in Kentucky and Missouri in July and numerous other severe weather events.
"Compound events—combinations of weather or climate events affecting one location back-to-back or multiple locations at the same time—are already occurring in every region of the country and are projected to become more frequent as the world continues to warm," the draft report reads. "These events have cascading effects through supply chains, food networks, and other interdependent systems that typically cause greater harm than isolated events."
The NCA5 highlighted some climate harms facing Americans that have been covered less frequently than extreme weather, including threats to drinking water supplies as rising sea levels send saltwater into aquifers and flooding pollutes wells and other sources.
Other public health risks include rising tick populations and the spread of Lyme disease amid warmer weather, increased transmission of mosquito-borne illnesses, and the inhalation of toxic wildfire smoke in communities across the West.
The broad spectrum of rapidly-worsening climate risks facing the U.S. confirms that "we're past the point of incremental changes," as Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at Brown University, told The Washington Post. "That era has passed us by, and the magnitude of the challenges we're facing right now going forward are going to require transformative changes."
The report's authors write that "a rapid transition in how we produce and use energy and manage lands" could achieve "faster, deeper cuts" to fossil fuel emissions that are needed to see a 6% annual reduction, which the report says is necessary to reach net-zero emissions by 2050."
Every additional increment of warming—and every action to reduce that warming—matters for reducing the harmful impacts of climate change on the United States," the draft report says. "The worst consequences of climate change can still be avoided or limited by large-scale actions that rapidly decarbonize the economy and prepare communities for impacts."
President Joe Biden is expected to travel to Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt later this week to attend COP27, where policymakers are discussing greater investments from the Global North to compensate developing countries for the damage they disproportionately face as a result of the climate crisis, and U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on Tuesday took aim at companies that continue extracting fossil fuels despite claims of carbon neutrality.
"Humanity has a choice," Guterres said Monday. "Cooperate or perish."
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