Report: Risks of Climate Change Are Vast but Avoidable

Today, the Trump Administration released Volume II of the 4th National Climate Assessment. The report summarizes the state of the science on how climate change impacts many parts of American society, including energy, transportation, agriculture, water, infrastructure, communities, and human health. Across 29 chapters, the report lays out the evidence that climate change is happening, that its serious effects are being experienced across all regions of the United States, and that the time for ambitious action to curb carbon pollution is now. Action is urgently needed in light of a recent U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report warning we have only about a dozen years to take unprecedented and far-reaching action to avoid widespread dangerous impacts. 

Risks Are Many, and They’re Multiplying

This report sounds the alarm about the many ways in which climate change is already harming our health. While it’s not hard to imagine that higher temperatures, more extreme weather events, and higher sea levels could wreak havoc, this report also highlights other adverse effects for Americans: worsening wildfires, deadly air pollution episodes, an expanded reach of infectious diseases like West Nile Virus and Lyme disease, and other stresses on mental health and well-being. The events of this year alone, from historic and devastating flooding in the Midwest, to California’s worst recorded wildfire, to Hurricane Florence, offer a sobering preview of more extreme events to come, should we fail to cut the carbon pollution that drives climate change.

The report notes that climate change makes wildfires stronger and more frequent (Credit: Pixabay/Creative Commons).

The 2018 Camp Fire in northern California has killed at least 83 people, destroyed over 12,000 structures, and burned 150,000 acres. Wildfire smoke travels far downwind and can pose air quality risks for millions, especially those with asthma and other respiratory illnesses, older adults, children, and pregnant women. Not only wildfires but more extreme rainfall and flooding, too, are being fueled by climate change. Hurricane Harvey’s disastrous rainfall in the Houston area led to widespread flooding, and climate change super-charged the storm, increasing the chances of those rain accumulations by a factor of at least 3.5 and increasing total rainfall an estimated 38%.

It is important to note that globally, climate impacts may not happen in sequence, but in tandem with one another. New research finds that, if climate-changing emissions continue on a business-as-usual trajectory, some parts of the world could experience as many as six climate-related crises at the same time by the end of this century. Furthermore, climate change worsens existing health disparities around the world. Older adults, children, low-income communities, and communities of color are particularly vulnerable to the health problems posed by climate change.

For the Changes We Can’t Avoid, We Must Adapt

For some communities confronting the impacts of climate change, adaptation planning can improve community resilience and reduce the damage done to human health. This new report highlights specific adaptation actions like statewide vulnerability assessments, heat early warning systems, and improved tracking of infectious disease outbreaks. Moreover, efforts to improve community design can reduce local temperatures, improve storm water management, and promote active, healthy transportation options like biking and walking that help to reduce carbon pollution from the transportation sector. Enhanced community engagement can help to protect our most vulnerable neighbors and improve resilience over the longer term. The climate change adaptation actions included in this report are just a start; we need to better coordinate adaptation measures and evaluate their impacts in order to better prepare and protect all Americans from the many health threats posed by climate change.

The report highlights cool roof programs, like this one in Long Island City, to reduce heat vulnerability (Credit: City of New York).

Climate Action Saves Lives

The health dimensions of climate change described in this report underscore the challenge we all face. As the report notes, climate change threatens every American, and everyone on the planet. The report shows how strong, coordinated actions to prepare for climate change’s effects could save thousands of lives annually and produce hundreds of billions of dollars in economic health benefits, and that’s without considering the benefits from avoiding the harm to mental health from longer-term climate effects that are more difficult to quantify. The risks to our health and well-being are clear, and the solutions to mitigate and adapt to climate change are at our fingertips. Now is the time to act on climate.

About the Authors

Kim Knowlton

Senior Scientist and Deputy Director, Science Center

Vijay Limaye

Science Fellow, Science Center
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