The effects of climate change are now touching communities across the country. These effects include year-round flooding, more risks associated with future disasters, increasing ozone levels as temperatures are rising, and more states are taking proactive steps to adapt to climate change impacts. Required by law, scientists in the Trump Administration last week released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a 1,656-page report that concludes that the government “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.” The report states, “Without significant global greenhouse gas mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause substantial losses to infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century.” Mandated by Congress to come out every four years, 300 scientific experts produced this product under the guidance of a 60-member federal advisory committee. It was open to review by the public, 13 federal agencies, and a panel at the National Academy of Sciences. The last report was released in 2014.
The release of this report comes on the heels of another report by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found that the world would have to make unprecedented changes in the next decade to remain below 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit of total warming above preindustrial levels.
The report argues that climate change is already affecting the planet, but it is about to get worse, while also bringing on costs to the country. Scientists in the report also express that it is not too late to come up with proactive solutions. The climate detriments include worsening droughts, wildfires, floods, with severe and permanent impacts to infrastructure, agriculture, and an expected increase in infectious disease outbreaks. For example, the continental U.S. is 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than it was 100 years ago, surrounded by seas that are on average nine inches higher, and is experiencing worsening heat waves—with many U.S. cities seeing an additional 40 days of heat waves a year since the 1960s.
As we have seen the past few years, the number of heavy rainstorms that cause flooding, hurricanes, wildfires, and other extreme weather events are becoming more common. According to the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, the U.S. has experienced 40 hurricanes identified as billion-dollar disasters since 1980, using 2018 inflation-adjusted dollars, with a cumulative damage estimate of $862 billion. Hurricane Maria in 2017 took the lives of nearly 3,000 people; the combination of Hurricane Maria with Hurricanes Irma and Harvey cost $268 billion, or 31% of the combined damage since 1980 – making it the most expensive hurricane season in 38 years. In the past 13 months, California has seen two of its largest wildfires in terms of acreage, two of its most destructive blazes in terms of structures lost, and the deadliest fire on record, which has already claimed at least 85 lives.
The report also examines the global impacts of climate change and affirms that climate change is already affecting American companies’ overseas operations and supply chains, and as these impacts worsen, it will take a toll on trade and the economy. The impacts of climate change are expected to affect developing countries the worst, leading to global instability and putting additional burdens on the U.S. for humanitarian assistance and disaster aid. The report suggests that by 2050, the continental U.S. could see as much as 2.3 additional degrees of warming and estimates labor-related losses by the year 2090 as a result of extreme heat. These costs could amount to an estimated $155 billion annually, while coastal property damage could total $118 billion yearly.
The report asserts, “A significant portion of climate risk can be addressed by integrating climate adaptation into existing investments, policies, and practices,” but that “While mitigation and adaptation efforts have expanded substantially in the last four years, they do not yet approach the scale considered necessary to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health over the coming decades.” The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) is a champion of measures that ensure our nation’s infrastructure is resilient to withstand the most extreme climate events. In fact, as part of the ASCE Committee on Adaptation to a Changing Climate and the Infrastructure Resilience Division, ASCE recently released a manual of practice for civil engineers titled, Climate-Resilient Infrastructure: Adaptive Design and Risk Management. This manual provides timely guidance and solutions for civil engineers to help them design infrastructure that is more resilient, methods for infrastructure analysis, and meet societal needs in a world where risk profiles are changing requiring a new design philosophy. This manual is available at the ASCE Bookstore.
Despite the significant findings in the report, the Trump Administration has downplayed its significance. Earlier this week, President Trump and a cabinet secretary questioned some of the findings, and they have not come out to fully support them. Over the past nearly-two years, the Trump Administration has moved to undo a number of regulations intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The incoming Democratically controlled House of Representatives has vowed to make climate change solutions one of their top priorities in the next Congress.