The US is heating up faster than the world as a whole, making the nation already very vulnerable to the consequences of climate change. “The things Americans value most are at risk,” according to a recently released draft of a major national climate report. That includes Americans’ food and water supplies, cherished traditions and pastimes, and communities transforming into untenable places to live.
The warning comes from a draft of the Fifth National Climate Assessment, expected to be finalized next year. The draft was made public yesterday to allow for public comment through January 27th, 2023. National researchers are mandated to deliver the report to Congress and the president every four years to take stock of the many ways global warming is taking its toll on the US. The report was supposed to be done this year but faced delays during the Trump administration.
“The things Americans value most are at risk”
One of the starkest signs of climate change in the US is the steep rise in billion-dollar weather and climate disasters. Back in the 1980s, the US could expect one disaster costing $1 billion in damages (adjusted for inflation) every four months. Now, those costly catastrophes are occurring every three weeks, on average. Hurricane Ian, which devastated Florida in September, was the 15th billion-dollar disaster this year. That’s staggering compared to the norm over the past four decades, which averaged fewer than eight such disasters a year.
Sometimes disaster strikes as a single blow, and other times, it stretches out over years. The past two decades of drought in the southwestern US mark the driest period in the region’s history for at least the past 1,200 years. That’s forced drastic enough cuts to states’ water resources to ban lawns in Las Vegas and could push farmers to switch from iconic food staples like corn in favor of more drought-tolerant crops like sorghum.
Often, disasters pile up on each other at once or in short succession — like droughts, heatwaves, and wildfires that have become hallmarks of the summer. The season for vacations and exploring the great outdoors is now also a season of air quality alerts from smoke-filled air and warnings to check in on loved ones lest they succumb to heat illness in sweltering homes. And while the draft report makes clear that every corner of the US is affected by climate change, it also stresses that the worst of the crisis is expected to hit communities that already face the greatest inequities. Neighborhoods that were previously segregated through racist redlining policies, for instance, are typically hotter than other parts of a city.
The US just can’t afford to consider itself some sort of safe harbor in a warming world. It’s warmed at a rate that’s 68 percent faster than the planet as a whole over the past 50 years. While the globe’s average temperature is now about 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than it was in 1850, temperatures in the contiguous US are already 2.5 degrees hotter than in 1970.
The US has dug much of the climate hole it’s currently in. It’s the country that has emitted the most greenhouse gas emissions cumulatively since the industrial revolution. Over a quarter of all the carbon dioxide pollution that’s built up in the Earth’s atmosphere since 1850 comes from the US alone.
The draft National Climate Assessment comes as delegates from the US and all over the world meet for the United Nations’ annual climate summit. At the summit, pressure is building on big polluters like the US to ramp up commitments to slash their climate pollution and boost funding for climate damages and adaptation measures. With those debates swirling, the new report is a reminder to US negotiators that the crisis has reached their doorsteps, too.