According to the draft report of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, released by the U.S. climate change research program, climate change is already affecting Americans. The 1,000-page report, which was written by 240 leading climate experts in the government and from universities, contends that certain types of weather events have become more frequent and intense — including “heat waves, heavy downpours, and, in some regions, floods and droughts.” Beyond weather changes, “sea levels are rising, oceans are becoming more acidic, and glaciers and arctic sea ice are melting.” One of the scarier statements in the report: “Because of the influence of human activities, the past climate is no longer a sufficient indicator of future conditions.”
Since 2000, U.S. law requires the group to release a report every four years. The last report was issued in 2009. No reports were done under the administration of George W. Bush. To put U.S. emissions in context, the U.S. accounts for around 20 percent of total global emissions. U.S. carbon emissions are actually down to a 20 year low, in large part due to the transition away from coal to natural gas. Despite the positive trends domestically, global emissions just keep increasing, with this past year the worst on record.
Interestingly, the authors admit that some effects of climate change could have positive benefits — such as longer growing seasons — but the vast majority of changes will be “disruptive to society,” because institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the “relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future.” Furthermore, natural ecosystems that we all rely on will be put under enormous stress.
The report confirms what many of us have noticed: that temperatures are getting hotter, year by year. “U.S. average temperature has increased by about 1.5°F since 1895; more than 80 percent of this 21 increase has occurred since 1980.” This past year was the hottest on record. And in 2011, a deadly heatwave swept across the U.S., with temperatures pushing 110F.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t like there will be much relief. After reading the report, The Guardian wrote that “future generations of Americans can expect to spend 25 days a year sweltering in temperatures above 100F (38C).” The report goes on to say overall temperatures will also rise, “with the next few decades projected to see another 2°F 26 to 4°F of warming in most areas.” There will also be less relief at night, as night-time temperatures also increase.
The health of many American is expected be affected. “Climate change will influence human health in many ways; some existing health threats will intensify, and new health threats will emerge. Some of the key drivers of health impacts include: increasingly frequent and intense extreme heat, which causes heat-related illnesses and deaths and over time, worsens drought and wildfire risks, and intensifies air pollution; increasingly frequent extreme precipitation and associated flooding that can lead to injuries and increases in marine and freshwater-borne disease; and rising sea levels that intensify coastal flooding and storm surge.”
The elderly, children, poor, and sick are particularly vulnerable. Still other populations are vulnerable simply because of where they are located. People in floodplains, coastal zones and some urban areas are threatened, along with those in the arid Southwest. The report seems to say climate change then has major implications for the health care system: “maintaining a robust public health infrastructure will be critical to managing the potential health impacts.”
Changes will have economic implications. As an example, industries that rely heavily on water, like agriculture, will have to make do with less of it: “Surface and groundwater supplies in many regions are already stressed by increasing demand for water as well as declining runoff and groundwater recharge. In many regions, climate change increases the likelihood of water shortages and competition for water among agricultural, municipal, and environmental uses.” Extreme heat is also expected to impact crops and livestock.
Infrastructure, particularly aging systems in coastal cities, will be hard-hit, given they are expected to be taxed by nature more often. As the report authors point out with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, infrastructure damage is already happening and the repairs are expensive. “Sea level rise and storm surges, in combination with the pattern of heavy development in coastal areas, are already resulting in damage to infrastructure such as roads, buildings, ports, and energy facilities.” As a result, landscape architects and others have been calling for increased use of green infrastructure systems to boost resiliency.
Nature herself will also change with the climate. “Climate change-driven perturbations to ecosystems that have direct human impacts include reduced water supply and quality, the loss of iconic species and landscapes, distorted rhythms of nature, and the potential for extreme events to eliminate the capacity of ecosystems to provide benefits.”
Climate change, along with human-imposed changes to landscapes and ecosystems, makes those ecosystems more vulnerable to “damage from extreme events while at the same time reducing their natural capacity to modulate the impacts of such events.” The natural infrastructure systems we rely on, “salt marshes, reefs, mangrove forests, and barrier islands,” to defend coastal ecosystems and infrastructure, including roads and buildings,” are also being further weakened by “coastal development, erosion, and sea level rise.”
Furthermore, extreme weather events can degrade the effectiveness of crucial green infrastructure like wetlands, whether natural or man-made. “Floodplain wetlands, although greatly reduced from their historical extent, absorb floodwaters and reduce the effects of high flows on river-margin lands. Extreme weather events that produce sudden increases in water flow, often carrying debris and pollutants, can decrease the natural capacity of ecosystems to process pollutants.”
The report authors call for communities to “proactively prepare for climate change” and begin aggressive adaptation planning programs. Smart adaptation, of course, will also work to mitigate carbon emissions. Think of urban forests that not only cool and clean the air, but also store carbon.
Perhaps President Obama will get the report’s message, too. Current efforts by the administration were described as “not close to sufficient.” Obama has said that climate change is one of his top three priorities for his next administration. The president may even host a bipartisan summit at the White House early in his new term to launch a “national climate action strategy.” Apparently, Democrats in Congress will also try to pick up climate change legislation but focus it on efforts to strengthen coastal communities against future “superstorms,” reports The Guardian.
The draft version is open to public comment. The report is important, as it’s supposed to guide federal, state, and local efforts on climate change mitigation and adaptation. The voice of designers and planners of all kinds should be in the mix. Submit your ideas by April 12.
Image credit: NYC taxis submerged in floods / RT.com