Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor, climate journalist and independent filmmaker whose work has won the Livingston Award, the IRE Award and others. He recently was appointed the Ted Turner Professor of Environmental Media at The George Washington University.
That’s one of the benefits of the National Climate Assessment, a new draft of which was released this week ahead of President Joe Biden’s trip to the UN’s climate summit in Egypt.
The federal report paints a dire picture of what life is now like in America amid the climate crisis, and the incredible changes in store in the future. And it outlines some painful truths about global warming we must confront, but so far have not.
The COP27 climate summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, along with recent advances in US climate policy, may give the impression the world is doing something about an existential crisis, and we’re taking it seriously. The truth is, global emissions continue to rise, and will continue to do so for at least the next several years, even as scientists warn fossil fuel use must be slashed immediately.
In the meantime, the report’s authors write, “the things Americans value most are at risk.”
The National Climate Assessment, which is a congressionally-mandated report the federal government releases every four or five years, summarizes all the latest science and research on climate change in the United States. The new draft, which will go through a long period of public review before it is officially published next year, provides vital context about the very real pain the climate crisis is causing in the United States today, and how far we are from creating a world safe for future generations.
It is both familiar – as we have lived with these impacts for years now – and devastating to see it laid out in such stark synthesis.
Here are the report’s key takeaways:
The US is warming faster than the global average
The world already has warmed a little more than 1 degree Celsius, according to the report, with the US warming faster than the global average.
The goal of the Paris Agreement — which is being discussed this week in Egypt — is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or at most to 2 degrees Celsius. To do it, the US needs to reach “net-zero” carbon emissions by about 2050, which will require a total clean energy transformation, and will likely require technology to suck our previous planet-warming emissions back out of the atmosphere.
For the United States to reach net-zero by 2050, the country’s emissions need to fall by a whopping 6% per year. US emissions fell just 12% over the course of nearly two decades between 2007 and 2019.
Climate disasters are getting worse
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The impacts of the climate crisis are already being felt throughout the United States today, and they will continue to get more intense as long as planet-warming emissions rise, which is code for as long as we’re burning fossil fuels for heat and electricity, and chopping down forests.
“Many extremes, including heatwaves, heavy precipitation, drought, flooding, wildfire, and tropical cyclones/hurricanes, are becoming more frequent and severe due to climate change,” the report’s authors write.
And the disasters are costly, both in terms of lives and dollars.
“In the 1980s, the country experienced on average one (inflation-adjusted) billion-dollar [extreme weather] event every four months,” the draft report states. “Now, there is one every three weeks, on average.”
It hits our most vulnerable the hardest
The climate crisis is creating a “cycle of worsening inequality,” one federal policies helped to create.
“The effects of climate change are felt most strongly by communities that are already overburdened, including Indigenous peoples, people of color, and low-income communities,” the report says.
“These frontline communities experience harmful climate impacts first and worst, yet are often the least responsible for the greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change … Historical discriminatory policies such as redlining and displacement of Indigenous peoples forced communities of color into the least-valuable, often low-lying areas that are now more vulnerable to flooding, extreme heat, and air pollution from fossil fuel facilities and industry.”
The crisis threatens all the things we hold dear
The climate crisis cuts at the core of who we are as people.
“The things Americans value most are at risk,” the report says. “More intense extreme events and long-term climate changes make it harder to maintain safe homes and healthy families, reliable public services, a sustainable economy, thriving ecosystems, and strong communities. Many of the harmful impacts that people across the country are already experiencing will worsen as warming increases, and new risks will emerge.”
It’s exacerbating the water crisis
The rampant burning of fossil fuels is contributing to a worsening US water crisis. The report lays out how droughts will continue to become more intense and more frequent, “most notably in the Southwest.”
“Between 1980 and 2021, drought and related heatwaves across the country caused $291.1 billion (in 2021 dollars) in damages,” the report notes. “Recent droughts have strained surface and groundwater supplies, reduced agricultural productivity, and lowered water levels in major reservoirs, threatening hydropower generation.”
The report’s authors highlight the threat to the country’s aquifers — massive reservoirs of underground water built up over thousands of years — which are “particularly vulnerable to over-pumping.”
It’s playing a role in migration and economic woes
Climate change is bringing about a new era of forced migration, and “millions of people” are expected to be displaced in the United States.
Factors leading to future migration within the US include wildfires in California, rising seas in Florida and more frequent flooding in the South, according to the report.
The global economy is also in jeopardy. Global warming is expected to “reduce midcentury global economic output by 11% to 14%,” or about $23 trillion, according to the report.
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Keep the hard facts in mind as you hear President Biden and other world leaders discussing climate action at the COP27 climate summit and beyond.
There is a 50-50 chance the world will at least temporarily hit 1.5 degrees in the next five years, according to a recent report by the World Meteorological Organization. To prevent it from happening, global leaders and private industry would need to move at the scale and intensity of the mobilization of resources for World War II, said Daniel Schrag, director of the Harvard University Center for the Environment.
It doesn’t mean it’s OK to throw up our hands.
“It’s really important to realize that 1.5 (degrees of warming) was never safe and 2.2 (degrees) is not the end of the world,” Schrag said. “What I mean by that is there is no point where you throw up your hands and say, ‘Oh, we lost!’ … It’s never time to give up.”