The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is out, and the findings are grim: climate change is affecting every corner of the planet, and dangerous and costly impacts are coming earlier and are more widespread and extensive than previously thought. And the United States is not immune to these impacts: the IPCC found that rising temperatures and extreme weather are already disrupting everything from food production to supply chain infrastructure to the spread of some diseases.
For many Americans, this won’t come as a surprise, as they are seeing their hometowns and backyards change before their eyes and being hurt in many ways — in their wallets as they struggle to rebuild homes and businesses after record hurricanes and flooding, in their lungs as the orange haze of wildfire smoke chokes more communities for more days each year, and in their mental health as people grieve what they have lost and stress over what the future may hold.
However, it’s crucial to remember that the future hasn’t been written yet. While significant impacts from climate change are already occurring and additional damages are now inevitable, how quickly we curb emissions of heat-trapping pollution and how well we prepare for and respond to those impacts will determine the extent of the harm. To that end, the U.S. government has an obligation to not only meet its national emissions-reduction goals, but to dedicate significant funding to help people adapt to changes when they can — and cope with consequences when they can’t.
From my home in Berkeley, California, I’ve seen how the near-constant threat of dangerous wildfires has become the “new normal” across the American West. This is part of a global trend exacerbated by climate change according to “Spreading Like Wildfire,” a new report from the United Nations Environment Program. As droughts become more common, longer-lasting and more extreme, fire season is no longer a thing; we are seeing that fires can break out in any month of the year. In Boulder County, Colorado, a devastating late December fire destroyed more than 1,000 homes in an area already experiencing a housing crunch. In California, even after record snow and rain in December, the new year brought hot and dry weather — including a heat warning for Los Angeles during Super Bowl weekend — and led to the outbreak of multiple short-lived fires, including the Sycamore and Emerald fires in Southern California and the Airport fire in the Eastern Sierras. As wildfires morph from a seasonal hazard to a non-stop threat to life and property, the human and economic costs will continue to mount.
Elsewhere in the country, other climate impacts pose the biggest threats. Sea-level rise is causing more frequent flooding in low-lying cities, including Miami and New York, and encroaching on barrier islands such as Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana — the first town to receive federal funding for residents’ relocation (in 2016) which has now been almost entirely abandoned after further damage from Hurricane Ida last year. In Alaska, melting ice and permafrost is already displacing many Alaskan Native communities, several of which are in the process of being relocated. By 2100, as many as 13 million people living in U.S. coastal regions could be displaced by climate change. Furthermore, as people migrate to safer geographies, it will set off a chain reaction of other impacts, including changing demographics and shifts in where jobs and housing are most needed.
We no longer have the option to choose whether to cut emissions, adapt to climate impacts or figure out how to manage damaging consequences that are impossible to avoid. We must do some of each. And if we act with the urgency that science requires, we can seize the opportunities inherent in climate solutions and avoid the worst outcomes. Congress must do its part by passing a climate-smart budget package that includes essential clean energy incentives, investments in resilience and funding to reduce damaging wildfires and restore healthy forests. These investments will not only protect communities but grow local economies and create more than 260,000 good-paying clean energy and land-use jobs per year in rural communities that are often at the frontlines of climate-fueled natural disasters.
America is fortunate to have the resources to respond quickly when disaster strikes, although FEMA and other agencies will need bolstering as climate-related disasters become even more costly. The United States also has a moral responsibility and strategic imperative to increase funding for vulnerable countries that are also experiencing devastating climate impacts but have far fewer resources than we do to protect themselves. The IPCC report shows that it is too late to avoid some significant damages from climate change, but it is never too late to make smart choices among the options available to us now.