Powerful storm surges flooding the east coast and causing mudslides. Fires engulfing full cities into flames. Extreme heat waves causing our fisheries to crash at sea and massive crop deaths due to drought on land. The Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) warns of this potential ‘Biological Armageddon’ and states that unless we make changes to how we approach climate change on a national level, these, among much worse consequences will become a reality. This assessment is a result of 300 experts and a multitude of federal agencies, collaborating in order to summarize the impacts of climate change on the United States today and in the future. It started about 30 years ago when President Ronald Reagan proposed the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP) in order to understand, evaluate, predict, and react to natural and human-induced processes of global climate change. President George H.W. Bush formally mandated this when he was sworn into office.
USGCRP created the National Climate Assessments as a means to do just that: inform the public on how climate change was affecting the United States. Even though this was 30 years ago, today we have still not substantially put our efforts into curbing the dramatic effects of climate change. Now more than ever, we are beginning to see these shifts in our ecosystems really take hold of our everyday lives. Three consequences of climate change that will become very personal in the coming years are addressed in this assessment: food production, communities, and the U.S. economy.
Impact on Food Production
The report warns that if we continue on our current path, food insecurity will rise. Periods of heavy downpours, drought, extreme heat, and wildfires are expected to increasingly disrupt existing agricultural processes such as lowering crop yields/quality and decreasing cattle ranges/health. If farmers are harvesting less food, then the prices of that food will grow substantially. Water insecurity will rise as well as heavy precipitation increases runoff which can also increase pollution in rivers and lakes. That, along with a lower level of dissolved oxygen, is bad news for aquatic organisms trying to persist within these systems, which is also bad news for the people wanting to eat them.
Impact on Human Communities
In the form of community structure, these extreme weather events will increase the wealth gap in the United States. We have already seen evidence of this with present natural disasters such as the Camp Fire in California and Hurricane Florence on the east coast. Low-income and indigenous communities are much more at risk because they have a lower capacity to prepare and cope with extreme weather events. For example, due to climate change, locations that weren’t previously within flood zones are now considered at-risk areas, but in many states, climate change is not taken into consideration when making coastal development plans. So, after a natural disaster such as Florence, many people are returning to their communities with nothing. No home and no way to pay to fix it or move. Many have had their place of work destroyed as well, and these are people who live paycheck to paycheck.
Impact on the Economy
Lastly, climate change is expected to lower our economy by increasing the losses of American infrastructure, increasing export/import prices for fish, and negatively effecting the tourism industry. The report states that extreme weather in the last 3 years has cost our country $400 billion in damage and the climate is already changing faster than previous models predicted. That means on our current path this number is expected to keep growing year after year. By 2020 it is expected that coastal damages will cost $120 billion. For example, the frequency at which regularly dry areas in Miami have become substantially flooded occurred 5-10 times per year in previous years, which was easily manageable by the city. Now the flooding has reached a frequency of 30-40 times per year due to overall sea level rise. That has increasingly negative effects on tourism and revenue overall.
These three components are not independent of one another. Our ecosystems are interconnected and when one component declines, such as our agricultural production or our water’s oxygen levels, other components follow such as an increased rate of fires or fishery crashes. The report stresses that if we don’t approach these systems as connected to one another and mitigate risk by adapting our practices, then these cascading impacts can threaten essential services within and outside of the nation’s borders. Finally, the report emphasizes that although many states or communities individually are taking steps in order to combat climate change, we as a country need to take this problem more seriously so that we can avoid this ‘Biological Armageddon’.
Article by Tatiana Eaves
cover image: courtesy of NOAA