Climate Change Already Affects Every American—Report

(3Bl Media/Justmeans) - There is an area in the southeastern U.S., running from Georgia west to Oklahoma and from Louisiana north through Tennessee, that has experienced a slight decline in temperatures over the past twenty years. Other pockets in the Upper Midwest and extreme Southwest and elsewhere have seen temperature increases of greater than two degrees Fahrenheit. The rest of the country has experienced a temperature rise of between one and two degrees.

If those numbers don’t seem too worrisome, consider the fact that the additional heat retained in the atmosphere has led to droughts, flooding, record temperatures every year and severe storms. The oceans have risen due to the expansion of warmed water, with the addition of melted ice. The loss of snow cover reduces the amount of heat reflected back into space. Perhaps the most dangerous mechanism is the fact that warmer air can hold more moisture than cooler air. This has two impacts. First, since water vapor is itself a greenhouse gas, this raises the temperature even further. But once all that moisture is in the atmosphere, it is free to move around, depriving some regions while drenching others.

It seems as if, our weather, like our politics, has become more extreme and more polarized, with some areas getting wetter and others getting drier.

Precipitation changes have been ranging from a 15% drop in certain drought-prone areas like Arizona and Georgia to a 15% increase in New England and the Upper Midwest. Overall, precipitation has risen by around 3% on average.

The scientific basis linking extreme weather events, such as heat waves and heavy downpours with climate changed has strengthened, according to University of Illinois climate scientist Donald Wuebbles, one of the report’s lead authors.

All of this information and much more are contained in a new National Climate Assessment report that was released by the White House this week. The 800-page report, which took eight years to produce, relies on contributions from hundreds of scientists. The scientists are projecting that by the end of this century, the temperature will likely be five degrees higher, even if we act aggressively. If we fail to act, the temperature rise could be as much as ten degrees.

Coal and oil burning are responsible for roughly 2/3 of greenhouse gases, with most of the rest coming from natural gas, cement production and loss of forest cover.

AP Reporter Seth Borenstein says, “ America, the Beautiful, is becoming America, the stormy, the sneezy and the dangerous.” (video)

Probably the biggest impact has been the increase in precipitation, particularly in the Eastern part of the country. While, more rain could be helpful, the proportion of precipitation categorized as torrential, has increased by 71% in the Northeast. Torrential rains not only lead to flooding, but much of the water runs off before it has a chance to soak into the ground.

The mid-Atlantic region, which is expected to see an additional 60 days per year topping 90 degrees, starting mid-century, is also expected to experience considerable flooding.

Sea level rise is now being estimated at somewhere between one and six feet by the end of the century.

Further north, where temperature is increasing faster than anywhere else, there is permafrost, which is holding tremendous reserves of methane. That is beginning to thaw. As those reserves are released, the heat trapping potential of the atmosphere will increase even further.

Many of the effects seen to date seem harmless, if not outright benign: longer growing seasons, shorter winters, longer and hotter summer, plants flowering and birds arriving earlier than before. These all belie the larger changes occurring in the atmosphere that can lead to sudden and severe events. In mid-April alone, thirty-eight people in eight states died as the direct result of severe weather.

These relatively small impacts are the tip of the iceberg. The perceptual gap is helping to forestall action.  Richard B. Alley, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University who was not involved with the report, said, “ the costs so far are still on the low side compared to what will be coming under business as usual by late in this century.”

What we can expect are an increasing number of wildfires and major impacts on our agricultural system caused by both heat and drought. Already, the 2012 cherry crop in Michigan was lost due to drought, at a cost of $220 million. The droughts also pose a longer term threat to our soils.

Forests are a key ally in this battle, absorbing tremendous amounts of CO2 as part of their natural growth process. However, forest cover is expected to peak by mid-century, declining due to drought, fires, and invasive insect pests that are moving north with the warm weather into a promised land that is devoid of predators.

Study authors were far from unified on their overall outlook. While some authors, like Cornell University professor, Drew Harvell, found the report “very, very, very conservative,” in its assessment  of potential impacts, David Wolfe, also from Cornell, found reasons for optimism in the level of investment taking place in things like renewable energy.

Predictably, conservatives like Senator James Inhofe are brushing aside the findings, instead narrowly focusing on the fact that taking action to try and save the planet could lead to financial impacts in the oil and gas industry. He calls the report an attempt by President Obama, “to once again distract Americans from his unchecked regulatory agenda that is costing our nation millions of job opportunities and our ability to be energy-independent.”

While it would certainly be convenient, as Al Gore pointed out years ago, for oil companies and many others if this weren’t happening, most industry players recognize, even as they continue funding the denial machine, that keeping their heads in the sand on this issue could have catastrophic impacts for them.

Our energy and transportation industries are already undergoing tremendous transformation and there is plenty of money to be made by those who are ready and willing to align themselves in the direction that the science is pointing.

Still, as another recent study has shown, Americans are less concerned about climate change than any of our counterparts in the developed world. We tend to be slow to wake up, but once we get moving we’ve shown that we can be pretty effective. Here’s hoping we collectively wake up soon.

[Image credit:Rudolph Viček: Flickr Creative Commons]

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