Climate Crisis Threatens Every Aspect of American Life, Report Warns

Jared Mott
Glen Canyon dam - credit Anne Phillips, USGS

The latest draft of the National Climate Assessment paints a dire portrait of how life in America has already been impacted by accelerated climate change and how perilous it might become unless urgent action is taken.

The document represents the fifth installment of the National Climate Assessment, a congressionally mandated report produced by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. The draft was released in November, ahead of global leaders gathering in Egypt for the United Nations Climate Summit (the 27th Conference of the Parties, or COP27). It will be finalized next year.

Some of the report’s key takeaways:

U.S. Warms Faster than the Global Average

Earth has already experienced warming of a bit more than 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), but the U.S. is warming faster than the global average. To limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (about 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit), the U.S. must reach “net-zero” carbon emissions by 2050. To reach this goal, our emissions must fall by six percent each year. But over the course of nearly two decades, between 2007 and 2019, emissions fell just 12 percent.

Climate Disasters Are Getting Worse

Immediate action can still greatly improve our outlook and blunt the worst impacts of a warming planet.

The impacts of the climate crisis – like extreme heatwaves, historic drought, catastrophic wildfires and intensifying tropical cyclones – are already being felt throughout the United States today. But they will continue to get more intense so long as emissions rise.

The report’s authors write that these types of disasters will become even more frequent and severe unless immediate action is taken to drastically limit emissions that contribute to a warming climate. And these disasters are becoming even more costly.

“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.”

Hits the Most Vulnerable the Hardest

The draft report says that the effects of climate change are felt most by communities that are, “already overburdened, including Indigenous peoples, people of color, and low-income communities,” creating a cycle of worsening inequality.

These disproportionate outcomes will exacerbate historical discriminatory policies like redlining and displacement of disadvantaged communities into the least-valuable, often low-lying areas that are more prone to flooding, extreme heat and air pollution.

Threatens Everything Americans Hold Dear

The effects of climate change will cut to the core of the American dream.

“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.”

Exacerbates the Water Crisis

The report lays out how droughts will continue to become more frequent and more intense due to rampant burning of fossil fuels.

“Recent droughts have strained surface and groundwater supplies, reduced agricultural productivity, and lowered water levels in major reservoirs, threatening hydropower generation.” In Arizona, reduced water from the Colorado River flowing into Glen Canyon threatens electricity supplies to 4.5 million Americans in the Southwest.

The country’s aquifers are also threatened as they become “vulnerable to over-pumping” and other water sources are depleted.

Drought is also hitting Americans in the pocketbook. “Between 1980 and 2021, drought and related heatwaves across the country caused $291.1 billion (in 2021 dollars) in damages,” the report says.

Displaced Populations, Drag on the Economy

A worsening climate crisis will displace millions of people, ushering in a new era of forced migration. Factors like rising seas in Florida, wildfires in California and more frequent flooding in the South will lead to future migration within the United States.

Climate change is also expected to “reduce midcentury global economic output by 11 to 14 percent, or about $23 trillion,” according to the report.

Improvement Is Possible and Imperative

Despite these grim predictions, the draft report also finds that immediate action can still greatly improve our outlook and blunt the worst impacts of a warming planet. Echoing other recent reports, it asserts that the world is on course to warm less than had been projected over past decades, as emissions have been lowered.

However, we must continue to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions and prevent carbon from reaching our atmosphere to avoid the worst consequences documented in the report. Our progress so far shows that it can be done, but now it must be done on a greatly accelerated time scale.

The National Climate Assessment is produced every four or five years and summarizes the latest research and science relating to climate change in the United States. It provides context about the effects of climate change we’re living with already, and specific steps we have to take to make the future safer for the coming generations.

The draft of the Fifth National Climate Assessment is available for public comment until January 27, 2023, and will be finalized later that year. Review the draft.

This article was excerpted from Outdoor America 2022 issue #4. Want more articles like this? Join the League and get four issues of our award-winning magazine every year.

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Top photo: A thirsty Colorado River feeds Lake Powell which supplies water to the Glen Canyon powerplant in Arizona. Further loss of water could affect power for 4.5 million Americans. Credit: Anne Phillips, USGS.

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