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Landmark report shows US is already feeling climate impacts

Farmers are among the new faces of climate change impacts.

Farmers are among the new faces of climate change impacts. Creative Commons: USDA, 2014

The US government’s newest climate assessment reports that the impacts of a changing climate are already being felt across the entire nation. According to the report, these impacts will only continue to grow more severe if governments around the world continue to postpone crucial action to rein in runaway climate change.

Released Tuesday, the third National Climate Assessment (NCA) report reiterates many of the findings from decades of climate science. Wet areas in the United States are getting wetter—fueling flooding and crop disruption, while drier areas, such as those in the country’s southwest, are experiencing sizzling temperatures, prolonged droughts, and an epidemic of wildfires.

The report was produced by more than 300 scientists and other experts, including members of local, state and federal governments as well as representatives from the private sector. Like the recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the National Climate Assessment acknowledges that many impacts from climate change are already being felt.

Indeed, the report focuses on the myriad impacts of climate change in the US that are happening right now. For example, it details how climate change has impacted community planning across the nation—from water managers in arid metropolitan areas to coastal planners along the Gulf of Mexico to city planners charged with erecting urban flood barriers along the hurricane-prone Atlantic coast.

The report shows how the changing climate has already come to affect nearly every part of the American landscape and economy. Poor air quality; the spread of food-borne, water-borne, and insect-borne diseases; and extreme weather events are already claiming casualties. Meanwhile, entire ecosystems have been disrupted, disproportionally imperiling native communities.

Perhaps most importantly, climate change is already beginning to interfere with agriculture—raising food prices across the country and the world.

California, which produces nearly half of the fruit and vegetables consumed in the US, is in the midst of a historic three-year drought, which has left no part of the state untouched. While communities in the American West plan for water shortages and farmers leave their fields unplanted, prices for wheat and other crops are skyrocketing.

In a prepared statement on the NCA, US Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said:

Across the country, farmers, ranchers and forest landowners are also seeing an increase in risks to their operations due to fires, increases in invasive pests, droughts, and floods. In the Midwest, growing seasons have lengthened, the western fire season is now longer, and forests will become increasingly threatened by insect outbreaks, fire, drought and storms over the next 50 years. These events threaten America’s food supply and are costly for producers and rural economies.

Apocalyptic events such as out-of-control wildfires and deadly heat waves will continue to grow in severity as global warming continues. Average temperatures in the US have gone up between 1.3 and 1.9 degrees Fahrenheit since record-keeping began, with much of that increase occurring in the last few decades.

Environmental organizations in the US and elsewhere have already begun to herald the report as yet another important account of the dangers of unchecked extraction and combustion of oil, coal, and natural gas.

Ken Berlin, President and CEO of the Climate Reality Project, used the release of the report to drive home the price of global warming, noting that recent agricultural impacts, disaster relief, and public health measures related to the changing climate show that “the cost of carbon pollution is real and growing.”

Meanwhile, others in environmental circles pushed for the report to inform the forthcoming Enivironmental Protection Agency (EPA) rules to regulate carbon dioxide emissions from existing power plants. These rules are seen as the most critical part of the Obama administration’s emissions reductions strategy.

Carol Browner of the left-leaning think tank Center for American Progress said:

The NCA underscores the urgency to address climate change and the biggest step the administration can take is to set the strongest possible limits next month when they unveil the first-ever limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants.

Regulators at the EPA have been laboring to create rules that are strong enough to significantly cut carbon pollution, but not so strong as to shutdown coal-fired plants before enough alternative power sources can be installed to replace them. EPA staff members have held more than 300 meetings and received over 10,000 pieces of feedback—even before the rules have even been drafted.

If successful, though, the rules could be a watershed moment for climate action. By cutting coal plant emissions the US could begin to slow climate-related impacts such as those described in the NCA. By demonstrating a concrete commitment to reducing emissions, the US would also set the stage for an ambitious climate treaty at the 2015 UN Conference of the Parties in Paris.

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