Today, the US government released the fifth National Climate Assessment (NCA5), the latest government- and scientist-led look at our climate reality.
The report is one of the main tasks of US Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), driven by the climate change research mandates of the Global Change Research Act of 1990. The White House describes the latest release—and accompanying interactive website, podcast, brand new mapping tool, and first-of-its-kind online art exhibition – as an authoritative and definitive assessment of how the country is dealing with climate change.
In stark contrast to the Trump administration’s quiet rollout fourth national climate assessment in 2018, the Biden administration is inviting the world to see how far the country has come and the very long way it has to go. The report is an in-depth, information-rich study of the state of climate science, the human impact of a warming world, and the systems and tools used to address the country’s role in facilitating and addressing climate change. It’s also a blueprint for the kinds of massive investment needed to build a sustainable future.
It’s an onslaught of information that repeats longstanding scientific claims, such as the inevitable degradation of marine ecosystems, rising sea levels, and the fact that while the US has successfully reduced much of its CO2 emissions, it is still responsible for much of Earth’s warming — with a “Net Zero Emissions” reality far away.
But the report also provides information that has not been the primary focus of similar U.S. climate reports in the past, including expert thoughts on racial and environmental justice, Local climate solutionsand the mental health implications of climate change.
“While there are still uncertainties about how the planet will respond to rapid warming and catastrophic future scenarios that cannot be ruled out,” the report said, “the future is largely in the hands of humans.”
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2022 set a record for extreme weather events affecting Americans
Building on previous national climate assessments, the new report found that extreme events — such as drought, heat waves, hurricanes and wildfires — continue to increase in severity, extent and frequency, facilitated (according to mounting evidence) by human-induced modification of the climate.
It also documented the nation’s most extreme weather year on record, with 2022 setting the record for both the number and cost of weather-related disasters over the past four decades.
In 2022 alone, the report explains, the United States experienced 18 weather and climate disasters with damages exceeding $1 billion.
To put that into perspective, in the 1980s the country experienced an average of only three disasters of this magnitude per year. As of 2018, there have been one every three weeks or less, totaling $89 billion in events.
Credit: Boston Children’s Hospital, NOAA NCEI and CISESS NC
Black communities will bear the brunt of the flooding
As these extreme events increase, they will affect certain communities more than others. “Neighborhoods that are home to racial minorities and low-income people are at the highest risk of inland (river) flooding in the South, and black communities across the country are expected to bear a disproportionate share of future flood damage — both coastal and and domestic,” the report states.
This flood risk is partly due to exclusionary housing practices, which also affect the ability of these communities to adapt to other climate issues. Neighborhoods that lack urban green infrastructure (or “green amenities”) are, on average, 12°F hotter during a heat wave than, for example, more affluent neighborhoods.
Credit: NIEHS/Kelly Government Solutions and USGS/ASRC Federal Data Solutions; FG Trade/E+ via Getty Images; YinYang/E+ via Getty Images; Marc Dufresne/iStock via Getty Images
Tackling climate change is an urgent health issue
While the most visible effects of a warming climate involve the physical destruction of devastating weather events, other effects of climate change—including those caused by increased warm spells and deteriorating air quality—affect humans more insidiously.
“Health risks from a changing climate include higher levels of heat-related morbidity and mortality; increasing the geographic range of some infectious diseases; greater exposure to poor air quality; increases in some adverse pregnancy outcomes; higher rates of lung, neurological, and cardiovascular disease, and worsening mental health,” the report states. “These risks affect all U.S. residents, but have disproportionate consequences for under-resourced and overburdened communities and individuals, such as pregnant people, communities of color, children, people with disabilities, people experiencing homelessness, people with chronic illnesses and seniors.”
A warming climate is leading to degraded water and air quality, limited access to food and deaths from persistent drought, as well as changes in the “distribution, abundance and seasonality” of vector-borne diseases such as Lyme, dengue and West Nile. It also affects the transmission and severity of zoonotic diseases (those originating from animals) such as COVID-19, the report explains.
Credit: Los Alamos National Laboratory, CDC, Columbia University, University of Arizona, and University of Colorado
What’s more, the displacement of communities due to climate-related changes leads to mental and spiritual harm, the report argues. “These harms can arise from forced displacement and migration, trauma, loss of sense of place and belonging, and disruption of livelihoods, lifestyles, and social support systems,” the authors note.
“Mental health conditions, including anxiety, depression, and suicide, have become more prevalent in the U.S. over the past decade, especially among adolescents. Climate change may increase these mental health burdens.”
Indigenous self-determination is linked to climate change
In agreement with climate activists and community organizers, the report states that solutions to climate change must include the voices and cultural practices of local communities across the country (and the continent). “Many Indigenous people are environmental scientists with holistic understandings of the interconnected drivers of climate change and evidence of climate-related change and adaptation strategies. For generations, indigenous peoples have centered their knowledge of climate change in their cultures, political organizations, and arts.”
But the report puts it even more directly: Indigenous-led climate solutions and community resilience can only be achieved alongside continued investment in their self-determination. This is manifested in the right of the community to facilitate the transition to renewable energy; taking over the resource management practices of lands, waters, and other resources that are currently under federal or state oversight; or even access to culturally relevant climate science data.
“Today, indigenous climate and energy initiatives are often organized as movements to protect and advance the rights of indigenous peoples,” the report states. “These include the rights of self-determination regarding responses to climate change in their territories—rights that are critical to local people’s efforts to choose the best ways to maintain their health, economic vitality, educational institutions, environmental quality environment, governance, cultural continuity and spiritual traditions. “
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Climate justice is possible
The Fifth National Climate Assessment describes the continued development of our understanding of climate change and the progress of climate science, including how slow government and industry responses have exacerbated environmental, economic and social inequalities. It also points out how seemingly positive policies to address displacement and migration, the rise of urban green infrastructure, and the transition to more sustainable energy can have a disproportionately negative impact on low-income and communities of color.
“Fossil fuel-based energy systems have placed disproportionate public health burdens on communities of color and/or low-income communities. These same communities are also disproportionately affected by the impacts of climate change. “Social systems determine who is deemed deserving of local, state, and federal interventions to address climate impacts,” the report states. “Even when all citizens are treated equally under the law, different outcomes can occur if the law ignores structural inequalities.”
Contrary to growing political and environmental nihilism, however, the report’s authors conclude that climate justice — a human rights approach to climate solutions that focuses on historical and current inequality to create equal access to jobs, environmental goods, and quality of life — is still very very possible, with a focus on inclusive climate mitigation strategies and a focus on a “just transition” to a green economy.
“Through complex interactions, conscious and unconscious tendencies and biases, and visible and invisible social rules, social systems distribute climate risks and benefits; they also create opportunities for climate adaptation and mitigation to be anticipated and acted upon.”