|Virtually Certain||Extremely Likely||Very Likely||Likely||About as Likely as Not||Unlikely||Very Unikely||Extremely Unlikely||Exceptionally Unlikely|
|Strong evidence (established theory, multiple sources, consistent results, well documented and accepted methods, etc.), high consensus||Moderate evidence (several sources, some consistency, methods vary and/or documentation limited, etc.), medium consensus||Suggestive evidence (a few sources, limited consistency, models incomplete, methods emerging, etc.), competing schools of thought||Inconclusive evidence (limited sources, extrapolations, inconsistent findings, poor documentation and/or methods not tested, etc.), disagreement or lack of opinions among experts|
Documenting Uncertainty: This assessment relies on two metrics to communicate the degree of certainty in Key Findings. See Guide to this Report for more on assessments of likelihood and confidence.
<b>Jay</b>, A., D.R. Reidmiller, C.W. Avery, D. Barrie, B.J. DeAngelo, A. Dave, M. Dzaugis, M. Kolian, K.L.M. Lewis, K. Reeves, and D. Winner, 2018: Overview. In <i>Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II</i> [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, pp. 33–71. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.CH1
Earth’s climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities. The impacts of global climate change are already being felt in the United States and are projected to intensify in the future—but the severity of future impacts will depend largely on actions taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the changes that will occur. Americans increasingly recognize the risks climate change poses to their everyday lives and livelihoods and are beginning to respond (Figure 1.1). Water managers in the Colorado River Basin have mobilized users to conserve water in response to ongoing drought intensified by higher temperatures, and an extension program in Nebraska is helping ranchers reduce drought and heat risks to their operations. The state of Hawai‘i is developing management options to promote coral reef recovery from widespread bleaching events caused by warmer waters that threaten tourism, fisheries, and coastal protection from wind and waves. To address higher risks of flooding from heavy rainfall, local governments in southern Louisiana are pooling hazard reduction funds, and cities and states in the Northeast are investing in more resilient water, energy, and transportation infrastructure. In Alaska, a tribal health organization is developing adaptation strategies to address physical and mental health challenges driven by climate change and other environmental changes. As Midwestern farmers adopt new management strategies to reduce erosion and nutrient losses caused by heavier rains, forest managers in the Northwest are developing adaptation strategies in response to wildfire increases that affect human health, water resources, timber production, fish and wildlife, and recreation. After extensive hurricane damage fueled in part by a warmer atmosphere and warmer, higher seas, communities in Texas are considering ways to rebuild more resilient infrastructure. In the U.S. Caribbean, governments are developing new frameworks for storm recovery based on lessons learned from the 2017 hurricane season.
Climate-related risks will continue to grow without additional action. Decisions made today determine risk exposure for current and future generations and will either broaden or limit options to reduce the negative consequences of climate change. While Americans are responding in ways that can bolster resilience and improve livelihoods, neither global efforts to mitigate the causes of climate change nor regional efforts to adapt to the impacts currently approach the scales needed to avoid substantial damages to the U.S. economy, environment, and human health and well-being over the coming decades.
Click on a region to see more details on a regional impact and the actions taken to address it.
Wildfire increases and associated smoke are affecting human health, water resources, timber production, fish and wildlife, and recreation.
Federal forests have developed adaptation strategies for climate change that include methods to address increasing wildfire risks.
Flash droughts and extreme heat illustrate sustainability challenges for ranching operations, with emergent impacts on rural prosperity and mental health.
The National Drought Mitigation Center is helping ranchers plan to reduce drought and heat risks to their operations.
Increasing heavy rains are leading to more soil erosion and nutrient loss on Midwestern cropland.
Iowa State developed a program for using prairie strips in farm fields to reduce soil and nutrient loss while increasing biodiversity.
Water, energy, and transportation infrastructure are affected by snow storms, drought, heat waves, and flooding.
Cities and states throughout the region are assessing their vulnerability to climate change and making investments to increase infrastructure resilience.
Drought in the Colorado River basin reduced Lake Mead by over half since 2000, increasing risk of water shortages for cities, farms, and ecosystems.
Seven U.S. state governments and U.S. and Mexico federal governments mobilized users to conserve water, keeping the lake above a critical level.
Hurricane Harvey’s landfall on the Texas coast in 2017 was one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas was created to support the economic recovery and rebuilding of infrastructure in affected Texas communities.
Flooding in Louisiana is increasing from extreme rainfall.
The Acadiana Planning Commission in Louisiana is pooling hazard reduction funds to address increasing flood risk.
The physical and mental health of rural Alaskans is increasingly challenged by unpredictable weather and other environmental changes.
The Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium's Center for Climate and Health is using novel adaptation strategies to reduce climate-related risks including difficulty in harvesting local foods and more hazardous travel conditions.
The 2015 coral bleaching event resulted in an average mortality of 50% of the coral cover in western Hawai‘i alone.
A state working group generated management options to promote recovery and reduce threats to coral reefs.
Damages from the 2017 hurricanes have been compounded by the slow recovery of energy, communications, and transportation systems, impacting all social and economic sectors.
The U.S. Virgin Islands Governor’s Office led a workshop aimed at gathering lessons from the initial hurricane response and establishing a framework for recovery and resilience.
Climate shapes where and how we live and the environment around us. Natural ecosystems, agricultural systems, water resources, and the benefits they provide to society are adapted to past climate conditions and their natural range of variability. A water manager may use past or current streamflow records to design a dam, a city could issue permits for coastal development based on current flood maps, and an electric utility or a farmer may invest in equipment suited to the current climate, all with the expectation that their investments and management practices will meet future needs.
However, the assumption that current and future climate conditions will resemble the recent past is no longer valid (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 2). Observations collected around the world provide significant, clear, and compelling evidence that global average temperature is much higher, and is rising more rapidly, than anything modern civilization has experienced, with widespread and growing impacts (Figure 1.2) (CSSR, Ch. 1.9). The warming trend observed over the past century can only be explained by the effects that human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse gases, have had on the climate (Ch. 2: Climate, KM 1 and Figure 2.1).
Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us. Risks posed by climate variability and change vary by region and sector and by the vulnerability of people experiencing impacts. Social, economic, and geographic factors shape the exposure of people and communities to climate-related impacts and their capacity to respond. Risks are often highest for those that are already vulnerable, including low-income communities, some communities of color, children, and the elderly (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 2; Ch. 15: Tribes, KM 1–3; Ch. 28: Adaptation, Introduction). Climate change threatens to exacerbate existing social and economic inequalities that result in higher exposure and sensitivity to extreme weather and climate-related events and other changes (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 1). Marginalized populations may also be affected disproportionately by actions to address the underlying causes and impacts of climate change, if they are not implemented under policies that consider existing inequalities (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 4; Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 4).
This report draws a direct connection between the warming atmosphere and the resulting changes that affect Americans’ lives, communities, and livelihoods, now and in the future. It documents vulnerabilities, risks, and impacts associated with natural climate variability and human-caused climate change across the United States and provides examples of response actions underway in many communities. It concludes that the evidence of human-caused climate change is overwhelming and continues to strengthen, that the impacts of climate change are intensifying across the country, and that climate-related threats to Americans’ physical, social, and economic well-being are rising. These impacts are projected to intensify—but how much they intensify will depend on actions taken to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions and to adapt to the risks from climate change now and in the coming decades (Ch. 28: Adaptation, Introduction; Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 3 and 4).
Observations from around the world show the widespread effects of increasing greenhouse gas concentrations on Earth’s climate. High temperature extremes and heavy precipitation events are increasing. Glaciers and snow cover are shrinking, and sea ice is retreating. Seas are warming, rising, and becoming more acidic, and marine species are moving to new locations toward cooler waters. Flooding is becoming more frequent along the U.S. coastline. Growing seasons are lengthening, and wildfires are increasing. These and many other changes are clear signs of a warming world (Figure 1.2) (Ch. 2: Climate, Box 2.2; App. 3: Data & Scenarios, see also the USGCRP Indicators and EPA Indicators websites).
Click on a topic or on the thumbnails below the image to see a relevant indicator.
Scientists have understood the fundamental physics of climate change for almost 200 years. In the 1850s, researchers demonstrated that carbon dioxide and other naturally occurring greenhouse gases in the atmosphere prevent some of the heat radiating from Earth’s surface from escaping to space: this is known as the greenhouse effect. This natural greenhouse effect warms the planet’s surface about 60°F above what it would be otherwise, creating a habitat suitable for life. Since the late 19th century, however, humans have released an increasing amount of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere through burning fossil fuels and, to a lesser extent, deforestation and land-use change. As a result, the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, the largest contributor to human-caused warming, has increased by about 40% over the industrial era. This change has intensified the natural greenhouse effect, driving an increase in global surface temperatures and other widespread changes in Earth’s climate that are unprecedented in the history of modern civilization.
Global climate is also influenced by natural factors that determine how much of the sun’s energy enters and leaves Earth’s atmosphere and by natural climate cycles that affect temperatures and weather patterns in the short term, especially regionally (see Ch. 2: Climate, Box 2.1). However, the unambiguous long-term warming trend in global average temperature over the last century cannot be explained by natural factors alone. Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are the only factors that can account for the observed warming over the last century; there are no credible alternative human or natural explanations supported by the observational evidence. Without human activities, the influence of natural factors alone would actually have had a slight cooling effect on global climate over the last 50 years (Ch. 2: Climate, KM 1, Figure 2.1).
Greenhouse gas emissions from human activities will continue to affect Earth’s climate for decades and even centuries. Humans are adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate far greater than it is removed by natural processes, creating a long-lived reservoir of the gas in the atmosphere and oceans that is driving the climate to a warmer and warmer state. Some of the other greenhouse gases released by human activities, such as methane, are removed from the atmosphere by natural processes more quickly than carbon dioxide; as a result, efforts to cut emissions of these gases could help reduce the rate of global temperature increases over the next few decades. However, longer-term changes in climate will largely be determined by emissions and atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and other longer-lived greenhouse gases (Ch. 2: Climate, KM 2).
Climate models representing our understanding of historical and current climate conditions are often used to project how our world will change under future conditions (see Ch. 2: Climate, Box 2.7). “Climate” is defined as weather conditions over multiple decades, and climate model projections are generally not designed to capture annual or even decadal variation in climate conditions. Instead, projections are typically used to capture long-term changes, such as how the climate system will respond to changes in greenhouse gas levels over this century. Scientists test climate models by comparing them to current observations and historical changes. Confidence in these models is based, in part, on how well they reproduce these observed changes. Climate models have proven remarkably accurate in simulating the climate change we have experienced to date, particularly in the past 60 years or so when we have greater confidence in observations (see CSSR, Ch. 4.3.1). The observed signals of a changing climate continue to become stronger and clearer over time, giving scientists increased confidence in their findings even since the Third National Climate Assessment was released in 2014.
Today, the largest uncertainty in projecting future climate conditions is the level of greenhouse gas emissions going forward. Future global greenhouse gas emissions levels and resulting impacts depend on economic, political, and demographic factors that can be difficult to predict with confidence far into the future. Like previous climate assessments, NCA4 relies on a suite of possible scenarios to evaluate the implications of different climate outcomes and associated impacts throughout the 21st century. These “Representative Concentration Pathways” (RCPs) capture a range of potential greenhouse gas emissions pathways and associated atmospheric concentration levels through 2100.
RCPs drive climate model projections for temperature, precipitation, sea level, and other variables under futures that have either lower or higher greenhouse gas emissions. RCPs are numbered according to changes in radiative forcing by 2100 relative to preindustrial conditions: +2.6, +4.5, +6.0, or +8.5 watts per square meter (W/m2). Each RCP leads to a different level of projected global temperature change; higher numbers indicate greater projected temperature change and associated impacts. The higher scenario (RCP8.5) represents a future where annual greenhouse gas emissions increase significantly throughout the 21st century before leveling off by 2100, whereas the other RCPs represent more rapid and substantial mitigation by mid-century, with greater reductions thereafter. Current trends in annual greenhouse gas emissions, globally, are consistent with RCP8.5.
Of the two RCPs predominantly referenced throughout this report, the lower scenario (RCP4.5) envisions about 85% lower greenhouse gas emissions than the higher scenario (RCP8.5) by the end of the 21st century (see Ch. 2: Climate, Figure 2.2). In some cases, throughout this report, a very low scenario (RCP2.6) that represents more immediate, substantial, and sustained emissions reductions is considered. Each RCP could be consistent with a range of underlying socioeconomic conditions or policy choices. See the Scenario Products section of Appendix 3 in this report, as well as CSSR Chapters 4.2.1 and 10.2.1 for more detail.
The effects of different future greenhouse gas emissions levels on global climate become most evident around 2050, when temperature (Figure 1.3) (Ch. 2: Climate, Figure 2.2), precipitation, and sea level rise (Figure 1.4) (Ch. 2: Climate, Figure 2.3) projections based on each scenario begin to diverge significantly. With substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., consistent with the very low scenario [RCP2.6]), the increase in global annual average temperature relative to preindustrial times could be limited to less than 3.6°F (2°C) (Ch. 2: Climate, Box 2.4; CSSR, Ch. 4.2.1). Without significant greenhouse gas mitigation, the increase in global annual average temperature could reach 9°F or more by the end of this century (Ch. 2: Climate, KM 2). For some aspects of Earth’s climate system that take longer to respond to changes in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations, such as global sea level, some degree of long-term change will be locked in for centuries to come, regardless of the future scenario (see CSSR, Ch. 12.5.3). Early greenhouse gas emissions mitigation can reduce climate impacts in the nearer term (such as reducing the loss of arctic sea ice and the effects on species that use it) and in the longer term by avoiding critical thresholds (such as marine ice sheet instability and the resulting consequences for global sea level and coastal development; Ch. 29: Mitigation, Timing and Magnitude of Action).
Annual average temperatures in the United States are projected to continue to increase in the coming decades. Regardless of future scenario, additional increases in temperatures across the contiguous United States of at least 2.3°F relative to 1986–2015 are expected by the middle of this century. As a result, recent record-setting hot years are expected to become common in the near future. By late this century, increases of 2.3°–6.7°F are expected under a lower scenario (RCP4.5) and 5.4°–11.0°F under a higher scenario (RCP8.5) relative to 1986–2015 (Figure 1.3) (Ch. 2: Climate, KM 5, Figure 2.4). Alaska has warmed twice as fast as the global average since the mid-20th century; this trend is expected to continue (Ch. 26: Alaska, Background).
High temperature extremes, heavy precipitation events, high tide flooding events along the U.S. coastline, ocean acidification and warming, and forest fires in the western United States and Alaska are all projected to continue to increase, while land and sea ice cover, snowpack, and surface soil moisture are expected to continue to decline in the coming decades. These and other changes are expected to increasingly impact water resources, air quality, human health, agriculture, natural ecosystems, energy and transportation infrastructure, and many other natural and human systems that support communities across the country. The severity of these projected impacts, and the risks they present to society, is greater under futures with higher greenhouse gas emissions, especially if limited or no adaptation occurs (Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 2).
Some climate-related impacts, such as increasing health risks from extreme heat, are common to many regions of the United States (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1). Others represent more localized risks, such as infrastructure damage caused by thawing of permafrost (long-frozen ground) in Alaska or threats to coral reef ecosystems from warmer and more acidic seas in the U.S. Caribbean, as well as Hawai‘i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands (Ch. 26: Alaska, KM 2; Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, KM 2; Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 4). Risks vary by both a community’s exposure to physical climate impacts and by factors that influence its ability to respond to changing conditions and to recover from adverse weather and climate-related events such as extreme storms or wildfires (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 2; Ch. 15: Tribes, State of the Sector, KM 1 and 2; Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 4).
Many places are subject to more than one climate-related impact, such as extreme rainfall combined with coastal flooding, or drought coupled with extreme heat, wildfire, and flooding. The compounding effects of these impacts result in increased risks to people, infrastructure, and interconnected economic sectors (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 1). Impacts affecting interconnected systems can cascade across sectors and regions, creating complex risks and management challenges. For example, changes in the frequency, intensity, extent, and duration of wildfires can result in a higher instance of landslides that disrupt transportation systems and the flow of goods and services within or across regions (Box 1.3). Many observed impacts reveal vulnerabilities in these interconnected systems that are expected to be exacerbated as climate-related risks intensify. Under a higher scenario (RCP8.5), it is very likely that some impacts, such as the effects of ice sheet disintegration on sea level rise and coastal development, will be irreversible for many thousands of years, and others, such as species extinction, will be permanent (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, KM 1; Ch. 9: Oceans, KM 1; Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 2).
Without more significant global greenhouse gas mitigation and regional adaptation efforts, climate change is expected to cause substantial losses to infrastructure and property and impede the rate of economic growth over this century (Ch. 4: Energy, KM 1; Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1; Ch. 11: Urban, KM 2; Ch. 12: Transportation, KM 1; Regional Chapters 18–27). Regional economies and industries that depend on natural resources and favorable climate conditions, such as agriculture, tourism, and fisheries, are increasingly vulnerable to impacts driven by climate change (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, KM 3; Ch. 10: Agriculture, KM 1). Reliable and affordable energy supplies, which underpin virtually every sector of the economy, are increasingly at risk from climate change and weather extremes (Ch. 4: Energy, KM 1). The impacts of climate change beyond our borders are expected to increasingly affect our trade and economy, including import and export prices and U.S. businesses with overseas operation and supply chains (Box 1.4) (Ch. 16: International, KM 1; Ch. 17: Complex Systems, KM 1). Some aspects of our economy may see slight improvements in a modestly warmer world. However, the continued warming that is projected to occur without significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions is expected to cause substantial net damage to the U.S. economy, especially in the absence of increased adaptation efforts. The potential for losses in some sectors could reach hundreds of billions of dollars per year by the end of this century (Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 2).
Existing water, transportation, and energy infrastructure already face challenges from heavy rainfall, inland and coastal flooding, landslides, drought, wildfire, heat waves, and other weather and climate events (Figures 1.5–1.9) (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 2; Ch. 12: Transportation, KM 1). Many extreme weather and climate-related events are expected to become more frequent and more intense in a warmer world, creating greater risks of infrastructure disruption and failure that can cascade across economic sectors (Ch. 3: Water, KM 2; Ch. 4: Energy, KM 1; Ch. 11: Urban, KM 3; Ch. 12: Transportation, KM 2). For example, more frequent and severe heat waves and other extreme events in many parts of the United States are expected to increase stresses on the energy system, amplifying the risk of more frequent and longer-lasting power outages and fuel shortages that could affect other critical sectors and systems, such as access to medical care (Ch. 17: Complex Systems, Box 17.5; Ch. 4: Energy, KM 1; Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1; Ch. 11: Urban, KM 3; Ch. 12: Transportation, KM 3). Current infrastructure is typically designed for historical climate conditions (Ch. 12: Transportation, KM 1) and development patterns—for instance, coastal land use—generally do not account for a changing climate (Ch. 5: Land Changes, State of the Sector), resulting in increasing vulnerability to future risks from weather extremes and climate change (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 2). Infrastructure age and deterioration make failure or interrupted service from extreme weather even more likely (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 2). Climate change is expected to increase the costs of maintaining, repairing, and replacing infrastructure, with differences across regions (Ch. 12: Transportation, Regional Summary).
Recent extreme events demonstrate the vulnerabilities of interconnected economic sectors to increasing risks from climate change (see Box 1.3). In 2017, Hurricane Harvey dumped an unprecedented amount of rainfall over the greater Houston area, some of which has been attributed to human-induced climate change (Ch. 2: Climate, Box 2.5). Resulting power outages had cascading effects on critical infrastructure facilities such as hospitals and water and wastewater treatment plants. Reduced oil production and refining capacity in the Gulf of Mexico caused price spikes regionally and nationally from actual and anticipated gasoline shortages (Figure 1.6) (Ch. 17: Complex Systems, KM 1). In the U.S. Caribbean, Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused catastrophic damage to infrastructure, including the complete failure of Puerto Rico’s power grid and the loss of power throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands, as well as extensive damage to the region’s agricultural industry. The death toll in Puerto Rico grew in the three months following Maria’s landfall on the island due in part to the lack of electricity and potable water as well as access to medical facilities and medical care (Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, Box 20.1, KM 5).
Climate-related risks to infrastructure, property, and the economy vary across regions. Along the U.S. coastline, public infrastructure and $1 trillion in national wealth held in coastal real estate are threatened by rising sea levels, higher storm surges, and the ongoing increase in high tide flooding (Figures 1.4 and 1.8) (Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1). Coastal infrastructure provides critical lifelines to the rest of the country, including energy supplies and access to goods and services from overseas trade; increased damage to coastal facilities is expected to result in cascading costs and national impacts (Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1; Ch. 4: Energy, State of the Sector, KM 1). High tide flooding is projected to become more disruptive and costlier as its frequency, depth, and inland extent grow in the coming decades. Without significant adaptation measures, many coastal cities in the Southeast are expected to experience daily high tide flooding by the end of the century (Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1; Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 2). Higher sea levels will also cause storm surge from tropical storms to travel farther inland than in the past, impacting more coastal properties and infrastructure (Ch. 8: Coastal: KM 1; Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 2). Oil, natural gas, and electrical infrastructure located along the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico are at increased risk of damage from rising sea levels and stronger hurricanes; regional disruptions are expected to have national implications (Ch. 4: Energy, State of the Sector, KM 1; Ch. 18: Northeast, KM 3; Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 2). Hawai‘i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands and the U.S. Caribbean also face high risks to critical infrastructure from coastal flooding, erosion, and storm surge (Ch. 4: Energy, State of the Sector; Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, KM 3; Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 3>).
In the western United States, increasing wildfire is damaging ranches and rangelands as well as property in cities near the wildland–urban interface. Drier conditions are projected to increase the risk of wildfires and damage to property and infrastructure, including energy production and generation assets and the power grid (Ch. 4: Energy, KM 1; Ch. 11: Urban, Regional Summary; Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 3). In Alaska, thawing of permafrost is responsible for severe damage to roads, buildings, and pipelines that will be costly to replace, especially in remote parts of Alaska. Alaska oil and gas operations are vulnerable to thawing permafrost, sea level rise, and increased coastal exposure due to declining sea ice; however, a longer ice-free season may enhance offshore energy operations and transport (Ch. 4: Energy, State of the Sector; Ch. 26: Alaska, KM 2 and 5). These impacts are expected to grow with continued warming.
U.S. agriculture and the communities it supports are threatened by increases in temperatures, drought, heavy precipitation events, and wildfire on rangelands (Figure 1.10) (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 1 and 2, Case Study “Groundwater Depletion in the Ogallala Aquifer Region”; Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 1, Case Study “The Edwards Aquifer”). Yields of major U.S. crops (such as corn, soybeans, wheat, rice, sorghum, and cotton) are expected to decline over this century as a consequence of increases in temperatures and possibly changes in water availability and disease and pest outbreaks (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 1). Increases in growing season temperatures in the Midwest are projected to be the largest contributing factor to declines in U.S. agricultural productivity (Ch. 21: Midwest, KM 1). Climate change is also expected to lead to large-scale shifts in the availability and prices of many agricultural products across the world, with corresponding impacts on U.S. agricultural producers and the U.S. economy (Ch. 16: International, KM 1).
Extreme heat poses a significant risk to human health and labor productivity in the agricultural, construction, and other outdoor sectors (Ch. 10: Ag & Rural, KM 3). Under a higher scenario (RCP8.5), almost two billion labor hours are projected to be lost annually by 2090 from the impacts of temperature extremes, costing an estimated $160 billion in lost wages (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 4). States within the Southeast (Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 4) and Southern Great Plains (Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 4) regions are projected to experience some of the greatest impacts (see Figure 1.21).
Climate change threatens many benefits that the natural environment provides to society: safe and reliable water supplies, clean air, protection from flooding and erosion, and the use of natural resources for economic, recreational, and subsistence activities. Valued aspects of regional heritage and quality of life tied to the natural environment, wildlife, and outdoor recreation will change with the climate, and as a result, future generations can expect to experience and interact with natural systems in ways that are much different than today. Without significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, extinctions and transformative impacts on some ecosystems cannot be avoided, with varying impacts on the economic, recreational, and subsistence activities they support.
Changes affecting the quality, quantity, and availability of water resources, driven in part by climate change, impact people and the environment (Ch. 3: Water, KM 1). Dependable and safe water supplies for U.S. Caribbean, Hawai‘i, and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Island communities and ecosystems are threatened by rising temperatures, sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, and increased risks of drought and flooding (Ch. 3: Water, Regional Summary; Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, KM 1; Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 1). In the Midwest, the occurrence of conditions that contribute to harmful algal blooms, which can result in restrictions to water usage for drinking and recreation, is expected to increase (Ch. 3: Water, Regional Summary; Ch. 21: Midwest, KM 3). In the Southwest, water supplies for people and nature are decreasing during droughts due in part to climate change.
Intensifying droughts, heavier downpours, and reduced snowpack are combining with other stressors such as groundwater depletion to reduce the future reliability of water supplies in the region, with cascading impacts on energy production and other water-dependent sectors (Ch. 3: Water, Regional Summary; Ch. 4: Energy, State of the Sector; Ch. 25: Southwest, KM 5). In the Southern Great Plains, current drought and projected increases in drought length and severity threaten the availability of water for agriculture (Figures 1.11 and 1.12) (Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 1). Reductions in mountain snowpack and shifts in snowmelt timing are expected to reduce hydropower production in the Southwest and the Northwest (Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 3; Ch. 25: Southwest, KM 5). Drought is expected to threaten oil and gas drilling and refining as well as thermoelectric power plants that rely on a steady supply of water for cooling (Ch. 4: Energy, State of the Sector, KM 1; Ch. 22: N. Great Plains, KM 4; Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 2; Ch. 25: Southwest, KM 5).
Tourism, outdoor recreation, and subsistence activities are threatened by reduced snowpack, increases in wildfire activity, and other stressors affecting ecosystems and natural resources (Figures 1.2d, 1.2k, and 1.13) (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, KM 3). Increasing wildfire frequency (Ch. 19: Southeast, Case Study “Prescribed Fire”), pest and disease outbreaks (Midwest, Case Study “Adaptation in Forestry”), and other stressors are projected to reduce the ability of U.S. forests to support recreation as well as economic and subsistence activities (Ch. 6: Forests, KM 1 and 2; Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 3; Ch. 21: Midwest, KM 2). Increases in wildfire smoke events driven by climate change are expected to reduce the amount and quality of time spent in outdoor activities (Ch. 13: Air Quality, KM 2; Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 4). Projected declines in snowpack in the western United States and shifts to more precipitation falling as rain than snow in the cold season in many parts of the central and eastern United States are expected to adversely impact the winter recreation industry (Ch. 18: Northeast, KM 1; Ch. 22: N. Great Plains, KM 3; Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 1, Box 24.7). In the Northeast, activities that rely on natural snow and ice cover may not be economically viable by the end of the century without significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions (Ch. 18: Northeast, KM 1). Diminished snowpack, increased wildfire, pervasive drought, flooding, ocean acidification, and sea level rise directly threaten the viability of agriculture, fisheries, and forestry enterprises on tribal lands across the United States and impact tribal tourism and recreation sectors (Ch. 15: Tribes, KM 1).
Climate change has already had observable impacts on biodiversity and ecosystems throughout the United States that are expected to continue. Many species are shifting their ranges (Figure 1.2h), and changes in the timing of important biological events (such as migration and reproduction) are occurring in response to climate change (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, KM 1). Climate change is also aiding the spread of invasive species (Ch. 21: Midwest, Case Study “Adaptation in Forestry”; Ch. 22: N. Great Plains, Case Study “Crow Nation and the Spread of Invasive Species”), recognized as a major driver of biodiversity loss and substantial ecological and economic costs globally (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, Invasive Species). As environmental conditions change further, mismatches between species and the availability of the resources they need to survive are expected to occur (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, KM 2). Without significant reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, extinctions and transformative impacts on some ecosystems cannot be avoided in the long term (Ch. 9: Oceans, KM 1). While some new opportunities may emerge from ecosystem changes, economic and recreational opportunities and cultural heritage based around historical use of species or natural resources in many areas are at risk (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, KM 3; Ch. 18: Northeast, KM 1 and 2, Box 18.6).
Ocean warming and acidification pose high and growing risks for many marine organisms, and the impacts of climate change on ocean ecosystems are expected to lead to reductions in important ecosystem services such as aquaculture, fishery productivity, and recreational opportunities (Ch. 9: Oceans, KM 2). While climate change impacts on ocean ecosystems are widespread, the scope of ecosystem impacts occurring in tropical and polar areas is greater than anywhere else in the world. Ocean warming is already leading to reductions in vulnerable coral reef and sea ice habitats that support the livelihoods of many communities (Ch. 9: Oceans, KM 1). Decreasing sea ice extent in the Arctic represents a direct loss of important habitat for marine mammals, causing declines in their populations (Figure 1.2f) (Ch. 26: Alaska, Box 26.1). Changes in spring ice melt have affected the ability of coastal communities in Alaska to meet their walrus harvest needs in recent years (Ch. 26: Alaska, KM 1). These changes are expected to continue as sea ice declines further (Ch. 2: Climate, KM 7). In the tropics, ocean warming has already led to widespread coral reef bleaching and/or outbreaks of coral diseases off the coastlines of Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Florida, and Hawai‘i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands (Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, KM 2; Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 4). By mid-century, widespread coral bleaching is projected to occur annually in Hawai‘i and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands (Figure 1.14). Bleaching and ocean acidification are expected to result in loss of reef structure, leading to lower fisheries yields and loss of coastal protection and habitat, with impacts on tourism and livelihoods in both regions (Ch. 20: U.S. Caribbean, KM 2; Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 4). While some targeted response actions are underway (Figure 1.15), many impacts, including losses of unique coral reef and sea ice ecosystems, can only be avoided by significantly reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, particularly carbon dioxide (Ch. 9: Oceans, KM 1).
Higher temperatures, increasing air quality risks, more frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, increases in coastal flooding, disruption of ecosystem services, and other changes increasingly threaten the health and well-being of the American people, particularly populations that are already vulnerable. Future climate change is expected to further disrupt many areas of life, exacerbating existing challenges and revealing new risks to health and prosperity.
Rising temperatures pose a number of threats to human health and quality of life (Figure 1.16). High temperatures in the summer are linked directly to an increased risk of illness and death, particularly among older adults, pregnant women, and children (Ch. 18: Northeast, Box 18.3). With continued warming, cold-related deaths are projected to decrease and heat-related deaths are projected to increase. In most regions, the increases in heat-related deaths are expected to outpace the reductions in cold-related deaths (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1). Rising temperatures are expected to reduce electricity generation capacity while increasing energy demands and costs, which can in turn lead to power outages and blackouts (Ch. 4: Energy, KM 1; Ch. 11: Urban, Regional Summary, Figure 11.2). These changes strain household budgets, increase people’s exposure to heat, and limit delivery of medical and social services. Risks from heat stress are higher for people without access to housing with sufficient insulation or air conditioning (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 1).
Changes in temperature and precipitation can increase air quality risks from wildfire and ground-level ozone (smog). Projected increases in wildfire activity due to climate change would further degrade air quality, resulting in increased health risks and impacts on quality of life (Ch. 13: Air Quality, KM 2; Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1). Unless counteracting efforts to improve air quality are implemented, climate change is expected to worsen ozone pollution across much of the country, with adverse impacts on human health (Figure 1.21) (Ch. 13: Air Quality, KM 1). Earlier spring arrival, warmer temperatures, changes in precipitation, and higher carbon dioxide concentrations can also increase exposure to airborne pollen allergens. The frequency and severity of allergic illnesses, including asthma and hay fever, are expected to increase as a result of a changing climate (Ch. 13: Air Quality, KM 3).
Rising air and water temperatures and changes in extreme weather and climate-related events are expected to increase exposure to waterborne and foodborne diseases, affecting food and water safety. The geographic range and distribution of disease-carrying insects and pests are projected to shift as climate changes, which could expose more people in North America to ticks that carry Lyme disease and mosquitoes that transmit viruses such as West Nile, chikungunya, dengue, and Zika (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1; Ch. 16: International, KM 4).
Mental health consequences can result from exposure to climate- or extreme weather-related events, some of which are projected to intensify as warming continues (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1). Coastal city flooding as a result of sea level rise and hurricanes, for example, can result in forced evacuation, with adverse effects on family and community stability as well as mental and physical health (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 1). In urban areas, disruptions in food supply or safety related to extreme weather or climate-related events are expected to disproportionately impact those who already experience food insecurity (Ch. 11: Urban, KM 3).
Indigenous peoples have historical and cultural relationships with ancestral lands, ecosystems, and culturally important species that are threatened by climate change (Ch. 15: Tribes, KM 1; Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 4, Case Study “Mountain Ramps”; Ch. 24: Northwest, KM 5). Climate change is expected to compound existing physical health issues in Indigenous communities, in part due to the loss of traditional foods and practices, and in some cases, the mental stress from permanent community displacement (Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 2; Ch. 15: Tribes, KM 2). Throughout the United States, Indigenous peoples are considering or actively pursuing relocation as an adaptation strategy in response to climate-related disasters, more frequent flooding, loss of land due to erosion, or as livelihoods are compromised by ecosystem shifts linked to climate change (Ch. 15: Tribes, KM 3). In Louisiana, a federal grant is being used to relocate the tribal community of Isle de Jean Charles in response to severe land loss, sea level rise, and coastal flooding (Figure 1.17) (Ch. 19: Southeast, KM 2, Case Study “A Lesson Learned for Community Resettlement”). In Alaska, coastal Native communities are already experiencing heightened erosion driven by declining sea ice, rising sea levels, and warmer waters (Figure 1.18). Coastal and river erosion and flooding in some cases will require parts of communities, or even entire communities, to relocate to safer terrain (Ch. 26: Alaska, KM 2). Combined with other stressors, sea level rise, coastal storms, and the deterioration of coral reef and mangrove ecosystems put the long-term habitability of coral atolls in the Hawai‘i and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands region at risk, introducing issues of sovereignty, human and national security, and equity (Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 6).
Climate change is projected to significantly affect human health, the economy, and the environment in the United States, particularly in futures with high greenhouse gas emissions and limited or no adaptation. Recent findings reinforce the fact that without substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and regional adaptation efforts, there will be substantial and far-reaching changes over the course of the 21st century with negative consequences for a large majority of sectors, particularly towards the end of the century.
The impacts and costs of climate change are already being felt in the United States, and changes in the likelihood or severity of some recent extreme weather events can now be attributed with increasingly higher confidence to human-caused warming (see CSSR, Ch. 3). Impacts associated with human health, such as premature deaths due to extreme temperatures and poor air quality, are some of the most substantial (Ch. 13: Air Quality, KM 1; Ch. 14: Human Health, KM 1 and 4; Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 2). While many sectors face large economic risks from climate change, other impacts can have significant implications for societal or cultural resources. Further, some impacts will very likely be irreversible for thousands of years, including those to species, such as corals (Ch. 9: Oceans, KM 1; Ch. 27: Hawai‘i & Pacific Islands, KM 4), or that involve the crossing of thresholds, such as the effects of ice sheet disintegration on accelerated sea level rise, leading to widespread effects on coastal development lasting thousands of years (Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 2).
Future impacts and risks from climate change are directly tied to decisions made in the present, both in terms of mitigation to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases (or remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere) and adaptation to reduce risks from today’s changed climate conditions and prepare for future impacts. Mitigation and adaptation activities can be considered complementary strategies—mitigation efforts can reduce future risks, while adaptation actions can minimize the consequences of changes that are already happening as a result of past and present greenhouse gas emissions.
Many climate change impacts and economic damages in the United States can be substantially reduced through global-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions complemented by regional and local adaptation efforts (Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 4). Our understanding of the magnitude and timing of risks that can be avoided varies by sector, region, and assumptions about how adaptation measures change the exposure and vulnerability of people, livelihoods, ecosystems, and infrastructure. Acting sooner rather than later generally results in lower costs overall for both adaptation and mitigation efforts and can offer other benefits in the near term (Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 3).
Since the Third National Climate Assessment (NCA3) in 2014, a growing number of states, cities, and businesses have pursued or expanded upon initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and the scale of adaptation implementation across the country has increased. However, these efforts do not yet approach the scale needed to avoid substantial damages to the economy, environment, and human health expected over the coming decades (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 1; Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 1 and 2).
Many activities within the public and private sectors aim for or have the effect of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, such as the increasing use of natural gas in place of coal or the expansion of wind and solar energy to generate electricity. Fossil fuel combustion accounts for approximately 85% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, with agriculture, land-cover change, industrial processes, and methane from fossil fuel extraction and processing as well as from waste (including landfills, wastewater treatment, and composting) accounting for most of the remainder. A number of efforts exist at the federal level to promote low-carbon energy technologies and to increase soil and forest carbon storage.
State, local, and tribal government approaches to mitigating greenhouse gas emissions include comprehensive emissions reduction strategies as well as sector- and technology-specific policies (see Figure 1.19). Since NCA3, private companies have increasingly reported their greenhouse gas emissions, announced emissions reductions targets, implemented actions to achieve those targets, and, in some cases, even put an internal price on carbon. Individuals and other organizations are also making choices every day to reduce their carbon footprints.
Market forces and technological change, particularly within the electric power sector, have contributed to a decline in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over the past decade. In 2016, U.S. emissions were at their lowest levels since 1994. Power sector emissions were 25% below 2005 levels in 2016, the largest emissions reduction for a sector of the American economy over this time. This decline was in large part due to increases in natural gas and renewable energy generation, as well as enhanced energy efficiency standards and programs (Ch. 4: Energy, KM 2). Given these advances in electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, the largest annual sectoral emissions in the United States now come from transportation. As of the writing of this report, business-as-usual (as in, no new policies) projections of U.S. carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions show flat or declining trajectories over the next decade with a central estimate of about 15% to 20% reduction below 2005 levels by 2025 (Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 1).
Recent studies suggest that some of the indirect effects of mitigation actions could significantly reduce—or possibly even completely offset—the potential costs associated with cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Beyond reduction of climate pollutants, there are many benefits, often immediate, associated with greenhouse gas emissions reductions, such as improving air quality and public health, reducing crop damages from ozone, and increasing energy independence and security through increased reliance on domestic sources of energy (Ch. 13: Air Quality, KM 4; Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 4).
Many types of adaptation actions exist, including changes to business operations, hardening infrastructure against extreme weather, and adjustments to natural resource management strategies. Achieving the benefits of adaptation can require upfront investments to achieve longer-term savings, engaging with different stakeholder interests and values, and planning under uncertainty. In many sectors, adaptation can reduce the cost of climate impacts by more than half (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 4; Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 4).
At the time of NCA3’s release in 2014, its authors found that risk assessment and planning were underway throughout the United States but that on-the-ground implementation was limited. Since then, the scale and scope of adaptation implementation has increased, including by federal, state, tribal, and local agencies as well as business, academic, and nonprofit organizations (Figure 1.20). While the level of implementation is now higher, it is not yet common nor uniform across the United States, and the scale of implementation for some effects and locations is often considered inadequate to deal with the projected scale of climate change risks. Communities have generally focused on actions that address risks from current climate variability and recent extreme events, such as making buildings and other assets incrementally less sensitive to climate impacts. Fewer communities have focused on actions to address the anticipated scale of future change and emergent threats, such as reducing exposure by preventing building in high-risk locations or retreating from at-risk coastal areas (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 1).
Many adaptation initiatives can generate economic and social benefits in excess of their costs in both the near and long term (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 4). Damages to infrastructure, such as road and rail networks, are particularly sensitive to adaptation assumptions, with proactive measures that account for future climate risks estimated to be capable of reducing damages by large fractions. More than half of damages to coastal property are estimated to be avoidable through adaptation measures such as shoreline protection and beach replenishment (Ch. 29: Mitigation, KM 4). Considerable guidance is available on actions whose benefits exceed their costs in some sectors (such as adaptation responses to storms and rising seas in coastal zones, to riverine and extreme precipitation flooding, and for agriculture at the farm level), but less so on other actions (such as those aimed at addressing risks to health, biodiversity, and ecosystems services) that may provide significant benefits but are not as well understood (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 4).
Effective adaptation can also enhance social welfare in many ways that can be difficult to quantify, including improving economic opportunity, health, equity, national security, education, social connectivity, and sense of place, while safeguarding cultural resources and enhancing environmental quality. Aggregating these benefits into a single monetary value is not always the best approach, and more fundamentally, communities may value benefits differently. Considering various outcomes separately in risk management processes can facilitate participatory planning processes and allow for a specific focus on equity. Prioritizing adaptation actions for populations that face higher risks from climate change, including low-income and marginalized communities, may prove more equitable and lead, for instance, to improved infrastructure in their communities and increased focus on efforts to promote community resilience that can improve their capacity to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 4).
A significant portion of climate risk can be addressed by integrating climate adaptation into existing investments, policies, and practices. Integration of climate adaptation into decision processes has begun in many areas including financial risk reporting, capital investment planning, engineering standards, military planning, and disaster risk management. A growing number of jurisdictions address climate risk in their land-use, hazard mitigation, capital improvement, and transportation plans, and a small number of cities explicitly link their coastal and hazard mitigation plans using analysis of future climate risks. However, over the course of this century and especially under a higher scenario (RCP8.5), reducing the risks of climate change may require more significant changes to policy and regulations at all scales, community planning, economic and financial systems, technology applications, and ecosystems (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 5).
Some sectors are already taking actions that go beyond integrating climate risk into current practices. Faced with substantial climate-induced changes in the future, including new invasive species and shifting ranges for native species, ecosystem managers have already begun to adopt new approaches such as assisted migration and development of wildlife corridors (Ch. 7: Ecosystems, KM 2). Many millions of Americans live in coastal areas threatened by sea level rise; in all but the very lowest sea level rise projections, retreat will become an unavoidable option in some areas along the U.S. coastline (Ch. 8: Coastal, KM 1). The Federal Government has granted funds for the relocation of some communities, including the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe from Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana (Figure 1.17). However, the potential need for millions of people and billions of dollars of coastal infrastructure to be relocated in the future creates challenging legal, financial, and equity issues that have not yet been addressed (Ch. 28: Adaptation, KM 5).
In some areas, lack of historical or current data to inform policy decisions can be a limitation to assessments of vulnerabilities and/or effective adaptation planning. For this National Climate Assessment, this was particularly the case for some aspects of the Alaska, U.S. Caribbean, and Hawai‘i and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands regions. In many instances, relying on Indigenous knowledges is among the only current means of reconstructing what has happened in the past. To help communities across the United States learn from one another in their efforts to build resilience to a changing climate, this report highlights common climate-related risks and possible response actions across all regions and sectors.