Federal Coordinating Lead Author:
David Reidmiller, U.S. Global Change Research Program
Chapter Lead:
Alexa Jay, U.S. Global Change Research Program
Chapter Authors:
Christopher W. Avery, U.S. Global Change Research Program
Daniel Barrie, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Apurva Dave, U.S. Global Change Research Program
Benjamin DeAngelo, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Matthew Dzaugis, U.S. Global Change Research Program
Michael Kolian, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Kristin Lewis, U.S. Global Change Research Program
Katie Reeves, U.S. Global Change Research Program
Darrell Winner, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Overview

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.

   

Figure 1.1: Americans Respond to the Impacts of Climate Change

Alaska Northwest Northern Great Plains Midwest Northeast Southwest Southern Great Plains Southeast Hawaii and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands U.S. Caribbean Region

Click on a region to see more details on a regional impact and the actions taken to address it.

Northwest
Impact

Wildfire increases and associated smoke are affecting human health, water resources, timber production, fish and wildlife, and recreation.

Action

Federal forests have developed adaptation strategies for climate change that include methods to address increasing wildfire risks.

Northern Great Plains
Impact

Flash droughts and extreme heat illustrate sustainability challenges for ranching operations, with emergent impacts on rural prosperity and mental health.

Action

The National Drought Mitigation Center is helping ranchers plan to reduce drought and heat risks to their operations.

Midwest
Impact

Increasing heavy rains are leading to more soil erosion and nutrient loss on Midwestern cropland.

Action

Iowa State developed a program for using prairie strips in farm fields to reduce soil and nutrient loss while increasing biodiversity.

Northeast
Impact

Water, energy, and transportation infrastructure are affected by snow storms, drought, heat waves, and flooding.

Action

Cities and states throughout the region are assessing their vulnerability to climate change and making investments to increase infrastructure resilience.

Southwest
Impact

Drought in the Colorado River basin reduced Lake Mead by over half since 2000, increasing risk of water shortages for cities, farms, and ecosystems.

Action

Seven U.S. state governments and U.S. and Mexico federal governments mobilized users to conserve water, keeping the lake above a critical level.

Southern Great Plains
Impact

Hurricane Harvey’s landfall on the Texas coast in 2017 was one of the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.

Action

The Governor’s Commission to Rebuild Texas was created to support the economic recovery and rebuilding of infrastructure in affected Texas communities.

Southeast
Impact

Flooding in Louisiana is increasing from extreme rainfall.

Action

The Acadiana Planning Commission in Louisiana is pooling hazard reduction funds to address increasing flood risk.

Alaska
Impact

The physical and mental health of rural Alaskans is increasingly challenged by unpredictable weather and other environmental changes.

Action

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.

Hawaii and U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands
Impact

The 2015 coral bleaching event resulted in an average mortality of 50% of the coral cover in western Hawai‘i alone.

Action

A state working group generated management options to promote recovery and reduce threats to coral reefs.

U.S. Caribbean
Impact

Damages from the 2017 hurricanes have been compounded by the slow recovery of energy, communications, and transportation systems, impacting all social and economic sectors.

Action

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.

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Figure 1.1: This map shows climate-related impacts that have occurred in each region since the Third National Climate Assessment in 2014 and response actions that are helping the region address related risks and costs. These examples are illustrative; they are not indicative of which impact is most significant in each region or which response action might be most effective. Source: NCA4 Regional Chapters.

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).


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