<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
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).
Figure 1.19: Mitigation-Related Activities at State and Local Levels
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).
Figure 1.20: Five Adaptation Stages and Progress
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.
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