Lessons Abound in Climate Assessment

The report was at the top of news websites and on front pages everywhere by Saturday morning. But if you were anything like us, with our copy of The Times languishing in the driveway, you might have missed it. Burying bad news is nothing new; the government joke from Albany to Sacramento is to announce something on Friday afternoon before a long weekend if you want to be sure to get it ignored.

A rapidly warming earth, however, is hard to ignore, and that’s an understatement. Thirteen federal agencies, including the Department of Defense, Environmental Protection Agency, and the State Department, agree and prepared the fourth National Climate Assessment. It paints a terror-inducing picture. And, just so our readers can grasp how fully the Executive Branch is behind this, we briefly list the remaining 10 participating agencies: Agriculture, Commerce, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, Transportation, NASA, the National Science Foundation, and the Agency for International Development. Eight of the agencies’ heads are members of the cabinet, reporting directly to the president. For his part, Mr. Trump has dismissed the report as “fine.”

The key points in the assessment are:

• Climate change creates new risks and makes existing vulnerabilities worse, with challenges to health, safety, quality of life, and the economy.

• Without sustained global effort, economic growth in the United States will be impeded and the infrastructure affected negatively.

• The true effects of climate change are difficult to predict, due to the interconnection of natural, built, and social systems around the world.

• Current emissions-reduction programs do not approach the scale necessary to avoid substantial damage to the economy, environment, and health.

• Negative impacts on the quality and quantity of water are already being felt, with costs to agriculture, energy production, industry, recreation, and the environment.

• Extreme weather, poor air quality, and the transmission of diseases via insects, pests, and food and water contamination already threaten the well-being of the American people, particularly vulnerable populations and indigenous peoples.

• Fire, extreme weather, and drought endanger the sustainability of the food supply and price stability.

• Coastal communities are at risk of floods, ocean acidification, decreased fisheries, and environmental losses. 

• Tourism and recreation will be degraded by the multiple effects of climate change.

Regional economies that depend on a healthy environment and a favorable climate will be increasingly vulnerable. Stronger hurricanes can take out power, with cascading bad effects on hospitals and waste treatment plants, and upend local food production. The East End certainly fits in this category, as a raw sewage overflow brought about by heavy rain this week forced the closing of the waters around Greenport.

Among national challenges will be the $1 trillion in coastal real estate that will be increasingly at risk. Again, this is a huge looming issue here.

Wind, floods, and temperature spikes will impact military bases and production facilities in all 50 states. Rising temperatures will decrease electricity generation and at the same time increase demand on the grid for air-conditioning and refrigeration, which could lead to blackouts. 

Airborne allergies are expected to increase. Higher ozone levels will bring yet more health risks. The rate of Lyme disease and other tick-borne afflictions will grow. Even mental health effects are anticipated as the result of economic changes and evacuations. And some large-scale impacts may last for thousands of years, such as the loss of coral reefs, the disintegration of ice sheets — and sea level rise. 

It all depends on the present. Adaptation, such as East Hampton Town finally is thinking about in several studies and dedicated coastal committees, can occur at the state and local level. Mitigation, however, requires a national and global strategy. Fossil fuels used in cars, industry, and power production supply about 85 percent of all the greenhouse gases in this country. New technology, alternative sources, and a price on carbon are among the potential solutions.

A side benefit is that efforts to limit climate change in the future can have immediate benefits for air quality, public health, reduced crop damage, and increased energy independence through greater reliance on American made sources — something the Department of Defense likes.

Adaptation will take money and equal amounts of will, the assessment concludes, and in some cases, lots of it. However, changes now can reduce the cost of future climate impacts by more than half. The long-term savings speak for themselves at every level of government.

The authors could have had eastern Long Island in mind in observing that communities have tended to deal with current risks and not prepare for the future. For example, responses in the coastal zone have been centered on making buildings and infrastructure somewhat less sensitive to climate effects rather than addressing the expected scale of future change and emergent threats. These include reducing costly taxpayer exposure by preventing building in high-risk locations and retreating from at-risk coastal areas. 

What a gift we could leave our children and our children’s children if we could make long-term investments now to not saddle the coming generations with the wreckage of our own inaction — and the bill to pay to make it right again, if that were even possible.