Impacts of Climate Change in America

Summary #

Climate change is impacting all people across the United States in various ways. From extreme floods to extreme droughts, climate change is severely altering Earth’s natural systems which is threatening Americans with food insecurity, property loss, and air pollution. Climate change is caused by the human emission of greenhouse gases which are primarily produced from burning fossil fuels. These gases act as a blanket around Earth that traps heat inside. Because of climate change, Americans are now dealing with more intense fires, floods, hurricanes, and anxiety. Solving climate change and preventing further damage to people in the United States and around the world requires several steps. First, more people need to start talking about the problem. This connects people together and helps them become personally invested in solving climate change. Second, the United States needs several policy changes and incentives to move businesses and citizens to transition to green energy and to electrify everything. These actions will prevent the further accumulation of greenhouse gases and begin the process of restoring our climate.

Key Terms #

Climate – Climate is long term trends in weather patterns in a general area (May 2017).

Weather – Weather is localized, short-term weather patterns (May 2017).

Climate Change – Climate change involves long-term shifts in temperature and weather patterns (United Nations n.d.).

Anthropogenic – Anthropogenic means of, relating to, or resulting from the influence of human beings on nature (“Anthropogenic” n.d.).

Greenhouse gases – Greenhouse gases are gases in the atmosphere that trap heat on Earth (EPA 2015a).

Fossil fuels – Fossil fuels are fuels (such as coal, oil, or natural gas) that are formed in the earth from plant or animal remains (“Fossil Fuel” n.d.).

Greenhouse effect – The greenhouse effect means that gases in Earth’s atmosphere are causing energy in the form of heat to be reflected back to Earth’s surface, causing the temperature to rise (VijayaVenkataRaman, Iniyan, and Goic 2012).

Land use change – “Land use change is a process by which human activities transform the natural landscape, referring to how land has been used, usually emphasizing the functional role of land for economic activities.”(Paul and Rashid 2017).

Psychological distance – The concept that the farther removed a person is from an event, the less likely it is that the person will feel impacted by that event (McDonald, Chai, and Newell 2015).

Holocene – The geologic period of time that precedes the industrial revolution. The only time period known to have prime conditions for human civilization and development (Agenbroad 2022).

Context #

Q: What is climate change?
A: In general, climate change is a shift in climate patterns.(United Nations n.d.) It is a global problem that impacts all people. Climate change is made worse because of many feedback loops that continue to make the problem itself, as well as the consequences, worse (Lawrence, Blackett, and Cradock-Henry 2020). In the context of the impacts of climate change on Americans, it is important to remember that humans are a part of the greater ecosystem. This means that environmental impacts will also negatively impact humans (USGCRP 2018).

Q: Is current climate change caused by natural factors?
A: “No natural cycles are found in the observational record that can explain the observed increases in the heat content of the atmosphere, the ocean, or the cryosphere since the industrial era.” (USGCRP 2018).

Q: Who is causing climate change?
A: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2021 that “It is unequivocal that human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean and land.” (Masson-Delmotte et al. 2021). Humans emit greenhouse gases by burning fossil fuels, as well as from mass-scale agriculture (United Nations n.d.).

Q: Where are greenhouse gases coming from?
A:* Greenhouse gases are naturally cycled through various biogeochemical cycles. However, humans produce extra greenhouse gases, primarily through the burning of fossil fuels, that offset the naturally balanced cycles (Malhi et al. 2020).

Q: What percentage of climate change is contributed to the United States?
A: The United States is responsible for approximately 20% of all greenhouse gases emitted globally since 1850 (Evans 2021).

Q: In the United States, who is worried about climate change?
A: Over 60% of Americans are at least somewhat worried about climate change (Leiserowitz et al. 2019).

Q: When will the consequences of climate change be realized?
A: They are being realized right now (Ripple et al. 2020). These consequences include air pollution, flooding, fires, and drought (USGCRP 2018).

Q: How has the climate changed over time?
A: Since the beginning of life on Earth, the climate has fluctuated significantly between blisteringly hot and bitterly cold. Then, approximately 10,000 years ago, the Earth’s climate reached a state that was ideal for human civilization to develop (May 2017).

Q: Where in the United States are the consequences of climate change most severe?
A: The consequences are most severe for those on the coast and in low-income areas (Venn 2019).

Q: How long have humans known about the greenhouse effect?
A: In 1856, Eunice Foote, the first scientist to explore the effects of greenhouse gases, found that certain gases made the air warm up faster than others (Foote 1856). Foote concluded that if there were higher concentrations of these warming gases in the atmosphere–carbon dioxide being one of the specific gases she worked with¬–then the Earth as a whole could experience higher temperatures.

Contributing Factors #

#1 - Burning Fossil Fuels
The burning of fossil fuels is the main contributor to anthropogenic climate change (United Nations n.d.). This is because fossil fuels release various greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide that offset the balance of natural nutrient cycles (“Burning of Fossil Fuels” n.d.). When more gases are emitted than absorbed, the excess begins to accumulate in the atmosphere, accelerating climate change. The most abundant of these gases is carbon dioxide, accounting for approximately 79% of all greenhouse gases, which is why it is often the most frequently discussed (EPA 2015a).

Burning fossil fuels is done for many purposes, including for transportation, electricity generation, and industrial processes. These three sectors are responsible for the majority of greenhouse emissions in the United States (EPA 2015a). Cars and trucks generate most of the emissions in the transportation sector, with planes, boats, and trains producing the rest (EPA 2015b).

After transportation, generating electricity is the second largest source of greenhouse gases in the United States (EPA 2015b). After years of the US energy composition being dominated by coal, natural gas is now the most common source of energy, accounting for 38% of energy generation (EIA 2022). Burning coal emits carbon dioxide and other pollutants that contribute to climate change and general air pollution (“Coal Explained | Coal and the Environment” 2021). Methane, also known as natural gas, is a cleaner fuel and produces about half the amount of carbon dioxide and very few pollutants. However, methane is often leaked into the atmosphere at extraction sites (“Natural Gas Explained } Natural Gas and the Environment” 2021).

Overall, the burning of fossil fuels accounts for approximately 73% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States (“Where Greenhouse Gases Come From” 2022). As will be discussed later, the most important intervention for restoring the climate is transitioning away from fossil fuels to clean sources of energy (Griffith, Fraser, and Calisch 2020).

#2 – Agriculture and land-use change
After the burning of fossil fuels, agricultural emissions and land-use change are the next biggest sources of greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. According to Kristiansen, Painter, and Shea, “animal products have been estimated to contribute more to [greenhouse gases], deforestation, ocean acidification, biodiversity loss, and unhealthy humans, than plant-based foods” (Kristiansen, Painter, and Shea 2021). Deforestation and greenhouse gases are the most important to look at in this discussion about climate change. Of all the animals, cows in particular produce prodigious amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 25 times more potent for warming than carbon dioxide (Lemetayer 2021).

Often tied directly to agriculture, land-use change is a major cause of climate change. As humans have cleared forests for farming, previously sequestered CO2 gets released back into the atmosphere (Dale 1997). This is a major problem in the United States, with around 50% of the land being used for agricultural purposes (“Major Land Uses” 2019). This, in combination with shifts in rainfall patterns from climate change, has led to a 16% decrease in tree cover since 2000 (“United States Deforestation Rates & Statistics | GFW” n.d.; Bartels, Black, and Keim 2020). The major trends in precipitation shifts include more precipitation in the Midwest and more rain later in the year (Easterling et al. 2017). These shifts are from human misuse of land and are contributing to the climate crisis.

#3 - Social Resistance
While burning fossil fuels and expanding agriculture are what initially caused the climate to start changing, socially there are several critical barriers preventing the United States from restoring the climate to Holocene conditions. The first barrier is a concept called psychological distance. In the context of climate change, the concept of psychological distance suggests that the farther removed an individual is from a climate-related event the less motivated that individual will be to do something about climate change (McDonald, Chai, and Newell 2015). Because many major climate events such as rainforest deforestation and melting ice caps do not directly impact Americans, they don’t feel the urgency of the climate crisis as deeply as someone living in areas affected by those things (Chu and Yang 2019).

Especially in America, there is a large political divide between those who believe in climate change and those who do not (Chu and Yang 2018). This is making it increasingly difficult to get legislation passed in congress because many Republicans refuse to support climate legislation because they feel that it is an issue of the Democrats (Cole et al. 2022). This divide has continued to widen over the past decade as the political elites have led their parties away from each other (Dunlap, McCright, and Yarosh 2016). This divide is postponing climate action, allowing more greenhouse gases to be emitted from all sources.

Negative Consequences #

#1 – Terrestrial Consequences
Climate change affects life both on land and in the water. On land, one of the primary changes is desertification (Ostberg et al. 2013). Desertification comes from direct human interference and indirectly from anthropogenic climate change (Dale 1997). Desertification is essentially defined as land and vegetation degradation, usually relating to dryer conditions because of changes in precipitation patterns from climate change (Burrell, Evans, and De Kauwe 2020). In the United States, over one-third of the land has been impacted by desertification (“Desertification in the United States” 2022). Desertification has drastic consequences for Americans because it limits the land that can be effectively farmed, as well as generates dust pollution (Paul and Rashid 2017).

Desertification combined with increasing temperatures in the United States is also detrimental to food security. Because of warming the growing season is technically longer, but this can actually limit the types of plants that can be grown, as well as promote the growth of invasive species and weeds.(Easterling et al. 2017, 7) In addition, increased levels of carbon in the atmosphere will limit the nutritional value of crops grown, further contributing to food insecurity (Ebi and Loladze 2019).

The environmental consequences of climate change act as a backdrop for the devastating health problems that also result from the climate crisis in America. What may be the most detrimental consequence is air pollution. In the United States 350,000 people die each year from air pollution attributed to the burning of fossil fuels—just over 1% of the US population (Vohra et al. 2021). This pollution comes from both fossil fuels burning as well as from the forest fires that are becoming more prevalent, especially in the western United States. It is estimated that the area burned each year has increased eightfold since 1985 (Parks and Abatzoglou 2020). Fires are increasing in frequency and magnitude for a few primary reasons. First, there is less water later in the year. In many parts of the western United States there is simply less rain, meaning that forests and grasslands are drier and more prone to fires (“Wildfires and Climate Change” n.d.). In addition, the snow is melting earlier, causing foliage to grow more quickly in the beginning of the year. The problem with this is that by the end of the summer there will be more tall, dry, plant material that is perfect for burning (Siirila-Woodburn et al. 2021). Another primary cause of forest fires is the premature death of trees. Climate change is creating the perfect conditions for invasive insect species to thrive. These insects, such as the mountain pine beetle, will infest a forest and begin killing trees (Mitton, Ferrenberg, and Benkman 2012). These dead trees are excellent fuel for a summer forest fire.

#2 – Aquatic Damages
The oceans receive the brunt of climate consequences. It is estimated that the ocean has absorbed over 90% of the heat attributed to climate change (Durack et al. 2014). This is very detrimental for marine life because their habitats are being destroyed and the ecosystem chemistry is being modified. However, because the ocean is taking the brunt of the warming on the planet, there is more time before the entire Earth heats up significantly (Durack et al. 2014). This is was beneficial for humans because it gave us more time before climate change started to impact terrestrial systems. Along with the ocean’s temperature rising, the actual sea level is rising because of sea ice melting. Higher sea levels negatively impact coastal communities all around the United States (Kulp and Strauss 2019).

Americans are at risk of two primary safety problems: sea level rising and tropical storms. Sea levels are rising at a faster rate along the coast of the contiguous United States than global sea rising rates (Sweet et al. 2022). It is estimated that by 2050, the United States coastline could experience a foot of sea level rise (Sweet et al. 2022). Around 39% of the US population lives in coastal counties, meaning that the flooding from higher sea levels would negatively impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of people (USGCRP 2018). In addition to the sea level rising, hurricanes are a serious environmental hazard directly linked to climate change. Climate change is attributed with increasing the frequency of the most intense categories of hurricanes (Dinan 2017). The reason for this is three-pronged. First, warmer air can hold more moisture resulting in heavier rains as the Earth continues to warm. Second, the warmer water causes wind speeds to increase. And finally, higher sea levels and the destruction of barrier habitats results in more destructive storm surges as the water is pushed up further on the land (“Hurricanes and Climate Change” n.d.). Hurricanes destroy homes, infrastructure, and cut off sources of food and water to the residents (“Hurricane | Impact” n.d.). In addition, hundreds of people have their lives ended early because of hurricanes (Williams et al. 2022).

Regarding the impacts of hurricanes, racial minorities and low-income individuals are more likely to experience intense flooding. This is because these groups of people tend to live in areas that are closer to the shore and have less protection against flooding hazards (Smiley et al. 2022). An example of this is Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Low-income Hispanic families accounted for nearly 50% of the households damaged by flooding.(Smiley et al. 2022)

#3 - Social Consequences
No matter the consequence, the impacts of climate change have the tendency to disproportionately affect certain groups over others (Hilert 2021). These tend to be those who are already most vulnerable such as the poor, elderly, young, or otherwise marginalized (Venn 2019). Facilities that burn fossil fuels are more likely to be built in low-income African American or Latinx neighborhoods because these people didn’t have a voice in the local politics to say no (Miller and Skelton 2016; Currit 2022).

There are also many mental health consequences associated with climate change as well. In the United States, nearly 60% of Americans are concerned or overwhelmed by the looming presence of climate change (Goldberg et al. 2020). There is a growing sense of impending doom that is afflicting people across the country, especially among young adults. This is likely because the younger generation is the group that will be living through all of the consequences of climate change (Taylor 2020). The most common outcome of this is anxiety for the future (Clayton 2020). This anxiety can either be adaptive and lead people to positive action, or it can be maladaptive and lead to feelings of helplessness and even suicide (Clayton 2020). Warmer temperatures also contribute to adverse mental impacts. Studies have shown that increased heat has a strong positive correlation with increased aggressive behavior such as crime or domestic violence (Anderson 2001). Increased heat can also lead to greater psychological stress and possibly suicidal behavior (Susanta Kumar Padhy et al. n.d.).

Best Practices #

Practice #

In order to restore the climate to Holocene-like conditions and address the consequences of climate change, two major things must happen. First, greenhouse gas emissions must be cut by implementing a large-scale roll-out of renewable energy and the electrification of appliances, vehicles, and buildings (Griffith, Fraser, and Calisch 2020). Second, the current greenhouse gases in the atmosphere must be drawn down and sequestered (Research Staff 2020).

Starting with renewable energy, solar and wind energy are the cheapest forms of energy in the United States right now (Kennedy 2021). The price of solar has dropped 91% and the price of wind energy has dropped 71% since 2009. Transitioning away from fossil fuels is completely feasible and critical for mitigating the effects of climate change in America and the world (Abbott et al. 2022). The effort to “electrify everything” will require a tripling in current electricity generation and a better-connected electrical grid system (Griffith, Fraser, and Calisch 2020). This would allow Americans to access renewable energy at any time, rain or shine. Transitioning to renewable energy and decarbonizing America brings with it a plethora of benefits. Most immediately we will eliminate all air pollution related to climate change. This could save over 350,000 lives annually in the United States (Vohra et al. 2021). In addition, this will cut down about 1/5 of all emissions output worldwide (Griffith, Fraser, and Calisch 2020).

This transition can only be accomplished by policy changes which are slow to come about. In 2022 the United States passed what was considered “the most significant climate legislation in U.S. history” (US EPA 2022). This act provides funding and tax credits for organizations and individuals to purchase electric appliances and vehicles and to transition to renewable energy. Policies like this are only passed after members of Congress receive pressure from their constituents. Organizations such as the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, and The Nature Conservancy often send around petitions or letter writing campaigns to help citizens use their voices to request change from lawmakers (“Homepage | The Wilderness Society” n.d.; “The Nature Conservancy” n.d.; “The Sierra Club Home” n.d.). At the center of all of these initiatives is communication. Change starts from people talking about issues that are important to them. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, the chief scientist for The Nature Conservancy and one of the leading voices on climate changes invites everyone to start talking more about the effects of climate change in our lives. Most importantly, however, Dr. Hayhoe encourages that these conversations must be focused on our hope for a better world (Hayhoe 2021). Fear and guilt are not effective motivators for personal action; rather they will end up pushing people away from acting (Stern 2012). By focusing on how climate change is personally meaningful in peoples’ lives, the psychological distance that often prevents individuals from caring can be reduced (McDonald, Chai, and Newell 2015).

Impact #

In the United States, there are not any current examples of complete electrification or decarbonization. However, the country of South Australia offers insight into the process and rewards of moving to green energy. In 2020, the country was generating over 60% of its energy from wind and solar sources (Baum and McGreevy n.d.). This came after being completely dependent on fossil fuels less than two decades ago. Because of this transition, energy prices have dropped to around 3.6c/kWh during the day (Fleming 2021). This drop in prices is especially meaningful for low-income families because electricity now takes up a smaller percentage of their monthly bills. In addition to the economic outcomes, there are also direct human health impacts that will occur within weeks of decarbonizing our energy production. A past example in the United States is the closure of the Geneva Steel mill in Utah Valley during the 1980s. Closing the mill significantly reduced air pollution in the valley and resulted in a near immediate 50% decrease in respiratory diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and asthma according to hospital admittance records (C A Pope 1989).

When looking at projections for eliminating fossil fuels over the next 50 years there are incredible savings in terms of both human life and economic gain. It is estimated that limiting warming to 2ºC would “prevent roughly 4.5 million premature deaths, about 1.4 million hospitalizations and emergency room visits, ∼300 million lost workdays, about 1.7 million incidences of dementia, and about 440 million tons of crop losses in the United States” (Shindell et al. 2021).

Gap #

Even after eliminating all greenhouse gas emissions, most of the negative effects of climate change would not immediately be resolved. The problem is that it takes a very long time for these gases to be drawn back down to Earth (Abbott et al. 2022). This is accomplished over time by supporting Earth’s natural “sinks”, or places that will naturally pull carbon and other gases down from the atmosphere. These include places like forests, freshwater streams and lakes, and the ocean (Research Staff 2020). There are also no places that have transitioned 100% to green energy sources making it difficult to determine what the full impact of decarbonizing America would be. It is also important to note that even when emissions are reduced in the United States, climate change will be still not be fixed. Every other country would need to follow suit in decarbonizing their economy. However, because the United States is one of the most prominent countries in the world, it is expected that most other nations would follow its example.

Key Takeaways #

• The contributing factors and negative consequences of climate change often create a positive feedback loop that continues to exacerbate the problem
• Climate change is caused by humans and must be solved by humans
• Climate change effects all people in the United States and around the world
• Restoring the climate will take a large-scale effort to decarbonize the electrical grid and draw down greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

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