The fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4) report, released just after Thanksgiving, issues dire warnings about the impacts of climate change to the national economy, local communities and individual lives.
It’s easy to lull ourselves into thinking that we are safe here, far away from the hurricane-devastated southern coasts and the fire-ravaged western states. But this report delivers a sobering wake-up call to Wisconsinites (nca2018.globalchange.gov).
A chapter focused on climate impacts in the Midwest predicts an increase in extreme rainfall events that erode topsoil and increase nitrogen pollution in our waterways. In combination with warming lakes and streams, this will lead to the loss of prized cold-water fish species and an increase in noxious algae blooms. We are already suffering losses from the northward spread of invasive pests and pathogens that frigid winters once kept away, such as the emerald ash borer. Higher summertime temperatures — the largest increases in the country —result in heat stress, reducing corn and soy yields and altering the range of native tree species. Taken together, these effects threaten agriculture and forestry, which are crucial to our local economies and central to our regional identity.
Stronger storms also increase the risks of floods and associated costly damages to critical infrastructure, including homes and businesses, roads and bridges, sewer systems, dams and water treatment plants. The increasing frequency of severe flooding is already impacting Wisconsinites in recent years.
A warming climate also increases risks to human health. According to the NCA4, the Midwest will experience the greatest increase in heat-related deaths in the nation. Higher temperatures degrade our air quality with higher levels of air pollutants and allergy-inducing pollens along with smoke from western wildfires. Debilitating insect-borne illnesses like Lyme disease will continue to spread. These impacts affect everyone, but especially the poor, those who work outdoors, and our elders and children.
We can no longer afford to ignore these warnings of a changing climate — long predicted by more than 95 percent of climate scientists. The report affirms that, “observational evidence does not support any credible natural explanations. … instead, the evidence consistently points to human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse or heat trapping gases, as the dominant cause.” It expresses the confidence of hundreds of expert authors, informed by listening sessions with thousands of participants in over 40 cities, and endorsed by 13 separate government agencies including NASA, the EPA and the Defense Department.
The mounting expenses of climate change will quickly dwarf the cost of investing to reduce its impacts. Federal relief for the victims of recent wildfires and hurricanes is already adding billions to the national debt, leaving future generations a huge financial burden. By 2090, the report projects that the annual costs of climate change in the U.S. may exceed $100 billion if current carbon emission trends continue. But it also indicates that these losses can be nearly halved by rapidly decarbonizing the global economy. The inevitable transition to a carbon-free society will be far cheaper if we act sooner rather than later — while yielding significant economic co-benefits like clean energy jobs.
Fortunately, we already know the most effective way to make this transition: put a price on fossil fuels that covers their true health, environmental and societal costs. Such carbon pricing strategies have been successfully implemented in dozens of countries around the world, most recently in Canada. Here in Wisconsin, over a half dozen cities and counties, including Eau Claire, have passed resolutions supporting this approach. According to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 68 percent of Americans support a carbon fee placed on fossil fuels and 86 percent support the transition to clean energy — a clear majority across the political spectrum.
Americans are weary of toxic partisanship and are looking for legislators to work together on issues that benefit us all. The recent change in congressional leadership offers a compelling opportunity for our representatives to support bipartisan legislation that treats climate change as a bridge — not a wedge — issue. Encouragingly, the first bipartisan climate legislation in a decade has just been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives. Concerned citizens can make a difference by contacting their legislators, urging them to finally address the issue of climate change by supporting a price on carbon.
Boulter, an associate professor of chemistry at UW-Eau Claire, may be reached at email@example.com.