After this summer, there may not be a need for a climatologist to state the obvious, but I will: Man-made climate change has become a major problem, not only around the world, but also in the USA. And it’s getting worse quickly.
In the southwestern United States, climate change is hitting hard in the form of heat waves, Sandstorm and Forest fires. Yet the truly existential impact of climate change is on the water supply. The main source of water in the region is the Colorado River (with my old home state Arizona right in the middle of the growing crisis). The flows of this river have declined by about 20 percent since the “drought” hit 22 years ago. We now know that this is not a drought that will simply end when the snows come back upstream. It is a progressive aridification mainly due to global warming.
May climate change continue and the semi-arid West will see its surface water reserves continue to decline in a largely irreversible manner. Colorado River could lose more than a third of its flows by mid-century, and more thereafter. The mighty Rio Grande of New Mexico and Texas is already become a net in a few years. Many turn to groundwater to make up for lost river flows, but in much of the semi-arid West, groundwater is fossil water accumulated during repeated ice ages, and this water will simply drain when pumped dry.
Groundwater depletion is an invisible problem that is getting worse, but above ground the wildfire crisis in the western United States is a storm of destruction and toxic smoke that no one can ignore. Heat waves and Forest fires will kill and destroy more and more unless climate change is stopped quickly. The Western water crisis is already expansion out of the southwest and will become much worse in the absence of bold climate action.
Our greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere have warmed the planet by just over 1 degree Celsius (almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit). If we don’t act boldly now, we risk crossing tipping points, or thresholds of the climate system, where much greater warming (3 degrees Celsius or more) and associated climatic catastrophes become inevitable and largely irreversible. This is one of the main reasons why climatologists have recommended to world leaders to cap global warming at 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius – the goal of the Paris Agreement as agreed by virtually every country in the world.
Even 1 degree Celsius of warming is already turning the western United States into a disaster area, and it’s starting to hit the rest of the country more and more. Hurricanes fueled by warmer oceans and atmosphere become monstrous storms that often escalate at record speed. Worse yet, the ever increasing rainfall rates, quantities and flooding associated with storms. Coastal areas are hammered more than ever, and thunderstorm rains are tracking much more inland – flooding communities with Appalachians all the in New England. In the years to come, many more such storms will wreak havoc if we do not take bold action now on climate change.
The rise in sea level due mainly to warming and expanding oceans (coupled with melting glaciers and ice caps) has been slow, but it is inexorable and accelerates. The cities of Florida are the poster children of ongoing coastal flooding, but along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts, communities are starting to feel the impacts of sea level rise. However, if we do not act boldly on climate change today, we risk crossing over. irreversible thresholds beyond which huge parts of our polar ice caps are melting and becoming tens of feet of sea level rise. It is an extremely expensive pipe dream to believe that coastal walls or dikes will be able to save American coastal cities under such a rise in sea level.
There are times when leaders need to lead. The nation and the planet face a myriad of existential threats that will play out if climate change is allowed to continue. The solutions are well known, technologically proven and surprisingly affordable. These same solutions to climate change will also largely rid our air of deadly air pollution and will create a clear increase in new jobs. In addition, citizens of all parts of the country will benefit. Almost every country in the world are lining up to do their part and counting on the United States to lead.
I am a scientist who has studied climate change and its impacts for years, but I am also like everyone who reads this post. I care about our country, its economy, its people – rich and poor, rural and urban. And I care about future generations, who will inherit either an unimaginable climate catastrophe or a transformed world that is free from climate change, toxic air pollution, mass extinction, and the terrible economic and health burdens that massive climate change is sure to create.
Congress cannot lose sight of the fact that our country’s big push on climate change must be undertaken now, otherwise we will risk crossing those tipping points beyond which the impacts become much more devastating and irreversible. .
If we don’t act now, all parts of the country will experience impacts that will make the summer of 2021 feel like a walk in the park. The citizens of our country deserve bold action – and infrastructure spending as usual is not enough on its own. Success in our battle against climate change requires deliberate and strategic spending to ensure that the United States reduces its greenhouse gas emissions by more than half during this decade.
Our eyes are on Congress, and the whole world is watching with us. As a country and as a planet, we must do whatever it takes to stop climate change now.
Jonathan overpeck, Doctorate., is a climatologist, professor and dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan. He has conducted research on drought, climate variability and climate change on five continents. Follow him on Twitter: @GreatLakesPeck