News about climate change is rapidly getting blunter and less theoretical. The long-anticipated National Climate Assessment, released shortly after Thanksgiving, took a thorough look at climate change in the US, clocking in at a door-stopping 1,656 pages. In an in-depth story about the report, the New York Times paints a stark picture of the impacts, on both economies and communities:
The report puts the most precise price tags to date on the cost to the United States economy of projected climate impacts: $141 billion from heat-related deaths, $118 billion from sea level rise, and $32 billion from infrastructure damage by the end of the century, among others.
No part of the nation will be spared, authors Coral Davenport and Kendra Pierre-Louis write:
The report covers every region of the United States and asserts that recent climate-related events are signs of things to come. No area of the country will be untouched, from the Southwest, where droughts will curb hydropower and tax already limited water supplies, to Alaska, where the loss of sea ice will cause coastal flooding and erosion and force communities to relocate, to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, where saltwater will taint drinking water.
Shortly after the federal report was issued, the United Nations put out a similarly dire global climate report, which stated flatly that emissions must be cut by at least a quarter by 2030 to keep global temperature rise below an already-catastrophic 2 degrees Celsius. Governments are mostly failing to take the actions required to pull this off, the report’s authors say:
New taxes on fossil fuels, investment in clean technology, and much stronger government policies to bring down emissions are likely to be necessary. Governments must also stop subsidizing fossil fuels, directly and indirectly, the UN said.
Gunnar Luderer, one of the authors of the UN report and senior scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany, said: “There is still a tremendous gap between words and deeds, between the targets agreed by governments and the measures to achieve these goals.”
What’s In Store For Us?
The narrative around climate change is often one of prediction, but increasingly, talking about climate change means talking about a world that has already shifted. The impacts of warming are already being felt in the Hudson Valley.
As climate change progresses, rainstorms are becoming fiercer, raising the frequency of inland flooding. Flooding in streamside towns in the water-rich Catskills and across New York State has long been a problem, and is getting worse. In the wake of Irene and Sandy in 2011 and 2012, FEMA has undertaken substantial revisions to its floodplain maps in the state, and is currently tackling the Sisyphean task of re-mapping New York City’s floodplains.
The Times-Unionreports on local impacts in the National Climate Assessment:
While New York should continue to warm, it likely does not face a “doomsday scenario” of unbearable heat or unending drought from climate change, said [University of Albany climate researcher Oliver] Timm. But residents can expect more extreme rainstorms, which can cause dangerous flash flooding, he says.
Sea level rise, which will take a disproportionate toll on cities and towns along the Hudson River, is already underway. Globally, sea levels have risen 5 to 8 inches since 1900. As the sea continues to warm and rise, estuarine rivers like the Hudson, whose levels fluctuate with the tides, will rise as well:
“State projections released in 2015 forecast that the Hudson River in Troy could rise from one to nine inches during the 2020s, between 5 and 27 inches by the 2050s, and between 10 and 54 inches by the 2080s.
By the time a child born in 2015 turns 85 in 2100, the river at Troy could be up as little as 10 inches — or as much as nearly 6 feet. Projected increases were slightly larger farther south. In New York City by 2100 the sea could be between 15 inches and 75 inches — just over 6 feet — higher than today.”
Longer summers and warmer winters are also already creating conditions under which invasive species—and overabundant native ones—multiply and thrive.
The blacklegged tick, a species that has wreaked havoc on human health in the Hudson Valley, is increasing in population and moving northward as a result of climate change. In a lengthy report for the Center for Public Integrity, investigative reporters Kristen Lombardi and Fatima Bhojani write that weak government response on the state level is making the problem worse:
It’s one strand in an ominous tapestry: Across the United States, tick- and mosquito-borne diseases, some potentially lethal, are emerging in places and volumes not previously seen. Climate change almost certainly is to blame, according to a 2016 report by 13 federal agencies that warned of intensifying heat, storms, air pollution, and infectious diseases. Last year, a coalition of 24 academic and government groups tried to track climate-related health hazards worldwide. It found them “far worse than previously understood,” jeopardizing half a century of public-health gains.
Yet in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage—a conservative Republican who has questioned global-warming science—won’t acknowledge the phenomenon. His administration has suppressed state plans and vetoed legislation aimed at limiting the damage, former government officials say. They say state employees, including at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, have been told not to discuss climate change.
The most recent discouraging news, on the ever-shifting tick-borne disease front, is that a new and threatening species has arrived in our backyard. The Asian longhorned tick, a vector for a virus that causes hemorrhagic fever, has been found in nine states including New York, and is on the march, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report issued last week. The Washington Post reports:
The tick “is potentially capable of spreading a large number of diseases,” said Lyle Petersen, director of the CDC’s Division of Vector-Borne Diseases. “We really don’t know if diseases will be spread by this tick in the United States and, if so, to what extent. But it’s very important that we figure this out quickly.”
Port in a Storm?
Climate change is already displacing people from their homes, globally and locally. In our own region, flood buyouts in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene are still ongoing. As the effects of climate change intensify, we can expect to see more people displaced from the most vulnerable areas.
One strategy for planning for climate change, if you have the money for it: Hedge your bets by owning land in more than one place. A recent New York Times real estate story profiled a few people who are taking this tack, including a 33-year-old Connecticut man who’s setting up shop in the Catskills:
[Mark] Dalski, 33, lives in Greenwich, CT, but he can envision a time when his home there might be besieged by extreme weather and rising sea levels. So he bought four acres of land in the Catskill Mountains, in Roxbury, NY, where he is building a home that is as sustainable and self-sufficient as possible.
To date, he has drilled a well, set up poles for power lines and designed a septic system that has been approved by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. (The property is in the city’s watershed.)
He is working on designing and then securing building permits for the house. He wants it to be no more than 1,200 square feet—“it should be simple, small and sustainable,” he said—and to have an open floor plan and a lofted master bedroom. The windows will look out over land where he can grow corn, collard greens and root vegetables.
Dalski tells reporter Alyson Krueger that if Greenwich is threatened, Roxbury will be a “safe space.” It hasn’t been long since the Catskills, and upstate New York in general, were devastated by flooding in Irene. It seems unlikely that there are any safe spaces to be had in our region. But amid the uncertainty, one thing seems likely: Those with enough money to be flexible about their living situations will surely be better able to weather the coming storms.