A new Climate Assessment Study defines need for equity in solutions
According to a new report, climate change affects us all, but vulnerable communities need their voices heard.
Winter is just around the corner, and a relatively robust El Niño is in place. There is uncertainty about the season’s weather along with record-high ocean temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has forecasted an above-average year in moisture and temperatures. Without a crystal ball, there is no way of knowing exactly how the winter will fare, but we know it will impact the lives of some more than others.
Last week, the federal government released its quadrennial report on climate assessment. Mandated by Congress, this is the fifth iteration that examines the impacts of global climate change on the infrastructure and society of the United States. Known as the National Climate Assessment Report (NCA), it is released every four years and is a product of the Federal Steering Committee, a collaborative group of policymakers comprised of several federal agencies.
The report divides the country into ten regions, with California and Nevada in the Southwest. Climate change manifests mainly through increased heat events, drought, wildfires, and warmer winters.
Mitigation and Adaptation
United States greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions peaked in 2007, with steady declines over the last 16 years. Between 2005 and 2017, the average reduction was around 12%. Still, the NCA does stress that without deeper cuts in global new GHG emissions and accelerated adaptation and mitigation, severe climate risks to the United States will continue to grow. The previous twelve months (November 2022 – October 2023) were the hottest ever recorded, and each increase in warming led to more damage and economic losses.
The NCA clarifies that climate risks can be reduced through individual and policy actions that cut emissions or remove atmospheric carbon (CO2) from the atmosphere. While the NCA outlines dozens of adaptation and mitigation strategies, what remains uncertain is how the planet will respond to the current level of rapid warming.
However, many scientists agree that the degree to which this warming continues is in society’s hands.
“I’d like Americans reading the National Climate Assessment to understand that social systems (that is, institutions, communities, economies, and governance systems) are where climate change is created,” said Dr. Elizabeth Marino, an author of the NCA and associate professor of anthropology and sustainability at Oregon State University.
The impact of climate change has already made landfall in the form of severe heat domes, mega wildfires, torrential rain storms, powerful hurricanes, and weather patterns growing more unpredictable – and these events are impacting more and more Americans. A billion-dollar weather event happens on average every three weeks, compared to 3-4 times just forty years ago.
The predominant force behind the decline in U.S. GHG emissions was the transition away from coal-generated electricity. While natural gas use is still prevalent, emissions in the electricity sector have lowered, making transportation the top emitting industry. This trend will most likely continue as more people take advantage of the tax breaks and incentives of the Inflation Reduction Act geared towards electrifying the home.
Last week, President Biden and President Xi Jinping of China (which emits over a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions) agreed to tackle climate change by building capacity for and transmitting more renewable energy. Cheaper clean energy costs are helping, with wind energy costs down by 70% and solar prices down a whopping 90%. In 2020 alone, 80% of new electricity generation capacity originated from renewable sources.
“The U.S. is increasing the number of actions to address climate change, and this is occurring in all regions,” said Dr. Rachael Shwom, a professor of human ecology at Rutgers University. “We must continue to advance our knowledge and action on intelligent adaptation to reduce the impacts of climate change and lower our harms,” she added.
Local and State agencies nationwide have begun to take action to reduce the impact of climate change, including nature-based solutions in our region. President Joe Biden recently proposed a coastal heritage site along the California coast, the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary, which would protect a 5,617 square-mile area offshore of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara. U.S. Senator Jacky Rosen has been working with local stakeholders in Nevada to preserve 700,000 acres of public lands for wilderness protection.
Actions to reduce wildfire risk are at the forefront for our region and include establishing defensible space and reducing fuel buildup. Particularly for Reno, the city has been working to plant more trees to reduce the urban heat island effect, but the efficacy of that program has yet to be seen. Opening up cooling centers is another action that will help the most vulnerable in extreme heat, which will become more common in Reno, as The Biggest Little City is also the fastest-warming city in the country.
Making Solutions Equitable
The report has “so much more emphasis on vulnerable communities” than previous editions, said Dr. Lesley-Ann L. Dupigny-Giroux, a geography professor at the University of Vermont. As both the Vermont State Climatologist and one of the paper’s authors, she emphasized the report’s focus on human-scale solutions, which was not explicitly laid out before.
“It’s not only science and technology and engineering and math, but there’s also this tremendous focus on art and the way in which all of this comes together to think about and learn about and work through trying to find solutions to our changing climate,” she said.
Summers with sweltering heat events have placed millions at risk, one of the major causes of climate-related deaths. Smoke from wildfires is increasingly stressing communities far away from the blazes. Decades of exclusionary housing practices have left underserved and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities at greater risk of heat and floods.
“Communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous people are some of the most disproportionately affected by climate change and extreme events,” said Dr. Deepti Singh, an assistant professor in the School of the Environment at the Washington State University and an author of the report. She added that in the Pacific Northwest, Indigenous communities – their livelihoods, their food sources, and their historical lands – are being threatened by climate risks.
In Northern Nevada, Pyramid Lake faces the ongoing threat of drought, directly impacting the livelihoods of the Numu or the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Through infrastructure damage, disruptions in labor markets, losses in property values, and more healthcare costs, these extreme events are also elevating the economic consequences.
The frequency of compounded events is increasing. Western states have experienced unprecedented drought, heat, and wildfires in recent years. The Dixie Fire in 2021 burned nearly one million acres and choked the entire region with smoke for weeks. That summer, the heat experienced across much of the Pacific Northwest resulted in over 1,400 heat-related deaths. This blend of climate change weather events led to more than $38.5 billion in total damages.
The Path Forward
Through the widespread rollout of currently available and cost-effective technologies, in tandem with the rapid expansion of carbon removal tools, a pathway exists to reach net zero GHG emissions by 2050. Beyond large-scale and government action, the report calls for individual behavioral changes. The NCA lays out a handful of solutions to get to net zero and lessen the impacts of climate change.
- Expanding wind and solar energy, supported by energy storage
- Shifting transportation and heating systems to zero-carbon electricity
- Increasing energy efficiency throughout society
- Improving urban planning and design to focus on reducing energy demands via increased public transportation and decreased cooling demands from infrastructure
- Raising the sustainability of food production, distribution, and consumption
- Improving land management to reduce GHG emissions and raise carbon removal
Transformative adaptation starts at the individual level, which involves a new way of thinking and conducting everyday life. It may mean riding a bike instead of driving a car, buying more locally-produced food, or contacting local officials to develop more sustainability initiatives.
But it’s not all dependent on us. The report also calls for efforts on an international scale.
“Mitigation and adaptation actions, from international to individual scales, can also result in a range of benefits beyond limiting harmful climate impacts, including some immediate benefits,” the report stated.
Until then, getting more diverse and vulnerable voices together is critical to working on solutions together.
This story was originally published with the Sierra Nevada Ally on NOVEMBER 18, 2023