Even worse threats to life, property and nature are coming, scientists say.
“If you don’t like what you’re seeing today, stick around — it’s going to get worse before it gets better,” said Michael Oppenheimer, a climate scientist at Princeton University.
The Biden administration’s responses to the problem include a $369 billion climate package enacted last year that seeks to slash U.S. climate pollution — though that task will take decades — along with more than $50 billion that the 2021 infrastructure law coping with and limiting damage from climate disasters.
It’s unclear whether those measures will yield results fast enough to avoid the worst of climate change or withstand its growing impacts. And even that agenda faces political attacks from Republicans, who have not offered a unified climate strategy but plan to make repealing his signature climate law a prime part of their 2024 message to voters. But President Joe Biden has vowed to defend his legislative wins as the climate signals blare ever louder.
“We don’t have a lot of time,” the president said this week in Vilnius, Lithuania, calling climate change “the single greatest threat to humanity.”
Meanwhile, milestones keep tumbling.
Last week brought the hottest global temperatures in 143 years of record-keeping, which may well mark the highest since the last interglacial period 125,000 years ago.
That has put the planet on a pace to likely set a new temperature record for the year, some experts say, surpassing a previous peak that’s only seven years old. It also jeopardizes the already slim hopes of meeting the temperature targets that the U.S. and more than 190 other countries agreed to under the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
The climate research group Berkeley Earth said Tuesday that global average temperatures in June were 1.47 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, just a shade under a stretch target in the Paris climate agreement to limit warming to 1.5 degrees of warming. Missing that target would spell doom for many small island nations at risk from the rising sea levels, scientists say.
The World Meteorological Organization said there is a 66 percent chance the annual global average temperature rise will exceed 1.5 degrees Celsius at least once between now and 2027.
The world has already seen 1.2 degrees of warming since the dawn of the industrial revolution, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Meanwhile, federal scientists say levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are higher than they’ve been in more than 3 million years.
Even with the U.S. and European climate pollution on a downswing, those cuts are not enough to offset increases in other nations, particularly China and several midsize economies.
“The chances of avoiding 1.5 degrees is nil. It’s too hard to get there,” Oppenheimer said. “We’re not getting our act together fast enough to avoid it at this point.”
The climate disasters unfolding now are largely as predicted: rising temperatures, stronger cyclones, deeper droughts, enduring wildfires. But the speed of their arrival has stunned some experts.
“How quickly the onset has occurred and the pace at which these impacts are accelerating — I think even the most seasoned climate scientists are pretty surprised about that,” said Kathy Jacobs, a University of Arizona climate scientist who ran the National Climate Assessment, a sweeping federal agency review of climate science, during the Obama administration.
No relief from the heat
The heat wave that sent temperatures in Phoenix as high as 111 degrees Fahrenheit are expected to persist in many places in the U.S through next week. The peak reached on July 6 contributed to the global surge that marked the world’s hottest days ever recorded, according to the World Meteorological Organization. With an El Niño weather cycle expected to bring warmer than average waters to the Pacific Ocean, on top of decades of accumulating global warming, it’s likely this year will rank as the hottest of all time.
There’s a growing recognition among public officials that heatwaves are becoming more frequent and severe, posing dangerous health threats, said Morgan Zabow, a NOAA official who works on efforts to map heat. As of Friday, nearly 114 million Americans were under heat alerts, according to Heat.gov.
Zabow noted that heat is the nation’s top weather-related killer.
“It’s only going to get worse and worse. And so if people aren’t thinking about it, especially regularly, that’s when it gets even deadlier,” she said.
That is true across the globe. Researchers concluded in a study published Monday that last summer’s heatwave in Europe killed 61,000 people. Many of those deaths occurred in southern Europe, which the WMO said is now in a drought.
Perhaps more distressing is the heat in the oceans. The Atlantic is experiencing bathtub-like conditions around Florida, and forecasters have readjusted their predictions for the current hurricane season upward. Besides fostering stronger tropical storms and hurricanes, the warmer waters can whiplash West Africa between extreme rains and punishing droughts, said Omar Baddour, head of the WMO’s climate monitoring and policy services division.
Flooding is already hitting parts of the U.S., where torrential rainfall inundated much of the Northeast last weekend deluging hundreds of homes and killing one person. With many rural residents trapped and major roads closed, people waited days for rescues. Republican Vermont Gov. Phil Scott trekked to safety via snowmobile trail to circumnavigate “completely impassable” roads, he wrote in a tweet.
Adding to the problem: The U.S. has long been massively undercounting its flood risk from heavy rains, which are happening more frequently because of climate change, according to recent research by the climate risk modeling firm First Street Foundation. That means that people are continuing to move — and build — in harm’s way, while overly optimistic federal maps of flood risk prompt many homeowners to forgo insurance coverage against deluges.
In Vermont, less than 1 percent of homes statewide had taken out federally backed flood insurance policies. In New York state, less than 2 percent of housing units are covered for flood, according to private flood insurer Neptune Flood Insurance. Those who lost their homes in the recent floods probably face dire financial consequences.
Another danger from a warming planet is smoke from wildfires, like those in Canada that have burned nearly 24 million acres of land this year, according to the country’s interagency fire service. Smoke, which triggers heart- and lung-related illnesses, has plagued parts of the Midwest and East Coast throughout the summer.
Most people have thought of climate change as bringing manageable “incremental effects,” said Jacobs, who is now director for the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona.
But “it’s never like a small incremental effect,” she said. “It’s a combined effect of heat and drought, or wildfires and air quality and health.”
Other dangers offer a slower burn. The rising ocean temperatures coupled with El Niño threaten to kill aquatic life and diminish fisheries, depleting food supplies, said Michael Sparrow, head of the climate research division at the WMO.
The harm from these extremes is not divided equally — either among or within nations. Many public housing units in the U.S. do not come with air conditioning, nor can many residents afford to add it, Oppenheimer said. Public officials in states like Arizona and Illinois advise those without air conditioning to visit cooling centers during heatwaves, but many are inaccessible to people most vulnerable to heat, such as the elderly, chronically ill or low-income people without reliable transportation, he said.
Some communities are trying to address those shortfalls. Officials in Miami-Dade County in Florida found out which ZIP codes have the highest rates of heat-related hospitalizations and emergency room visits, then launched a public awareness campaign with bus stop advertisements in specific neighborhoods and radio spots on Creole- and Spanish-speaking stations. It is also making those ZIP codes the priority for planting new trees to provide more shade and ensuring county-run public housing has new air conditioning and energy efficiency investments.
“We like our heat in general, but the heat starts to become dangerous with temperatures over 90 degrees,” Miami-Dade Chief Heat Officer Jane Gilbert said.
The rising financial toll
Climate change already inflicts staggering costs on the economy. Without addressing it, the tab will grow.
Heat, for example, costs the U.S. more than $100 billion in lost worker productivity annually, according to the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center and modeling firm Vivid Economics. Local health departments get stretched, adding to expenses, or do not know how to properly document heat illness. Many who die from heat also have comorbidities like old age, complicating the role hotter temperatures played in deaths.
Warming temperatures also spell more agony for air travelers because of worsening storms, United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said during a POLITICO policy forum this week.
The rapid onset of consistently hot and deadly temperatures is catching people off guard.
“The human brain can’t keep up with the acceleration and the perception of your own risk,” said Kathy Baughman McLeod, senior vice president at the Atlantic Council and director of Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center.
Some impacts are more straightforward. The combination of drought, climate change and rapid development has imposed a clear economic cost in Arizona: Water supplies fell to a point that triggered a rule forbidding some new home construction permits near Phoenix last month. Those guardrails have held even despite the Sun Belt’s propensity to build.
“I always feared when push came to shove that there would be backpedaling — and that may happen,” said Jacobs, who led the team that wrote Arizona’s water use rules in the late 1980s and 1990s. “But essentially, what we’re seeing is a water management program that’s working. And I’m very excited about that part.”
Meanwhile, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has pivoted from one crisis to the next, draining its coffers.
In addition to coordinating disaster response, FEMA also runs the U.S. federal flood insurance program. And it simply is not ready to juggle the myriad perils that climate change is spitting out, said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor at the University of Delaware who focuses on disasters.
“I think as a whole in the United States we are not prepared to deal with the effects of a changing climate,” she said. “We are doing too much in the reaction mode rather than the preparation mode.”
FEMA spokesman Jeremy Edwards said the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law passed in 2022 had included $7 billion to improve communities’ resilience, “resulting in the expansion of FEMA programs like Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC, and our Flood Mitigation Assistance, which will ultimately help reduce disaster loss and suffering.”
Zia Weise contributed to this report.