Effects of Climate Change Being Felt Right Now

WASHINGTON – The Obama administration rolled out a detailed federal report Tuesday that set out specific ways climate change is damaging every region of the country ­- including far-reaching impacts on Texas.

According to the report, the state is particularly vulnerable to rising sea levels, worsening droughts, and heat waves – all exacerbated by population growth, urbanization, and energy development.

The third National Climate Assessment, compiled over four years by more than 300 scientists, projects seas will rise from 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century – and land subsidence will worsen the impacts along the Gulf Coast.

Already, the Texas coast is battered by an average of three tropical storms or hurricanes every four years, the report said, generating annual losses of about $14 billion. The report predicts more damage from storm surges, heavy rains and high winds.

The report warned of more damage like that seen in 2011, when “many locations in Texas and Oklahoma experienced more than 100 days over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, with both states noting new high temperature records. Rates of water loss were double the long-term average, depleting water resources and contributing to more than $10 billion in direct losses to agriculture alone.”

Temperatures rising

Changes underway now, according to the report, include altered times of plant flowering, increasing wildfires, shifts in species distributions, a drop in the abundance of native species, and the spread of invasive species.

“Climate change is no longer a future issue,” said Katherine Hayhoe, director of Texas Tech’s Climate Science Center and one of the report’s lead authors. “We are experiencing its impacts today. In the Great Plains, rising temperatures are already increasing demand for water.

Looking ahead, Hayhoe said, “Future increases in temperature and shifts in precipitation patterns will constrain development, stress our natural resources, and increase competition for water among communities, agriculture, energy production, and ecological needs. For the United States as a whole, climate change will affect our lives through its impacts on our health, our water resources, our food, our natural environment and our economy.”

Agriculture vulnerable

The impacts are also great elsewhere in the U.S.

California’s farm industry, which provides more than half the nation’s fruits, nuts and vegetables, is particularly vulnerable, as are many cities along the California coast, including San Francisco, where flooding is already occurring at high tides as sea levels rise. Competition for scarce water as the Sierra snowpack dwindles is expected to intensify among cities, farmers and the environment, the report says.

California had its warmest January on record this year. Temperatures nationally are expected to rise another 2 to 4 degrees over the next few decades, on top of about a 1.5-degree warming since the late 1800s, most of it since 1970, drying soils in the Southwest and fueling strong storms and flooding in the East.

The report sets the stage for President Barack Obama’s politically perilous end run around Congress, starting next month, with expected new plans to clamp down on greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

Goaded by White House science adviser and former UC Berkeley professor John Holdren, along with White House special adviser John Podesta, Obama plans to make addressing climate change a major push of his remaining time in office, even as control of the Senate rests with vulnerable Democrats clinging to seats in the heart of the fossil fuel industry.

“The real bottom line of this report is that climate change is not a distant threat, but is already affecting every region of the country and key sectors of the economy,” Holdren said. “This is the loudest and clearest alarm bell to date signaling the need to take urgent action.”

Report ‘unprecedented’

Holdren called the report “unprecedented in its comprehensiveness and detail,” providing a specific look at how U.S. regions are affected, in contrast to international reports that lump together all of North America, making it difficult for people to grasp the immediate implications for their own lives.

Obama dropped the climate issue in his first term despite having Democratic control of Congress, pursuing health care reform instead.

Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco narrowly pushed through cap-and-trade legislation to hold down carbon emissions, but Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., was unable to get a similar bill through the Senate.

The president is now returning to the issue. He made it a prominent part of his second inaugural address and is forging ahead with plans to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power plants despite Republican opposition. Boxer was given a green light by Podesta earlier this year for her campaign to build public support for steps to combat global warming.

Power plants produce a third of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions and represent the biggest opportunity to curtail warming, according to  Kevin Kennedy, director of the U.S. climate initiative at World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. “Further delay will only accelerate climate change and raise the costs of addressing its impacts,” Kennedy said.

Republicans vowed to push back in the House, where Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., accused Obama of attempting “to continue advancing an agenda against affordable and reliable energy” that he plans to “unilaterally impose on the American people” at a high cost to jobs.

Competition for water

Podesta acknowledged that climate change is low on the list of voter concerns, saying most people “don’t feel that sense of urgency. This report can influence that.”

The National Climate Assessment said a warmer climate will have an especially harsh effect on the produce grown in California, almost all of which – such as grapes and tomatoes – has a high water content  and relies on irrigation.

“The combination of a longer frost-free season, less frequent cold-air outbreaks, and more frequent heat waves accelerates crop ripening and maturity, reduces yields of corn, tree fruit, and wine grapes, stresses livestock and increases agricultural water consumption,” the report says.

The Southwest as a whole, where the population is expected to increase 68 percent by mid-century to 94 million people, is already short of water, the report says.

As the region continues to dry, the assessment says, it will force “increasing competition among farmers, energy producers, urban dwellers, and plant and animal life for the region’s most precious resource.”

Sea levels are projected to rise from 1 to 4 feet by the end of the century, depending on how much the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets melt. That would threaten coastal power plants, sewage plants, ports, airports, highways and other public infrastructure, as well as private homes and businesses. More than half the nation’s population lives in coastal counties.

Sources: Houston Chronicle & AP