by Jessica Schiff
figures by Sarah Dendy
Climate change is impacting every region in the United States, fueling more intense natural disasters. It is hard to ignore the number of people leaving their homes due to either sudden events, like wildfires, or gradual climate-related changes, like sea level rise. In 2020, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (iDMC) reported 1,719,000 new displacements and registered 126,000 internally displaced residents (people who are forced to leave their home but stay within their home country) in the U.S. because of natural disasters, most notably hurricanes and wildfires. Climate change-related disruptions are also economically devastating, causing billions of dollars of damage each year, with some estimates suggesting that by 2100 climate change will cost the U.S. 3% of its gross domestic product; in the past five years alone, the United States has already lost $500 billion due to climate change.
Not only are people losing their homes and money, studies indicate that over 2,000 people each year could die from climate related injuries if global temperatures increase by 2°C (~3.6°F). Furthermore, people being forced from their homes, they are also losing their jobs, the ability to grow and harvest food, and the ability to experience wild landscapes and nature.
The gravity of this climate crisis was highlighted at last year’s UN Climate Change Conference, COP26, which brought scientists, world leaders, young climate activists such as Greta Thunberg, and indigenous voices together to share strong messages underscoring the critical state of the climate crisis and the urgency for action. While nations agreed to take new measures to reduce their impacts on the environment and slow the warming of the planet, such as with the methane pledge where more than 100 countries agreed to reduce methane emissions by 2030, there is a lack of confidence that these efforts will be sufficient. Moreover, greenwashing, the practice in which an organization gives a positive, sustainable, public image to practices that are environmentally damaging, limits the benefits of environmental measures. Impacts of climate change are particularly concerning when a country’s population does not worry about the climate crisis or believe that the changes occurring will impact them; in the United States, for example, where climate change is actively impacting daily lives, only 63% of US adults are worried about global warming. Furthermore, only 43% of American adults believe global warming will harm them personally. This statistic is shocking, especially given the widespread impacts climate change is having on the United States.
Climate Change in the United States: Who is being impacted?
Wildfires and California Residents
Residents of California are losing their homes and properties to fires, with the largest ever recorded wildfire in California occurring in 2020. In fact, seven of the ten most destructive wildfires in California history occurred in the past 10 years, resulting in mass displacement, with over 53,000 people being displaced by the August 2020 wildfires alone. Prior to 2020, the most destructive wildfire outbreaks in the US occurred in 2018, displacing over 354,000 people and accounting for 30% of all recorded internal displacements in 2018. Since the 1970s, climate change has resulted in drier vegetation due to higher temperatures and droughts, causing a five-fold increase in land prone to wildfires in California. As global temperature continues to warm, larger and more intense fires will occur, potentially displacing hundreds of thousands of people and causing notable economic damage. In 2018 alone, the California wildfires resulted in $148.5 billion of damages. The health of California residents is also at risk, as smoke from the wildfires significantly reduces air quality, causing irritation of the eyes and throat and, when inhaled, entering the bloodstream and causing inflammation, chest tightness, and wheezing.
Farmers in the Midwest
Climate change is also causing a rise in temperatures and shifts in rain patterns, resulting in drought or flooding — both disastrous for crop yields. This is causing farmers in the Midwest United States to lose their crops, particularly corn, due to unpredictable weather patterns, forcing them to reconsider their agricultural future. Agriculture relies on consistent weather conditions from year-to-year, as the crop growing season is dependent on certain temperatures and precipitation at different stages of plant development. Just a 0.8 °C increase in temperature over the next 30 years could lead to a 2-3% yield decrease in the U.S. corn belt, equating to a significant decrease in food productivity, as the US corn belt provides one-third of the world’s supply of corn. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that 19.4 million acres of cropland were left unplanted due to inclement weather, mainly increased flooding. Loss of crop yields and revenue, coupled with an inability to adapt to climate change, has led to 14% of midwestern farmers planning to quit farming.
New England Fishermen
Fishermen in New England face a similar threat. The waters off the East Coast of the United States have always been productive, but overfishing and climate change have stressed fisheries. Climate change is increasing the water temperatures, increasing water acidity, and changing patterns of regional precipitation. The Gulf of Maine, for example, has warmed over 99% faster than the global oceans, affecting currents and species distribution. Climate shocks have significantly impacted the catch off the coast of New England, and as a result, there has been a 16% decline in county-level fishing employment and a 35% drop in fishing wages. In Cape Cod, fishermen are struggling to maintain livelihoods as the Cape’s namesake fish population, the Cod, has declined as warmer waters have forced the fish to move north. Fishermen are now struggling to adapt to the new fish populations, which require changes in permits and equipment.
Visitors to National Parks
When thinking about climate change impacts, it is important to not only consider the impacts on the environment, but also the impacts that limit or restrict our ability to interact with and connect with nature as well, such as in national parks. A stark example of this occurred when a large landslide in Denali National Park at Polychrome Pass closed the only road in and out of Denali through the summer of 2022. The road had been constructed upon a large, rocky glacier, and as global temperatures have increased with climate change, the glacier’s movements accelerated, making the surrounding land unstable. There are plans to have the road stabilized in the next year, but the closure of the road has restricted access for visitors to experience the pristine wilderness that Denali has to offer.
Furthermore, summer visibility in Great Smoky Mountains National Park has decreased by 80% since 1950, and coastal national parks, such as the Everglades, could soon experience stronger storms and flooding, damaging ecosystems and visitor trails. Other national parks, such as Glacier National Park in Montana and Glacier Bay and Kenai Fjords National Parks in Alaska, have experienced warmer annual temperatures, leading to significant melting of glaciers. 95% of Alaska’s glaciers are thinning due to climate change, and Glacier Bay National Park has seen a decrease in glacial ice by 11% since 1950; in Montana’s Glacier National Park, every named glacier has retreated, with some shrinking in size by 80% since 1966.
All these climate change impacts have repercussions on visitors to national parks, whether from reducing or eliminating the natural attractions and activities that draw people to the national parks or by creating unsafe hiking and driving conditions. If people are less able to engage with nature because the trails are closed, it will influence the feedback cycle of people not understanding or fully respecting nature, making it more challenging to witness and understand the need to continue to fight for – and protect – nature.
Why do we need to recognize climate impacts in the U.S.?
If we truly want to mitigate the climate crisis, we need to first acknowledge that it is not just a ‘far-away’ problem that other countries are threatened with – all regions of the U.S. are already being, and will continue to be, impacted. Agriculture and fishing industries are being hit hard, and our natural spaces are being degraded, making it challenging for us to connect with nature and enjoy outdoor activities. Climate change related impacts and environmental damages, such as decreases in air and water quality and increasing temperatures, are impacting our health and putting us at risk for illness or death. Our safety and access to livable land within the U.S. are also being compromised by climate change and extreme weather events, causing people to face the arduous choice of staying put and risking severe debt or personal safety, or changing professions and moving and starting over in a new city. Hopefully, by bringing awareness to how climate change impacts us personally, we can modify our perceptions and behaviors and become more forceful climate advocates and leaders.
Here are some of the many ways that we can take action against climate change:
- Engage in climate discussion with your community, friends, and family — awareness is key in fighting the climate crisis.
- Commit to making small, sustainable lifestyle changes such as substituting one or two meat based meals per week to plant based meals, buying a reusable water bottle, or buying recycled or used clothing.
- If possible, switch to a reusable or zero-carbon energy provider. The change in price is often small, but the environmental impacts are large.
- Improve insulation in homes and work spaces, which can reduce energy used for heating and cooling.
- Volunteer to clean up your community and keep waste from entering the environment.
Jessica Schiff is a Master of Science (SM) graduate from the Environmental Health Department at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Sarah Dendy is a PhD student in the department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.