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EPA Concludes Climate Change Is Biggest Issue of Our Time in Recent Report

A recent report released by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) titled "Climate Change in the United States: Benefits of Global Action" said that climate change could kill 12,000 people annually in the U.S. and damages to coastal property from rising seas will surpass $5.0 trillion through 2100 if actions are not taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The report focuses on the physical and economic risks of unmitigated climate change and the benefits of dealing with the issue in a timely manner.

Human activities, such as pollution and deforestation, have changed the climate as a whole, leading to an increased amount of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide to enter the atmosphere. The effects of this have been higher sea levels, loss of sea ice and an increase in heat waves across the globe, according to the report.

(Flickr Photo/ Lisa Murray)

Michael C. Veres, an assistant professor of Climatology at SUNY Oswego, suggests that before the nation as a whole begins to address the issue of climate it's important for citizens to know the difference between "climate change" and "global warming."

"Climate change refers to any change in the climate, regardless of the cause and can refer to warm and cold over the ice ages over the past one million years," Veres explained. "Global warming, on the other hand, specifically focuses on the warming that has happened over the last 150 years on Earth because of greenhouse emissions by humans."

In terms of addressing the negative impacts of climate change, Veres suggested that the nation should take steps to reduce the amount of greenhouse gas emission.

The report uses a consistent set of climatic, socioeconomic and technological scenarios to identify the advantages of global greenhouse gas mitigation across six broad sectors in the continental U.S.

Health

Unmitigated climate change will result in worsening air quality across a large section of the United States especially across metropolitan areas in the East, Midwest and South.

Veres explains that higher temperatures can lead to an increase in surface ozone (smog), which in the long run will cause more respiratory problems, especially among children and the elderly. It will also lead to more frequent occurrences of heat waves during the summer, causing more heat-related deaths.

The report states that with air quality mitigation there will be significant public health benefits in the U.S. as 13,000 premature deaths in 2050 and 57,000 premature deaths will be avoided by the year 2100. Under the mitigation scenario, extreme death will be reduced by 64 percent in 2050 and by 93 percent in the year 2100.

Infrastructure

Our infrastructural system in the U.S. is important in economic growth and has been the backbone of this nation for over a century.

If greenhouse gas emissions aren't reduced, an estimated 190,000 inland bridges across the nation will become structurally vulnerable due to climate change. In addition to our bridges, our roads will be affected as a result of higher surface temperatures increasing over time.

"With a warming climate, sea level rise will lead to extensive damage along coastlines and the need for investments into mitigating the damage," Veres stated. "This will lead to more rapid degradation of the transportation infrastructure of roads, railroads and highways."

With greenhouse house gas mitigation, the U.S. would avoid spending an estimated $4.2-$7.4 billion in road damage by 2100. An estimated 720-2,200 fewer bridges will be saved from structurally unstable conditions due to necessary funding to reconstruct these infrastructures, according to the EPA.

Electricity

Electricity plays an important role in powering our homes with light and assists with the production of goods and our economy as a whole. Electricity relies on a large amount of fossil fuels and according to the EPA, use of electricity in the nation accounts for approximately 30 percent of greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising temperatures will result in higher electric demand, as air conditioning use will outweigh decreases in electric heating requirements.

Reduction of greenhouse gas emissions will result in smaller increases in average temperature which in the long run lead to lower electric demand across all regions of the country. Mitigation would lead to an estimated 1.1-4.0 percent reduction in energy demands and would save power system costs by $10-$34 billion.

Water Resources

Water plays a vital role in our economy for agricultural, recreational and irrigation purposes. As temperatures continue to rise due to climate change, so does the rate of evaporation. This will contribute to the water cycle being altered leading to more precipitation in some areas and droughtlike conditions in others, according to the EPA.

With mitigation, the EPA estimates that there will be 40-59 percent fewer severe and extreme droughts in 2100 particularly in the Southwest and West region of the United States. It will also result in an estimated $11-$180 billion in avoided damages from water shortages in key sectors by 2100.

Agriculture and Forestry

According to the EPA, climate change poses a drastic and harmful effect on U.S. agriculture due to increased changes in temperature and precipitation and more frequent severe weather outbreaks. Veres stated that with decreases in rainfall in the West, already stressed cropland will be further stressed.

Furthermore, even in parts of the U.S. that might see an increase in rainfall, such as the Corn Belt, the rainfall is likely to occur in fewer storms with higher rainfall rates. This will lead to higher incidences of field flooding and runoff and will reduce the amount of useful rain during the growing season.

The report suggested that taking measures such as changes in crop selection and the use of technological innovations will delay the negative impacts of climate change to the agricultural sector. With mitigation, U.S. agriculture would avoid an estimated $6.6-$11 billion in avoided damage.

Ecosystems

Our climate has a direct connection to all of our ecosystems. Our changing climate can lead to a variety of changes in our various ecosystems throughout the U.S. For example, it can alter life-cycle events, affect wetlands and coral reefs and elevate the risk of extinction for many species.

Veres also noted that one of the major impacts of increased temperatures is a notable increase in wildfires in the U.S. This is especially an ongoing issue in the western U.S., where increased temperature and decreased rainfall combine to produce very favorable conditions for wildfires.

Water quality is also affected due to climate change and can lead to the replacement of current ecosystems with ones that more suited for higher temperatures.

With mitigation, there will be an estimated avoided loss of 35 percent of coral in Hawaii and avoided losses are valued at $1.2 billion. In addition, there will be an estimated 6.0-7.9 million fewer acres burned as a result of wildfires by 2100.

Veres believes that with proper measures these projections by the EPA are attainable. He also noted if mitigations aren't made to address the issue of climate change, the damage will add up to many billions of dollars by the end of the century.