July's extreme weather events highlight climate's long shadow

July's extreme weather events highlight climate's long shadow
© Ian Waldie/Getty Images

As we slide deeper into another record-setting summer of heatwaves, drought, wildfires, floods and hurricanes, many are asking whether this more extreme climate is “the new normal.” The reality is worse: not only are we already living in a climate in which these high-impact events are much more likely, but the impacts are set to accelerate in the coming years and decades. As a result, actions taken now to curb greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate extremes will have substantial benefits, both by reducing the amount of climate change we face in the future and by making us more resilient to the climate change that does occur.

The White House and Congress are currently considering a number of actions to put the U.S. on a firm path to climate security, including the Biden administration’s goal of cutting emissions in half from 2005 levels in the next decade, the clean energy investments in the infrastructure framework being considered by Congress, and the climate provisions included in the budget roadmap released by Senate Democrats this week. As the federal government considers the costs and benefits of these investments, two key and persistent misconceptions about the benefits of climate action could undermine support for comprehensive action.

The first misconception is that climate change will harm only people other than you. While polling consistently shows that clear majorities of Americans believe that global warming is real and that it will cause harm in the U.S., only a minority believes that they themselves will be harmed.

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Indeed, popular narratives of climate doom often focus on rising seas, wilting agricultural crops and stranded polar bears. While important, these are only a small subset of  the impacts of climate change in the United States. Importantly, they incorrectly imagine a world in which only particular interest groups — like coastal homeowners or Midwestern farmers — are those who are in harm’s way.

In fact, the list of areas impacted by climate change is now remarkably long and pervasive, and continues to lengthen. Long-term warming has increased the odds of record-setting heat over at more than 80 percent of the globe, including an astonishing 150-fold increase in probability for the recent Pacific Northwest heatwave. A warming climate is responsible for at least half of the rapid increase in wildfire activity across the U.S. in recent decades, and future warming could lead to an additional doubling of the area burned by wildfires. Such fires spew smoke across huge swaths of the U.S. and are rapidly reversing decades of air quality improvements, with demonstrable negative health outcomes.

Similarly, flooding costs are rising in every region of the contiguous US. New research shows that climate change is increasing extreme precipitation events, contributing approximately one third of the hundreds of billions of dollars in flooding damage across the U.S. in recent decades. 

Perhaps surprisingly, a warming climate has also been shown to affect our cognitive function and mental health. Our kids learn less when it’s hot and perform worse on tests. In addition, while the risk of death from “heat stroke” has been known for some time, we now know that hotter temperatures also lead to increases in on-the-job injuries, mental-health-related emergency department visits and suicide rates.  These effects are felt broadly across the country and affect all demographics, with poor and marginalized communities most vulnerable to the impacts. Climate’s shadow is long.

The second misconception — often raised by legislators — is that aggressive climate action will be too costly. While proposed legislation could indeed run in the trillions of dollars, these costs have to be compared against the benefits they provide. 

These benefits will be large. Comprehensive legislation to combat climate change will create new jobs and spur new economic activity as we develop the technologies and build the infrastructure to live in a world of net-zero carbon emissions. 

But perhaps even larger benefits will come from a world in which climate is less extreme. That world will have fewer unprecedented heatwaves, less flooding and wildfires, as well as better mental and physical health. We calculate that the cumulative savings to the U.S. economy of meeting the most ambitious climate targets could total $6 trillion relative to meeting less ambitious targets. The benefits of aggressive action are even larger when compared to a “business as usual” future with limited climate ambition. 

And that doesn’t even include the fact that aggressive climate action will also give us cleaner air to breathe. In addition to warming the planet, burning fossil fuels also worsens local air pollution, with monstrous negative health consequences. The benefits of reducing this air pollution — which happen immediately, not decades in the future — could alone be large enough to justify the costs of many mitigation actions, with annual health benefits in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

It’s true that — absent careful policy — the costs of achieving net-zero emissions will not be borne equally across society. But options exist to address these inequities. Certain mitigation actions, such as a price on carbon, generate revenues that can be paid out as dividends to affected households or that can be invested in local communities hardest hit by energy transitions. Further, because poor and marginalized communities are often most exposed and most vulnerable to climate stresses, investing in climate resilience and adaptation will help ensure that the costs of transitioning to a clean energy world are shared broadly.  

There is now a mountain of evidence that the record-setting heatwaves, droughts, floods and wildfires that are proving so costly and destructive are not going to abate. As the administration and Congress consider the costs and benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in adaptation and resilience, they should be aware that none of us will be immune to the effects of a rapidly warming climate.

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But how long the shadow of climate change becomes is a choice. And while changing course will have costs, the benefits will likely be much larger.

Marshall Burke is an associate professor in Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science, as well as a fellow at Stanford’s Center on Food Security and the Environment. 

Noah Diffenbaugh is the Kara J Foundation professor in Stanford University’s Department of Earth System Science, and the Kimmelman Family senior fellow in the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

This piece has been updated.