Climate change is already here, scientists say, and it's killing us

Storm clouds gather over New York City. (Photo: Denis Paquin/AP)

Whenever a landmark report on climate change is published, the stories written about it often focus on the calamitous projections that inaction will mean for the Earth in future decades. This inevitably spurs debates about how much contemporary society should care about alarming consequences that many people may not live long enough to experience. But this way of framing the problem misses the point, many scientists say.

“This isn’t necessarily a future problem. It will get worse, but it’s already here. Every continent, every ocean has been impacted already by climate change,” Ilissa Ocko, a climate scientist at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), told Yahoo News

Scientists like Ocko stress that climate change is already displacing communities, destroying infrastructure, harming public health and burdening the global economy. And air pollution, which accelerates global warming, kills seven million people every year, according to the World Health Organization.  

The goal of the Paris Agreement is to reduce the increase in average global temperature to below 2°C, or 3.6°F, above pre-industrial levels. Ocko, who works on identifying ways to reduce emissions and warming levels, said that we don’t need projections to assess the damage that has already been done by 1.0°C temperature rise. 

“We have evidence all around us of all the things that have been happening,” Ocko said. “We’ve already seen really bad things.”

Juanita Constible, a climate and health advocate at the Natural Resources Defense Council, studies the many ways that climate change is already harming human health.

“Cutting the pollution that’s causing climate change will protect future generations, but to protect current generations, we need to cope with the climate impacts we are experiencing today,” Constible told Yahoo News.

According to scientists at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the average global temperature has increased by about 0.8° Celsius, or 1.4° Fahrenheit, since around 1880. It accelerated tremendously toward the end of the 20th century — at a rate of about 0.20° Celsius per decade — and two-thirds of this global warming has occurred since 1975.

This photo made available by NASA shows Hurricane Harvey, seen from the International Space Station, over Texas on Aug. 26, 2017. (Photo: Randy Bresnik/NASA via AP)

While the Trump administration’s Fourth National Climate Assessment’s grim forecasts for the end of the 21st century engrossed the press for a time, its comprehensive data on the effects already being felt didn’t make nearly the same impact.

“The impacts of climate change are already being felt in communities across the country,” the report reads. “More frequent and intense extreme weather and climate-related events, as well as changes in average climate conditions, are expected to continue to damage infrastructure, ecosystems, and social systems that provide essential benefits to communities.”

The average annual temperature throughout the continental U.S. has increased by 1.2° F, or 0.7° C, over the past few decades, and 1.8° F, or 1.0° C, since the beginning of the 20th century. Greenhouse gas has contributed to an increase in the intensity of hurricanes along the Atlantic seaboard since 1970, the National Climate Assessment concluded.

“Science says many hurricanes are getting amped up by climate change. With Hurricane Harvey in Texas, a recent analysis found the rainfall was boosted by about 20 percent because of warming,” Constible said.

Since the mid-20th century, the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the excess heat from global warming, and now absorb more than a quarter of CO2 discharged by human actions. This has made oceans more acidic and has contributed to a decline in oxygen concentration in many coastal locations, often resulting in mass sea life die-offs.

The average global sea level has risen by roughly 8 inches since 1990, with nearly half of this increase occurring since 1993. Sea-level rise has escalated the likelihood of flooding in several coastal communities in the U.S. by a factor of five to 10 since the 1960s.

Ocko said places like New York City have seen sea levels rise more than a foot, and this excess water is pushed inward during storms, such as Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “What we saw with Sandy was a lot of flooding in the subways and other areas that wouldn’t have been as bad if the sea level had been a foot lower than it is now,” Ocko said.

Robert Connolly embraces his wife, Laura, on Oct. 30, 2012, as they survey the remains of the home owned by her parents that burned to the ground in the Breezy Point section of New York. (Photo: Mark Lennihan/AP)

While global warming projections often cite population displacement due to sea level rise, Ocko points out that an exodus has already begun. “Almost ten different islands in the Pacific Ocean have been completely swallowed by sea-level rise,” Ocko said.

But it’s not just coastal communities that are already suffering. The number of billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in the U.S. — which include drought, tornadoes and inundating rains — has tripled since the 1980s.

“You see data that’s tracked by NOAA for all the main extreme events,” Ocko said. “It’s really powerful how much more often they occurred in the past decade compared to a few decades ago.”

The fire season in California, which traditionally lasts roughly from June until late October, has become a year-round event.

“We don’t even call it a season anymore. There’s no such thing as a fire season. Right now, we’re looking at a fire year. We’re having fires every month of the year,” Sacramento Fire Captain Scott McLean told Yahoo News last month.

Climate change has dried out vegetation so it becomes tinder — a phenomenon called fuel aridity —resulting in larger, more destructive and more frequent wildfires.

Constible said the soot from wildfires ruins air quality, and contributes to asthma attacks and heart failure. The wholesale destruction of a community — as was witnessed in Paradise, Calif., due to the Camp Fire — has also been linked to mental health issues such as anxiety, PTSD and depression.

Gabi and Jonah Frank walk on Pacific Coast Highway as the Woolsey Fire threatens their home in Malibu, Calif., Nov. 9, 2018. (Photo: Eric Thayer/Reuters)

The Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change for 2018, published on Nov. 28, tracked the medical challenges caused by climate change. The publication focused on 41 indicators across five domains: health impacts, health adaptation, co-benefits of mitigation, economics and finance, and public/political engagement.

“Trends in climate change impacts, exposures, and vulnerabilities show an unacceptably high level of risk for the current and future health of populations across the world,” the report reads.

A professor of emergency medicine and global health at the University of Washington, Jeremy Hess was one of the report’s senior authors who looked at the effects of human heat exposure as well as the spread of dengue — a mosquito-borne viral infection — due to climate change.

“Places where people live are warming much faster than the planet is warming overall,” Hess told Yahoo News. “That means a steady increase in extreme heat exposure. … The exposure and vulnerability trends for who’s at risk when exposed to heat — older people, people with chronic illnesses, really young kids, outdoor workers — we see that there’s pretty substantial vulnerability on a population basis.”

The international researchers who authored the Lancet study found that the environmental factors supporting public health are already breaking down and that global warming is fueling disturbing trends in heatwaves and the spread of infectious diseases.

“This is a message from the health sector,” Hess said. “This is doctors and people who work in public health who are highlighting the dangers here.”

According to Lancet, record-setting temperatures mean more Americans are exposed to extreme heat, putting people at risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Global warming also worsens chronic conditions like lung or heart disease and increases health care costs, and an estimated 1.1 billion labor hours were lost in the U.S. from 2000 to 2017 as a result, according to the Lancet study.

“It’s sort of an invisible loss, but we’re already feeling the impacts. Heat slows down cognition, increases injury rates and slows people down,” Hess said.

From 2004 to 2016, climate change tripled vector-borne illnesses transmitted by mosquitoes, ticks and fleas, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus.

“What we see is regional changes in heatwaves. They are getting longer and more intense. Heat isn’t just some kind of inconvenience. It actually kills people,” Constible said. “Heat is one of the deadliest forms of weather in the United States — more than floods, more than tornados. And that’s partly because heat can affect us in so many different ways.”

Late last month, a group of U.S. lawmakers introduced a bipartisan carbon tax bill. Though supporters have called the legislation a crucial step toward slowing climate change, the bill isn’t likely to pass Congress.

Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are seen in Oxitec laboratory in Campinas, Brazil, Feb. 2, 2016. (Photo: Paulo Whitaker/Reuters)

It’s not just lawmakers who are standing in the way of attempts to combat climate change. French President Emmanuel Macron — one of the most prominent champions of the Paris Agreement — proposed an increase on the already steep tax on diesel fuel in an effort to curb emissions. But motorists outside major cities saw this as a way of passing the economic burden of the energy transition to the poor. The tension exploded in the violent “yellow vest” protests, which compelled Macron to suspend the tax — scheduled to take effect in January — for six months in an attempt to restore peace and civility. Other nations looking the curb pollution by enacting carbon taxes have already faced stern opposition.

National representatives from member states of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change are meeting in Katowice, Poland, for COP24 until Dec. 14 with the aim of establishing rules for checking that countries are fulfilling the promises they made three years ago in Paris.

Hess said that overall, many world governments have already taken heed of climate change’s impacts and are doing quite a bit to reduce emissions. For national leaders who haven’t, Hess says, the next few years will only present more evidence of why they should start.

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