Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States

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As a new report lands on Obama’s desk, we need a groundswell of energy, education and change from Permaculturists everywhere.

A 190-page report ‘Global Climate Change Impacts in The United States‘ has just been released. It is a ‘state of knowledge’ report from the US Global Change Research Program(1) that brings together the latest climate science information available and is intended to assist politicians in forming appropriate policy to help mitigate, and adapt to, the impacts of climate change. It is described as “the most up-to-date, comprehensive and authoritative assessment of climate change impacts on the United States”.

Unlike a lot of documents pieced together by scientists, this report – addressed to the U.S. Congress and the President of the United States – is written in plain speak. It’s well worth a peruse. It covers, in detail, how climate change is already making changes within the United States, and also projects, as far as possible, likely scenarios for future change. The report is humble in tone, being candid about its own limitations when it comes to complicated feedback mechanisms, etc.. You can browse chapters that cover climate change impacts by sector (water, energy, agriculture, ecosystems, etc.), and by region.

This document is significant – not only because it’s the largest peer-reviewed study in climate change to come out of the United States, but also because it includes information that became available after the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report was released (those of us who’ve been keeping track on climate science will know that a lot of new information has come to light since the release of the IPCC 4th Assessment Report – which was famously conservative due to its rigorous peer review process and other influences…).

You can learn more about the basis of the report and its contents via the YouTube clip at bottom (the June 16 White House release). And, key findings from the report are, and I quote:

  1. Global warming is unequivocal and primarily human-induced. Global temperature has increased over the past 50 years. This observed increase is due primarily to human induced emissions of heat-trapping gases. (p. 13)
  2. Climate changes are underway in the United States and are projected to grow. Climate-related changes are already observed in the United States and its coastal waters. These include increases in heavy downpours, rising temperature and sea level, rapidly retreating glaciers, thawing permafrost, lengthening growing seasons, lengthening ice-free seasons in the ocean and on lakes and rivers, earlier snow-melt, and alterations in river flows. These changes are projected to grow. (p. 27)
  3. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase. Climate changes are already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, ecosystems, and health. These impacts are different from region to region and will grow under projected climate change. (p. 41-106, 107-152)
  4. Climate change will stress water resources. Water is an issue in every region, but the nature of the potential impacts varies. Drought, related to reduced precipitation, increased evaporation, and increased water loss from plants, is an important issue in many regions, especially in the West. Floods and water quality problems are likely to be amplified by climate change in most regions. Declines in mountain snow-pack are important in the West and Alaska where snow-pack provides vital natural water storage. (p. 41, 129, 135, 139)
  5. Crop and livestock production will be increasingly challenged. Many crops show positive responses to elevated carbon dioxide and low levels of warming, but higher levels of warming often negatively affect growth and yields. Increased pests, water stress, diseases, and weather extremes will pose adaptation challenges for crop and livestock production. (p. 71)
  6. Coastal areas are at increasing risk from sea-level rise and storm surge. Sea-level rise and storm surge place many U.S. coastal areas at increasing risk of erosion and flooding, especially along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Pacific Islands, and parts of Alaska. Energy and transportation infrastructure and other property in coastal areas are very likely to be adversely affected. (p. 111, 139, 145, 149)
  7. Risks to human health will increase. Harmful health impacts of climate change are related to increasing heat stress, waterborne diseases, poor air quality, extreme weather events, and diseases transmitted by insects and rodents. Reduced cold stress provides some benefits. Robust public health infrastructure can reduce the potential for negative impacts. (p. 89)
  8. Climate change will interact with many social and environmental stresses. Climate change will combine with pollution, population growth, overuse of resources, urbanization, and other social, economic, and environmental stresses to create larger impacts than from any of these factors alone. (p. 99)
  9. Thresholds will be crossed, leading to large changes in climate and ecosystems. There are a variety of thresholds in the climate system and ecosystems. These thresholds determine, for example, the presence of sea ice and permafrost, and the survival of species, from fish to insect pests, with implications for society. With further climate change, the crossing of additional thresholds is expected. (p. 76, 82, 115, 137, 142)
  10. Future climate change and its impacts depend on choices made today. The amount and rate of future climate change depend primarily on current and future human-caused emissions of heat-trapping gases and airborne particles. Responses involve reducing emissions to limit future warming, and adapting to the changes that are unavoidable. (p. 25, 29)

The White House releases landmark climate change report

Permaculturists know there are solutions to all of the world’s problems, and that these solutions are based in the intelligent management of biological synergies. We can harness the laws of nature and put it to work for us, not through manipulation and control, but through observation and imitation. Where it becomes complicated is in transforming our current entrenched agricultural, economic and political systems. There are billions of us out on this rather slender limb. A last minute stampede and its all over. Permaculture design, if it is to be incorporated into every bite of food we take and every cup of water we drink, necessitates systemic change in political and economic thought. Sooner or later, basic need will force a great many people to begin working the land – any land they can find, regardless of title. The challenge we face is getting politicians and the public to recognise this, and to begin, now, the urgent transition that is required to minimise social unrest as we make this transition.

We can, once more, turn our soils into a carbon sink rather than the carbon source they’ve become. We can begin to restore soil fertility and thus conserve and purify water and restore our water tables. But, it will require education, determination and a concerted large scale implementation. There are no quick fixes here. Generations of ecological abuse have gone hand in hand with urbanisation. Fossil fuel energy has enabled us to become ‘free’ from agricultural labour – free to become fully detached and ignorant of natural systems. We thought nature could be managed and processed like a Model T Ford on a production line. We thought our fields could function like a factory floor. We thought plants would respond uniformly, everywhere. We thought nature would adapt to us. But now we’re facing the bill for living this dream – in ecological upheaval the likes of which our race has never witnessed before.

We need to re-ruralise and relocalise. Permaculture has often been described as ‘an alternative lifestyle’. Let’s quit with these inaccurate clichés. Permaculture is not an ‘alternative’. There is no alternative.

Further Reading:


  1. Government agencies affiliated with the program include the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, State, and Transportation; the Environmental Protection Agency; NASA; National Science Foundation; Smithsonian Institution; and the United States Agency for International Development.
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