From concept to reality: the risks of climate change in the United States

Climate change is a real threat. We know the planet is getting warmer, sea levels are rising, and our food sources are being compromised. However, climate change remains an abstract concept and somehow it is hard to believe that it will affect us.  

But in fact, the U.S. faces significant and diverse economic risks from climate change. A new report, Risky Business: The Economic Risks of Climate Change to the United States, represents an attempt to turn this abstract concept into something real.  

Risky Business project co-chairs Michael R. Bloomberg, Henry Paulson, and Tom Steyer tasked an economic research firm that specializes in analyzing disruptive global trends with developing an independent assessment of the economic risks posed by a changing climate in the U.S. According to Bloomberg, “The Risky Business report details the costs of inaction in ways that are easy to understand in dollars and cents—and impossible to ignore.” The signature effects of human-induced climate change—rising seas, increased damage from storm surges, more frequent bouts of extreme heat—all have specific, measurable impacts on our nation’s current assets and ongoing economic activity. 

And risks beyond economics keep adding up. A study published in the journal Nature in January found that one of West Antarctica’s largest glaciers had entered an “irreversible” melt. And in May, glaciologist Eric Rignot at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, and the University of California, Irvine, shared new findings about a huge mass of ice that is melting in Antarctica, gradually raising sea levels and threatening low-lying communities around the world. 

In June, the White House released a report on the health impacts of climate change on Americans, citing a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that is not irrevocably polluted or damaged. The report suggests that climate change, caused primarily by carbon pollution, threatens the health and well-being of Americans in many ways, from increasing the risk of asthma attacks and other respiratory illnesses to changing the spread of certain vector-borne diseases. 

Building on the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate change report and National Climate Assessment, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs released a study explaining how higher temperatures, changes in rainfall, and natural disasters caused by climate change could undermine food production and put food supplies at risk. Research indicates that higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have reduced the protein content in wheat, for example. And the International Rice Research Institute has warned that the quality of rice available to consumers will decrease as temperatures rise, the report noted.

As the Risky Business findings show, if we continue on our current path, many regions of the U.S. face the prospect of serious economic effects from climate change.  However, if we choose a different path—if we act aggressively to both adapt to the changing climate and to mitigate future impacts by reducing carbon emissions—we can significantly reduce our exposure to the worst economic risks from climate change and also demonstrate global leadership on climate.

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