What Global Warming Means for the U.S.
From Hurricane Sandy to devastating droughts, many Americans have noticed that we’ve seen more than our share of unusual weather lately. Unfortunately, scientists across the U.S. warn that if we keep polluting the way we are now, global warming will bring even more extreme and dangerous weather, along with more smog pollution and even the extinction of some plants and animals. The good news is that we know how to make big cuts in the carbon pollution fueling the problem—and many towns, cities and states are already headed in the right direction in some areas. Below is a rundown of the problem, why it matters for all of us, and what you can do to help.
What Global Warming Means for the U.S.
The problem: Carbon pollution is fueling global warming
The science of global warming starts with the burning of fossil fuels, specifically in vehicles fueled by oil and at power plants owned by the nation’s largest utilities. When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil or natural gas, carbon dioxide is emitted into the air. This carbon pollution collects in the atmosphere, where it traps heat from the sun that would otherwise escape into space. That causes the earth’s temperature to rise, which triggers a variety of mostly negative results for the U.S. and the planet.
And temperatures are definitely rising. Already, 2012 was the hottest year on record for the continental U.S., 2010 tied for the second hottest year, and the decade of 2001-2010 was the hottest 10-year period on record. The evidence that humans are warming the globe is only strengthening; in the words of a recent report from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences: “Some scientific conclusions or theories have been so thoroughly examined and tested, and supported by so many independent observations and results, that their likelihood of subsequently being found to be wrong is vanishingly small…This is the case for the conclusion that the Earth system is warming and that much of this warming is very likely due to human activities.”
The results: Extreme weather, air pollution and more
As the planet warms, experts warn that the U.S. will likely experience a variety of negative consequences:
Extreme storms & hurricanes: Higher temperatures lead to more major rainstorms and heavy snowstorms for two reasons. First, warmer temperatures lead to greater evaporation, so more water in our lakes and oceans becomes airborne. Second, warmer air can hold more water vapor. This means that when it rains, the atmosphere will have more moisture to work with and so heavy downpours and more intense hurricanes are more likely—as is more of the flooding that often results from these storms. Already, the number of extreme precipitation events increased 30 percent over the continental U.S. between 1948 and 2011, and at least 11 weather-related disasters causing at least $1 billion in damage hit the U.S. in 2012 alone, many of which involved devastating floods. Check out our interactive map to see which weather-related disasters have hit your area in recent years.
Smog pollution: Ozone “smog” pollution is the pollution that hangs over our cities on many of the hottest summer days. Since heat is a key ingredient in the formation of smog (pollution from cars, trucks and power plants is the other), which triggers asthma attacks and a variety of other respiratory problems, scientists predict that we’ll see even more smog in a warming world. In fact, a study by the Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that higher levels of ground-level ozone due to rising temperatures in 2020 could lead to 2.8 million more asthma attacks and other respiratory problems, leading to 900,000 additional missed days of school. That’s bad news for all of us, but especially the millions of children, adults and seniors who suffer from asthma and other respiratory problems.
Heat waves: Just as we can expect average temperatures to rise in a warming world, we can also expect to see more intense and longer-lasting heat waves across the country. These heat waves can threaten the health of even healthy individuals and cause problems for our infrastructure, as happened in July, 2012 when a US Airways jet became stuck in softened asphalt on the airport runway in Washington, D.C.
Drought: Even though we’re likely to see more precipitation fall when it does rain or snow, it’s also the case that a warming world will likely result in longer dry spells in between rainfalls for some parts of the country. Combined with high temperatures, these dry spells can lead to drought. Beginning in 2012, a record drought has gripped much of the central region of the country in recent months. During the second half of the 20th century, drought became more common in parts of the northern Rockies, the Southwest and the Southeast, and less common in parts of the northern Plains and Northeast. Droughts can wreak havoc in many ways, from lower crop yields for farmers to the threat of dangerous wildfires.
Loss of plant & animal species: While you’ve probably heard about the very real threat that global warming poses to the survival of polar bears and other arctic species, other species closer to home could also be threatened in a warming world. For instance, trout are threatened by warmer water temperatures and lower water levels due to drought, while moose in Maine could be forced northward out of the state by warming temperatures and wetlands drying up.
Sea level rise: As warming temperatures cause a thermal expansion of sea water as well as the melting of glaciers and ice caps, sea level rises. Sea level has risen by nearly 8 inches since 1870, with the rate of sea level rise increasing in recent years. One recent study projects that by 2100 the rise could reach between 2.5 and 6 feet. This rise in sea level not only threatens to inundate the many low-lying communities and thousands of acres of land along our coasts and tidally influenced rivers, but also increase the punch packed by storms like Hurricane Sandy and other coastal storms.
The solution: Cut carbon pollution, promote clean energy
Thankfully, we know what we have to do to slow and stop global warming: cut emissions of the carbon pollution that is fueling the problem. Specifically, scientists have said that to give ourselves the best chance of protecting future generations from the worst consequences of global warming, the U.S. and other developed countries need to cut our carbon emissions so that by 2020 we’re emitting 25-40 percent less carbon into the air than we were in 1990.
That’s a steep goal, but across the country, we’re already starting to move in the right direction. We know we can reduce emissions of carbon pollution by cutting down on energy waste and developing cleaner, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. We can make our buildings much more energy efficient so that they’re demanding less energy from coal-fired power plants. We can make our cars go farther on a gallon of gas, and expand public transportation systems so that more people can get where they’re going without using their cars at all. And we must reject new dirty energy projects that will make the problem even worse.
Together, all of these things add up. A recent Environment America Research & Policy Center report, The Way Forward on Global Warming, found that by adopting a suite of clean energy solutions at the local, state and federal levels, the U.S. could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 20 percent by 2020 and 34 percent by 2030 (compared to 2005 levels)—representing a significant down payment toward the pollution reductions called for by scientists.
Reducing carbon pollution to levels that ensure a safe and stable climate is an incredible challenge with far-reaching consequences for our planet and future generations. Yet in our communities, in states and in Washington, we are making exciting progress in the race to solve global warming. Be part of the solution. Learn more. Share what you learn. And most importantly, take action to reduce carbon pollution in whatever ways you can.
What you can do
There are many things Americans can do in our everyday lives to help reduce our carbon footprint
A home energy audit is a great place to start, as the auditor will walk through your home with you and point out the ways in which you can cut energy waste.
Easy fixes around the house: Replace incandescent light bulbs with compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs), which not only use less energy but can also reduce your lighting costs by up to 75 percent. When shopping for larger appliances and electronics, look for the EnergyStar label to help you choose the most efficient models.
Simple maintenance: Keep radiators and refrigerator coils clean and free of dust, keep the lint trap clean in your dryer, and clean or replace the filters in your furnace, water heather, and/or air conditioner to help all of these products use less energy.
Go solar: Many homeowners are discovering the benefits of installing solar panels on their roofs. Get in touch with a local solar energy installer to find out if solar could work for you.
Support wind power: Some utilities offer customers the opportunity to pay a bit more for wind power on their monthly bill, which helps to support the development of wind power for all of us.
Drive less or carpool: Explore the public transportation options available near you, or consider carpooling with a coworker or friends. Even if you use these options only once or twice a week, every avoided car trip means less carbon pollution.
Eat local, and eat less meat: Producing a pound of meat creates far more carbon pollution than producing a pound of vegetables, and the transport of food creates carbon pollution as well. So consider ditching the burger at McDonald’s for a hearty salad from the farmer’s market.
Speak up: Letting your friends and family—and your elected officials—know that you care about this issue and are working to do your part to solve it will help convince more people to get involved and achieve even bigger cuts in pollution.
What state leaders can do
State leaders can help make a big difference in tackling global warming at the state level by building on several success stories already have in place:
Renewable energy: 28 states have standards requiring a certain percentage of electricity produced within the state to come from clean, renewable energy sources like wind and solar power. By strengthening these standards—and helping more homeowners and businesses get solar panels on their roofs—states can clean up their energy supplies even more.
Clean cars: When California and 13 other states adopted standards for carbon pollution from cars and light trucks, it not only led to benefits in those states but also paved the way for the federal clean car standards adopted last summer (see below). Many states are now taking the next step for clean cars by increasing support and infrastructure for hybrids and plug-in electric vehicles, both of which will help to cut carbon emissions from our vehicle fleet.
Green buildings: More than half of all states have adopted updated building energy codes for new residential and commercial buildings. These standards are reducing energy waste and saving consumers money on their electricity bills. Moving forward, state leaders should strengthen and expand existing green building programs to take advantage of even better building technologies—some of which allow for buildings that are so efficient they can meet all their electricity needs with clean, renewable energy produced on site, and be completely off the grid!
State and regional caps on pollution: Northeastern states recently strengthened a regional cap on the levels of carbon pollution emitted by their power plants—the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI—while California and several other states are moving forward with state-level pollution caps. By defending and strengthening these caps, states can continue to lead the way in cutting carbon pollution—especially in the absence of action by Congress to set a federal cap on this pollution.
Public transportation: Americans now drive fewer miles each year than they did in 2007, following decades of consistent increases in driving. This has been made possible in part by the expansion of public transportation systems in cities across the country. By fully investing in these systems, we can ensure that they continue improving and expanding moving forward, allowing more and more citizens a convenient and reliable alternative to driving—and creating much less carbon pollution.
What Washington can do
Local and state actions are critical to achieving big cuts in carbon pollution, but we also need action from Congress and the White House as well. Thankfully, several historic initiatives are under way:
Clean car standards: Last summer the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Transportation finalized new fuel efficiency and carbon pollution standards for new cars and light trucks sold in model years 2017-2025. These standards are expected to cut annual carbon emissions by 270 million metric tons in 2030, which is equivalent to the pollution created by 65 coal-fired power plants in a year.
Carbon pollution standards for power plants: EPA is also developing the first-ever carbon pollution standards for new power plants, and may soon begin developing standards for existing power plants. Given that power plants are the largest single source of carbon pollution, these historic standards will be critical to helping the U.S. tackle global warming.
Repowering America: Tapping into our vast clean energy resources—including the power of the wind, the heat of the sun and the energy leaking from drafty windows in our homes and businesses—will decrease our dependence on polluting fossil fuels. We’re making progress: President Obama recently set goals to double renewable energy by 2020 and cut energy waste in half in two decades, and renewable energy made up nearly half of all new power added to the grid in the U.S. in 2012. But now federal clean energy tax incentives and other key programs that have made this progress possible are under attack in Congress. Our leaders should renew and extend clean energy incentives to keep moving us away from fossil fuels and cut carbon pollution.
Lead by example: The Obama administration has challenged all federal agencies to develop plans to reduce their emissions. With agencies like the Department of Defense leading the way, all agencies are now actively implementing their plans by adopting measures; such as improving energy efficiency of buildings, installing renewable energy and improving the efficiency of their transportation fleets and the fuels that they use.