On Monday, the world’s leading climate scientists issued a massive report showing that climate change is rapidly reshaping the world, including New England.
This region, in fact, is on the front lines of the climate crisis, threatened by rising seas and temperatures. Some of these climatic changes are unleashing cascading effects, imperiling local communities, cultures, and economies.
“A lot of these impacts are on industries and systems that are iconically New England,” Robert Johnston, director of the George Perkins Marsh Institute at Clark University, who did not work on the report, said.
Monday’s report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change painted a dire picture of planetary warming changing the world more quickly than anticipated, with impacts more widespread and horrific than previously thought.
Extreme heat, sea-level rise, and disasters including storms and wildfires are threatening people and ecosystems, the analysis said, and warming is leading to such cascading consequences as food and water insecurity and increased disease.
The report was compiled by 270 scientists from 67 countries who reviewed thousands of studies. Unlike a previous analysis released by UN climate scientists in August, the new report focuses not on the physical science of climate change but on how climate change is affecting our world. It’s the first report of its kind since 2014.
In New England, ocean warming in particular is taking a toll. The report said that lobster populations in southern New England decreased by 78 percent from 1984 to 2014, since warming water temperatures off the coast have made it difficult for the animals to grow and reproduce.
The loss is threatening sectors of local economies. In Massachusetts, the nearly $100 million lobster industry is declining, and in Maine, where lobster is both a major industry and entwined with the state’s identity, fisheries are moving northward into Canada.
Edward R. Carr, director of Clark University’s Department of International Development, Community, and Environment and one of the authors of the report, grew up with a relative who was a lobsterman in Swampscott. He noted that lobster loss can fundamentally alter how people “understand their communities.”
“I don’t know how you calculate the value of that, but I do know that it matters a lot to people,” he said.
New England’s beloved winter sports such as skiing and snowboarding are also at risk. The report notes that due to higher air temperatures and less frequent snowfall, these industries could be damaged irreversibly.
The report examined the impact of several warming scenarios on winter sports industries, finding that with a middle-of-the-road scenario, in which climate policies reduced emissions, the length of the ski season in the Northeast would be 13 percent shorter by 2050. Under a worst-case scenario, in which greenhouse emissions continue to rise, the season could be 45 percent shorter.
Abridged seasons can translate to significant economic losses, the report noted. It cited a 2009 paper which found that during the record warm winters of 2001 to 2002 and 1997 to 1998, ski resorts in the Northeast saw 11.6 percent fewer visits and a 33 percent decline in profits when compared with the average year up to that point — up to a $52 million loss. Since then, winters have gotten warmer, putting profits at greater risk.
Another major threat to New England is rising seas. The assessment’s authors stated with a high level of confidence that climate change is now the primary factor in global sea level rise, due to both ocean water expanding as it warms and melting glaciers and ice sheets pouring into the oceans.
The report said that poor and marginalized people face the gravest dangers from rising seas, in New England and elsewhere, and also often have the fewest resources available to adapt. In the case of sea level rise, said Johnston, this plays out in different levels of ability to protect their homes from encroaching waters: Some people have the resources to have their houses picked up and shifted, but others don’t.
The study also noted that extreme heat particularly affects poorer neighborhoods in the United States because they tend to have more asphalt, buildings, and highways that radiate heat. A 2021 study found that Boston is one of the US cities most vulnerable to this effect.
The report warned that steps to mitigate coming problems from rising seas and excessive heat must begin now.
“We need to start preparing for the unprecedented,” said Erin Coughlan de Perez, a climate scientist at Tufts University and a report co-author.
In all cases, the report says, schemes must be designed collaboratively to ensure they work for everyone, for instance by ensuring that sea walls don’t exacerbate flooding in other locations.
Above all, the report said, leaders must take urgent steps to adapt to the changing world or risk losing crucial pillars of local culture.
“Many of the things that make New England, New England ... are under threat,” said Johnston.
To cope with reduced seafood stocks, for instance, it notes that some governments have seen success in increasing sea creature populations by decreasing marine pollution, which helps animals handle other stressors.
“There are tons of solutions in this report about how people can adapt, and many of these will be relevant for our region,” said Coughlan de Perez.