Climate change is set to take a massive toll on Massachusetts’ public health, ecosystems, infrastructure, and economy before the century’s end, according to a recent state report.
The massive 2022 Climate Change Assessment reviews the latest climate science to predict the ways global heating will affect Massachusetts if the state doesn’t urgently curb greenhouse gas emissions and take steps to adapt to the changing climate.
According to Paul Kirshen, who served as a consultant on the analysis, things are looking dire.
“I was just blown away by how bad the impacts are,” said Kirshen, a professor of climate adaptation at the University of Massachusetts Boston and research director of the climate adaptation organization Stone Living Lab.
The new study will directly inform the first five-year update to the 2018 State Hazard Mitigation and Climate Adaptation Plan, set to be released in fall 2023.
“Massachusetts continues to take a leadership role in climate action, and this assessment serves as another important tool that will guide the state as we improve our understanding of the impacts of climate change,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement.
Here are four of the biggest takeaways from the assessment.
Summers in Mass. could eventually feel like summers in Georgia
It’s no surprise that climate change is making Massachusetts hotter, but the extent of warming the study projects is stunning.
Future Massachusetts summers are forecast to be so warm that they’ll become unrecognizable for the Commonwealth.
By 2030, the average summertime temperature in Massachusetts will feel more like current New York summer. By 2050, Massachusetts summers will feel like Maryland’s. By 2070, they’ll feel like North Carolina’s, and by 2090, summer in Massachusetts could feel like the average summer in Georgia today.
Humidity in Massachusetts could also increase, making it feel even hotter. The hottest daily temperatures on summer days statewide from 1950 to 2013 felt like 81 degrees Fahrenheit when taking humidity into account. But by 2050, the hottest days could feel like 94 degrees Fahrenheit, and by 2070, it could feel like 99 degrees Fahrenheit.
Unless the Commonwealth makes serious changes to prepare for the coming heat, temperature increases will unleash cascading effects. By 2090, the state could see over 400 additional deaths per year across the state, the report says. Without efforts to adapt, the heat could also inhibit children’s ability to pay attention in school, and lead to an increased rate of workplace injuries.
“The consequences of increased extreme heat are projected to be extreme due to the severity of those effects,” the report says.
The air will get dirtier and could make us sicker
As the climate crisis persists, it will degrade air quality.
Higher air temperatures can make pollution worse by speeding up the formation of ground-level ozone — a pollutant created when volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, both produced by industrial activities, react with oxygen.
Changes in precipitation could exacerbate the problem. Though the Commonwealth is expected to get wetter on average, it could see that rainfall on fewer days, meaning we could see more dry summers in the future. During those dryer periods, particulate pollution, like from dust, soot, and smoke, gets flushed out of the air less often.
As summers get hotter and dryer, wildfires could also become more common and severe in Massachusetts, spewing more pollution into the air. Wildfires are expected to become a larger problem in other parts of North America, too, and sometimes, fine particulate matter can travel long distances — such as from the western United States — and have a large impact on air quality in the Commonwealth.
This is expected to take a major toll on human health, including by making asthma more common. Unless the state works to clean up the air, it could see over 100 additional asthma diagnoses annually by 2030. And by 2090, it could see over 900 additional asthma cases and 200 more asthma-related deaths.
We’re not all in this together
All of Massachusetts will be impacted by climate change, but some people will be disproportionately affected.
For instance, the report says that “racial minorities” are concentrated in regions of the Commonwealth expected to be most impacted by increased extreme heat. That’s due in large part to the creation of heat islands — areas where there is abundant concrete that absorbs heat and a lack of greenery for shade — and also because air conditioning may be less available and affordable for these populations, the report says.
Black Massachusetts residents are 40 percent more likely to live in areas with the highest projected increases in childhood asthma diagnoses.
Areas where most households face linguistic isolation — defined by the state as homes where all members 14 years old and over speak a language other than English and have difficulty with English — are also more likely to be affected by extreme heat. In fact, they are a shocking 28 percent more likely to die from extreme heat.
One simple but effective way to combat these disproportionate impacts, the report says, is to increase tree canopy cover in the Commonwealth’s hottest urban areas to provide more potentially life-saving shade.
Infrastructure could buckle under extreme heat
Climate-related changes could weaken Massachusetts’ infrastructure, making residents more vulnerable.
For instance, extreme coastal storm surge events and inland flooding, which are both projected to become more common, could flood evacuation routes. This could trap more residents, the report says, and lead to increased loss of life and injuries.
The authors also say Commonwealth residents should expect the electricity grid to be damaged by heat stress and heavy rainfall. Public transit could be affected too: Bus routes could get flooded and train tracks could buckle under extreme heat.
The report suggests that officials must take climate change into account when preparing emergency response plans and deciding how to undertake infrastructure repairs.