One doesn’t need to be a scientist to know that New England’s climate is in flux — you just have to spend enough time outside. Between storms dropping several inches of rain in the course of hours, increasingly hot and humid summers, and weekend after weekend of summer rain, it’s become clear, the region is already experiencing the early effects of climate change.
A new federal report, the fifth National Climate Assessment, lays it all out and explores just how much worse climate change could get, while looking at all the work being done to stave off the worst of it.
The report, compiled by more than 750 experts, tells the story of a nation in the grips of a climate crisis that can take many forms: wildfires, extreme heat, floods, and more. These problems will get worse — how much worse will be determined by whether, and how quickly the planet mobilizes to dramatically cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
“This summer 98 percent of the people on the planet experienced higher than normal temperatures,” said John Podesta, President Biden’s senior adviser for clean energy innovation and implementation.
This July was the hottest month ever recorded on the planet. The months of June, August, September, and October were also the hottest ever for their respective months, and 2023 is expected to break the record for the warmest year on the books.
Overall, the new report, produced twice a decade as mandated by a 1990 law, paints a picture of a country warming about 60 percent faster than the world as a whole, one that regularly gets smacked with costly weather disasters, and faces even bigger problems in the future.
Since 1970, the Lower 48 states have warmed by 2.5 degrees (1.4 degrees Celsius) and Alaska has heated up by 4.2 degrees (2.3 degrees Celsius), compared to the global average of 1.7 degrees (0.9 degrees Celsius), the report said. But what people really feel is not the averages, but when weather is extreme.
With heat waves, drought, wildfire, and heavy downpours, “we are seeing an acceleration of the impacts of climate change in the United States,” said study coauthor and climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of the tech company Stripe and nonprofit Berkeley Earth.
Climate change is “harming physical, mental, spiritual, and community health and well-being through the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme events, increasing cases of infectious and vector-borne diseases, and declines in food and water quality and security,” the report said.
Compared to earlier national assessments, this year’s uses far stronger language and “unequivocally” blames the burning of coal, oil, and gas for climate change.
The federal report was released the same day as a new United Nations report card showing that nations across the world are only taking small measures to address the climate crisis and not doing nearly enough. “Today’s report shows that governments combined are taking baby steps to avert the climate crisis,” said Simon Stiell, the executive secretary of the UN climate change agency.
The 37-chapter National Climate Assessment includes an interactive atlas that zooms down to the county level. It finds that climate change is affecting people’s security, health and livelihoods in every corner of the country in different ways, with minority and Native American communities often disproportionately at risk.
Northeastern cities are seeing more extreme heat, flooding, and poor air quality, as well as risks to infrastructure, while drought and floods exacerbated by climate change threaten farming and ecosystems in rural areas. Across the region, precipitation has increased in all seasons, and heavy precipitation events have occurred more frequently in the Northeast than in any other region of the country.
Out at sea, the waters off the coast of New England are experiencing unprecedented change, including warming temperatures, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification, according to the report. Changing conditions are causing shifts in marine life-cycle events, and have spurred adaptation efforts such as coastal wetland restoration and modifications to fishing.
Fish normally found in the mid-Atlantic are migrating north, while some subarctic species in the Gulf of Maine, like northern shrimp and Atlantic cod, are facing declines as ocean temperatures warm. By 2050, many species — like lobster and Atlantic herring — are expected to decline, which will force the fishing industry to further adapt. Atlantic right whales are expected to migrate away from the region to find more prey.
The rise in extreme weather has also prompted greater action, said Erin Lane, one of the authors of the Northeast Chapter and a scientist with the US Forest Service’s Northeast Climate Hub.
“We’re seeing fairly advanced adaptation actions and also actions to reduce carbon emissions,” Lane said. “And that mitigation component is new in the last several years.”
On Tuesday, the Biden administration also announced $6 billion in investments to modernize America’s aging electric grids, reduce flood risks to communities, support conservation efforts, and address the unequal effects of environmental hazards on minority and tribal communities.
Americans on every level of government are “stepping up to meet this moment,” said White House science adviser Arati Prabhakar. “All of these actions, taken together, give us hope because they tell us that we can do big things at the scale that’s required, at the scale that the climate actually notices.”
Almost every state in the Northeast has developed a comprehensive climate action plan, but the report says that ultimately more financing needs to come through to meet the region’s ambitious goals.
“Beyond question the climate crisis is already here, and we know what we need to do to create a livable future for ourselves and our children,” Podesta said, referring to a UN report that calls for getting to net-zero carbon emissions by midcentury, a step that would require “a transformation of the global economy, at a size and scale that’s never occurred in human history.”
“It sounds like a daunting task, and it is,” he said. “But the National Climate Assessment tells us the United States is already making that transformation happen in communities all across the country.”
Dave Reidmiller, an author on the northeast section of the report and the director of the Climate Center at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, said that kind of transformational activity was happening across the region.
“There’s a lot of action going on — a lot of planning, a lot of shovels in the ground, a lot of finance being mobilized,” he said. “We are taking action, but the decades of inaction really necessitate us to accelerate action faster than we are now.”
That, he said, is the crux of the issue: “We just need to do more, more quickly.”
Material from Globe wire services were used in this report