Regional Impacts of Climate Change: Four Case Studies in the United States

In 2007, the science of climate change achieved an unfortunate milestone: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reached a consensus position that human-induced global warming is already causing physical and biological impacts worldwide. The most recent scientific work demonstrates that changes in the climate system are occurring in the patterns that scientists had predicted, but the observed changes are happening earlier and faster than expected—again, unfortunate. Although serious reductions in manmade greenhouse gas emissions must be undertaken to reduce the extent of future impacts, climate change is already here and some impacts are clearly unavoidable. It is imperative, therefore, that we take stock of current and projected impacts so that we may begin to prepare for a future unlike the past we have known.

The Pew Center has published a dozen previous reports on the environmental effects of climate change in various sectors across the United States. However, because climate impacts occur locally and can take many different forms in different places, Regional Impacts of Climate Change:Four Case Studies in the United States examines impacts of particular interest to different regions of the country. Although sections of the report examine different aspects of current and projected impacts, a look across the sections reveals common issues that decision makers and planners are likely to face in learning to cope with climate change.

Kristie Ebi and Gerald Meehl find that Midwestern cities are very likely to experience more frequent, longer, and hotter heatwaves. According to Dominique Bachelet and her coauthors, wildfires are likely to increase in the West, continuing a dramatic trend already in progress. Robert Twilley explains that Gulf Coast wetlands provide critical ecosystems services to humanity, but sustaining these already fragile ecosystems will be increasingly difficult in the face of climate change. Finally, Donald Boesch and his colleagues warn that the Chesapeake Bay may respond to climate change with more frequent and larger low-oxygen “dead zone” events that damage fisheries and diminish tourist appeal. These authors are leading thinkers and practitioners in their respective fields and provide authoritative views on what must be done to adapt to climate change and diminish the threats to our environmental support systems.

A key theme emerges from these four case studies: pre-existing problems caused by human activities are exacerbated by climate change, itself mostly a human-induced phenomenon. Fortunately, manmade problems are amenable to manmade solutions. Climate change cannot be stopped entirely, but it can be limited significantly through national and international action to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases emitted to the atmosphere over the next several decades and thereafter, thus limiting climate change impacts. Managing those impacts requires that we adapt other human activities so that crucial resources, such as Gulf Coast wetlands or public emergency systems, continue to function effectively. The papers in this volume offer insights into how we can adapt to a variety of major impacts that we can expect to face now and in decades to come.

This report benefited from technical assistance, editing, and peer review. The Pew Center and the authors thank Joel Smith for project coordination as well as Ray Drapek, Anthony Janetos, BonnieNevel, James Morris, Steven Running, Don Scavia, Scott Sheridan, Peter Stott, Elizabeth Strange,Margaret Torn, Eugene Turner, John Wells, and Gary Yohe.