Last week I had the opportunity to testify before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, at a hearing on Creating a Climate Resilient America. I focused my remarks on the impacts of climate change already unfolding and projected to worsen around our nation, as well as some vital steps we can take to limit harms and prepare for those we cannot avoid.
Chairwoman Kathy Castor’s opening remarks included these powerful words:
The millions of young people who are joining climate strikes tomorrow have never lived in a normal climate – and they know it. That’s why they’re demanding climate action now, because we need to start baking the climate crisis into every decision we make – on energy, on transportation, on agriculture, on infrastructure.
The witness panel also featured testimony from Noah Diffenbaugh, a Professor at Stanford University; Matt Russell, the executive director of Iowa Interfaith Power and Light; and Keith Hodges, a member of the Virginia House of Delegates representing the 98th district.
Below is my oral testimony (with a few visuals added).
Good morning and thank you, Chairwoman Castor, Ranking Member Graves, and Members of the Select Committee, for providing me the opportunity to testify here today. My name is Rachel Cleetus. I am the policy director and lead economist for the climate and energy program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Impacts of sea level rise on coastal property
I’d like to start with some research on the impacts of worsening tidal flooding caused by sea level rise. Last year UCS released a study showing that, by the end of the century, under a high sea level rise scenario, approximately 2.5 million US coastal homes and commercial properties currently worth more than $1 trillion would be at risk from chronic flooding—a threshold we defined as flooding that occurs 26 times per year or more. By 2045, within the lifetime of a typical mortgage issued today, about 325,000 coastal properties worth $136 billion will be at risk of chronic flooding (see figures 1 and 2).
The properties at risk by 2045 currently house 550,000 people and contribute nearly $1.5 billion toward today’s property tax base. Those numbers jump to about 4.7 million people and $12 billion by 2100 (see figure 3).
States with the most homes at risk by the end of the century are Florida, with about 1 million homes; New Jersey, with 250,000 homes; and New York with 143,000 homes.
The declining value of coastal homes will be devastating to individual homeowners. It will also have more widespread consequences, including for affected communities, lenders, investors, and taxpayers. Communities with fewer resources to start with will likely be most heavily affected by the economic consequences of chronic flooding. Louisiana, North Carolina, New Jersey, and Maryland have significant numbers of highly exposed communities with above-average rates of poverty (see figure 4).
UCS also developed an interactive map tool that lets you explore the risk sea level rise poses to homes in your congressional district, along with district-specific fact sheets.
Our research also points to the choices we face: If the global community adheres to the primary goal of the Paris Agreement of capping warming below 2°C, and with limited loss of land-based ice, by the end of the century the United States could avoid up to 85 percent of these residential property losses.
Impacts on military bases
UCS has also analyzed the exposure of 18 military installations along the East and Gulf coasts to more frequent and extensive tidal flooding, land loss, and deeper and more extensive storm surge inundation. In the absence of preventive measures, these sites, including bases in Virginia, Georgia and Florida, face major risks:
- By 2050, most of the installations we analyzed will see more than 10 times the number of floods they experience today.
- By 2100, eight bases are at risk of losing 25 percent to 50 percent or more of their land to rising seas.
- Four installations—Naval Air Station Key West, Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Dam Neck Annex, and Parris Island—are at risk of losing between 75 and 95 percent of their land by the end of this century (see figure 5).
Flooding and exposure to toxics
Scientists have linked Hurricane Harvey’s unprecedented levels of rainfall to warmer air and oceans caused by climate change. UCS analysis conducted in the wake of the storm showed that more than 650 energy and industrial facilities may have been exposed to Hurricane Harvey’s floodwaters. This included over 160 TRI facilities; more than 40 energy facilities; and nearly 430 wastewater treatment facilities.
In the Houston area, low-income communities and communities of color have long been disproportionately exposed to toxic chemicals, as local environmental justice groups like the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s.) have documented. The hurricane’s impacts—including floodwaters contaminated with toxic chemicals and potent bacteria, compromised industrial facilities, and the associated release of toxins into the air—magnified public health risks to surrounding communities.
Growing risks from inland flooding
Climate change is also making heavy rain heavier and more frequent in many areas of the country. With human alteration of the land—like the engineering of rivers, the destruction of natural protective systems, increased construction on floodplains, and increased area of impermeable surface—many parts of the United States are at greater risk of experiencing destructive and costly floods.
This spring alone has brought extended flooding to many parts of the country, including Louisiana, Texas, the Midwest and the central part of the country along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. NOAA data confirm that (at the end of April 2019) the US has just experienced the wettest 12 months on record.
Projections of future climate suggest that the frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events will continue to increase across much of the United States in the coming decades.
Public health impacts of climate change
The Fourth National Climate Assessment highlights several major pathways through which climate change will have profound effects on human health (see figure 6). Climate change is contributing to extreme heat events, flooding, wildfires, intensifying storms and other extreme events. These in turn can cause heat-related illnesses; contribute to poor air quality and associated cardiopulmonary illnesses; increase risks of food, water and vector-borne diseases; and trigger mental illnesses associated with stress and trauma. In many cases, socioeconomic and environmental factors can exacerbate the vulnerability of specific populations. The elderly, the very young, people with pre-existing medical conditions, outdoor workers and athletes, first responders, many tribal communities and communities of color, people who live in poverty, homeless people and incarcerated people are among those at heightened risk.
Responding to climate change
The grave risks climate change poses to our nation require an urgent response from federal, state and local policymakers, as well as the private sector, to help protect communities and build resilience. Broadly:
- Policymakers and market actors must do more to communicate climate risks to the public and to incorporate those risks into their own actions.
- Robust, expeditious funding of disaster assistance for hard-hit communities, with a view to building resilience to future events, is vital.
- We must also do much more to get out ahead and invest in pre-disaster risk-reduction measures.
- We also need bold, new policies and visionary leadership, scaled-up resources for adaptation, and investments in coordination, governance and stakeholder engagement.
- Our nation’s resilience efforts must prioritize the needs of communities most exposed to risks, including low-income communities and communities of color who often face disproportionate risks.
Most importantly, we must make deep cuts in heat-trapping emissions to contribute to global efforts to limit climate change. Adaptation is costly, and there are limits to how much change we can adapt to. Transitioning to a low-carbon economy—by investing in renewable energy, energy efficiency and other low-and zero-carbon energy options—and reaching net zero carbon emissions by mid-century would not only help address climate change, it will deliver tremendous near-term public health and economic benefits.
In closing, I am here today both as a climate expert, and as a Mom. I have two young children aged 11 and 13. Like many of you with young people in your lives, I am acutely aware that the choices we make today—choices that you in Congress are uniquely empowered to help make—will be deeply consequential to their future. I hope we will seize the opportunity to leave future generations a world where they can prosper without fear of runaway climate change. Thank you for this opportunity to testify and for your leadership on climate action.