US states not well prepared for future climate change threats, study finds

Author:
Ilario D'Amato
Reading time: 7 minutes
13 April 2016

NEW YORK: US states, with just a few exceptions, are not well prepared for the future threats posed by climate disruption, new analysis shows.

The States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card, authored by Climate Central and ICFI, has gathered and analyzed five major threats posed by climate change in the US: extreme heat, summer drought, wildfires, inland and coastal flooding.

Science has long warned of increasing extreme weather events directly linked to climate change – which affects in particular the most vulnerable populations, such as children, elderly and poor people.

But the States at Risk report indicates that only a handful of US states are effectively prepared for such threats, with The Climate Group States & Regions members California, New York and Connecticut leading the chart.

“The increase of extreme weather due to climate change poses a serious threat for the most vulnerable populations,” says Libby Ferguson, States & Regions Director, The Climate Group. “State and regional governments have the moral and legal duty to protect their citizens, acting fast to mitigate the worst effects of climate disruption. and especially to prevent future threats for their population.

“The States at Risk report indicates that many members of our States & Regions Alliance are already taking bold steps to tackle climate change and protect their citizens, scoring on top of the leader board.

“This is also the result of the intense collaboration that is at the core of our Alliance, where states and regions share and compare their innovative policies: climate change is a global issue, and as such it needs a global, coordinated response.”

How the different states score on climate change readiness. From the 'States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card', courtesy of Climate Central and ICFI

HEAT WAVES

Extreme heat is “the most deadly of all climate impacts,” the report states, having killed more than 1,200 Americans in the last 10 years. California is particularly exposed to this specific threat, but at the same time is the state that is the best prepared to tackle it, both today and in the future.

This result is even more impressive considering that the state has the biggest population exposed to heat waves, with about one million individuals over 65 and under five years old that are below the poverty line.

Texas is the most exposed to heat waves, but scores at the bottom of the leader board because it “has done almost nothing to prepare for its growing heat threat,” says the report.

From a general point of view, the report finds that half of the lower 48 US states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii) will experience at least a four-fold increase in the heat waves threat, and all 48 but Oregon will experience a three-fold increase. By 2050, 11 states are expected to have 50 or more heat waves per year, a number that in Florida reaches 80 days.

To date, Alaska is taking exceptional measure to mitigate heat waves – which are dangerously deteriorating the permafrost – but as many as 26 states have “taken limited or no action to even understand their future extreme heat risks”, the report finds.

DROUGHT AND WILDFIRES

Last year’s temperature record has worsened the droughts that are affecting many US states, in particular California. Such a threat is damaging farmers, citizens and even hydropower plants – with Texas, Montana and Washington to be the most affected by droughts by 2050.

Wildfires have hit the headlines in the last few years, having doubled since the 1970s. Once again, Texas is the state most at risk, with 18 million people potentially affected by the issue. California follows with 11 million people, but it has taken the strongest actions to prevent future issues. 

Generally, wildfires are among the threat states are currently most prepared to tackle, but at the same time it is the issue where they are doing the least for the future.

Best and worst state grades on preparedness actions that each of them are taking in relation to their current and future changes in climate threats. From the 'States at Risk: America’s Preparedness Report Card', courtesy of Climate Central and ICFI

INLAND AND COASTAL FLOODING

Inland flooding is a “considerable threat” for at least 32 states, the report indicates. It is particularly felt in California (potentially affecting 1.3 million people), Arkansas, and Florida (1.5 million people). More than half of US states have taken no action to prevent future flooding, with Arkansas particularly exposed due to its level of risk.

Among the states that are taking the most effective measures, the States & Regions Alliance member Connecticut is efficiently assessing its vulnerability and implementing findings into its policies.

"Mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects are top priorities for the state of Connecticut," says Keri Enright-Kato, Director, Office of Climate Change, Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection. "Through the work of the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and key partners — the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation and the Governor’s Council on Climate Change — the state’s efforts concentrate on systematically reducing emissions from every sector of the economy while simultaneously preparing our communities and infrastructure for the impacts of rising seas and severe storms."

One of the most visible effects of climate change is sea level rise, which threatens many coastal cities and states. In the US, the combination of such sea rise coupled with even small hurricanes causes increasingly devastating flooding.

Louisiana and Florida are the states most affected by such a threat: in the former, one out of five citizens are potentially affected by it, while in Florida coastal floods can have an impact of 3.5 million people – and 4.6 million by 2050.

Coastal flooding is the threat that states are currently facing in the most effective way, and generally they are also quite well prepared for the future.

The report is a wake-up call for the vast majority of US states that are not taking decisive actions to avoid the current and future threats of climate change.

As The Climate Group’s States & Regions Alliance shows, US states with policies that include mitigation measures today and risk assessment for the future are the ones that are best protecting their citizens – future-proofing both their safety and wellbeing.

by Ilario D'Amato

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