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The U.S. 5th National Climate Assessment Describes Need for an Equitable Transition

Building upon the centuries-old history of climate science linking to ongoing efforts to respect this planetary boundary, the U.S. launched its Fifth National Climate Assessment calling for an equitable transition. This landmark report highlights the impact of racial and socioeconomic inequalities on climate risk to regional communities as Responsible Alpha has described in our dashboards (below).

Highest Direct Emission Industries by Congressional Districts

The U.S. National Climate Assessments are congressionally mandated reports that summarize the “effects of global change on the natural environment, agriculture, energy production and use, land and water resources, transportation, human health and welfare, human social systems, and biological diversity” for the succeeding 25 to 100 years.

The report started with the usual grim economic impacts of climate change. Economic losses from climate change had already started to mount, with the U.S. South and Southeast taking the heaviest economic hits. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

  • The average number of inflation-adjusted $1 billion loss events per year skyrocketed from 3.3 in the 1980s, to 13.1 in the 2010s.

  • The 2020s started out no better with 20.0 events per year between 2020 and 2022.

  • Texas suffered $375 billion in damages.

  • Florida suffered a $113 billion loss from Hurricane Ian alone

(Figure 1.7 below).

The 5th National Climate Assessment does not forecast pathways for the U.S. to meet its international climate commitments including the Paris Agreement. The report stated that under the most ambitious plausible climate scenario incorporating economic and behavioral variables - called shared socioeconomic pathways (SSPs) by climate experts, the United States would not reach net zero, until the mid-2050s. Net Zero does not require a halt to all emissions, but does require the earth’s ability to absorb carbon to cancel out emissions. The National Climate Assessment Figure 1.4 below gives the most plausible emissions pathways:

The failure to stay within planetary boundaries presents an acute challenge to racially and economically marginalized communities regardless of politics-from small towns to mining and agriculture and fishing communities throughout the U.S. Climate impacts Black residents facing higher flood risk and poorer residents living in hotter parts of U.S. cities. Additionally, drier communities faced a vicious cycle wherein hotter summers meant more irrigation, exacerbating pre-existing water shortages.

As Responsible Alpha’s dashboard of GHG emissions by congressional districts shows, 75 percent of carbon emissions came from Republican-led districts as of 2020. This disparate emissions rate means Republican representatives, whatever they think of the politics of specific climate regulations, are best positioned to get creative about bipartisan legislative solutions to the crisis.

Given these challenges, many local, state, and national governments, across party lines, are working together with all stakeholders to meet the climate challenge. Even skeptical stakeholders are embracing the new climate economy, for example, licensing a $1 billion dollar solar energy project which is projected to create 1000+ jobs in places like Inola, Oklahoma. Others are building green steel alloys, wind turbines, and efficient building materials in former fossil fuel communities in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia.

From the view of 2050, the Federal Reserve and related finance-related government agencies began to meet the challenge by requiring financial institutions to include climate risk into their financial assessments. Better data and scenario analysis allowed these agencies to extend these requirements to smaller community banks most likely to suffer material credit, operational fire, flooding, and wind risks.

States like Vermont made modest adjustments to their agricultural practices which yielded 5-6 percent more carbon captured than otherwise. The report spurred adequate climate financing for First Nations like the Hopi. They in turn led the way in teaching some U.S. farmers to grow crops on only 6 to 10 inches of precipitation.

Yes, governments supported traditional adaptation solutions such as predicting the change in species distribution to improve harvest efficiency. They also embraced a systemic approach, such as targeting finance for climate adaptation in climate-sensitive industries like fishing to the most socioeconomically vulnerable.

The U.S. Fifth National Climate Assessment was alarming in all of the right ways. The assessment presents a comprehensive climate x-ray of the world’s leading cumulative carbon emitter with clear links to an equitable transition.

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