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New Climate Report Warns We Could Lose What Makes Us Americans

We are shaped by the places we live. When they change, we change too.

A dry Lake Mead.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Tucked about two-thirds of the way through the overview of the U.S. government’s Fifth National Climate Assessment — a congressionally mandated, roughly quinquennial summary of how climate change is affecting the country — comes a startling observation. Climate change is not just increasing the chance of catastrophic natural disasters like heat waves and hurricanes, nor are the tolls only economic, with “billion-dollar disasters” now happening on average once every three weeks. The researchers found climate damages are also rending the very fabric of what makes us Americans.

Hundreds of scientists contributed to the new report, which synthesized thousands of pages of environmental, economic, and atmospheric research published since the last climate assessment was released in 2018. Many of the findings are grim but ring familiar: Nowhere in the U.S. is safe from the effects of climate change, the report says, and we are not cutting pollution and fossil fuel use quickly enough to stop the impacts from worsening.

But while the massive new report includes, for the first time, a standalone chapter about the climate impacts on the American economy, the authors are also careful to single out how climate change is reaching values that aren’t so easily quantified — like our connection to place. On the one hand, the loss of geographic and recreational heritage might seem insignificant compared to billion-dollar storms and major loss of life. But it is things like “fishing traditions, trades passed down over generations, and cultural heritage-based tourism” that make Californians Californians or Southerners Southerners.

Some of these impacts you can, admittedly, put a number on: Water sports are projected to see financial gains as more people seek out cool recreation in the hotter days to come; even hiking could see positive impacts as less snowpack means trails are accessible more days of the year. But overall, “outdoor-dependent industries, such as tourism in Hawaii and the U.S.-Affiliated Pacific Islands and skiing in the Northwest, face significant economic loss from projected rises in park closures and reductions in work force as continued warming leads to deterioration of coastal ecosystems and shorter winter seasons with less snowfall.”

In general, quality of life threats are “more difficult to quantify” than economic ones, the report notes. As our geographies change, negative impacts might include “increased crime and domestic violence, harm to mental health, reduced happiness, and fewer opportunities for outdoor recreation and play.”

What’s clear, though, is that at its most severe, climate change threatens our very identities as Americans. “The prevalence of invasive species and harmful algal blooms is increasing as waters warm, threatening activities like swimming along Southeast beaches, boating and fishing for walleye in the Great Lakes, and viewing whooping cranes along the Gulf Coast,” the report explains. But what does it mean to be from Georgia if you can no longer swim in the rivers, or to live on Michigan’s Saginaw Bay if you can’t fish? Already it is with high confidence that the authors write “climate change has disrupted sense of place in the Northwest, affecting noneconomic values such as proximity and access to nature and residents’ feelings of security and stability.”

This is, of course, the most pronounced in Indigenous communities, with the report citing threats to the “critical connections between people and the ocean,” “food sovereignty,” and “spiritual connections associated with forests,” as well as noting that “center[ing] local and Indigenous Knowledge systems” when it comes to adaptation is one way to improve the possibilities of climate resilience. At the same time, anyone with a connection to their home is at risk of having that connection ruptured, altered, or significantly changed. Decreased access to “outdoor activities such as skiing and hiking” can even lead to “increased risk of chronic diseases, mental health impacts, and” — once again — “loss of cultural heritage and connection to place,” the researchers found.

At over 1,000 pages long, there is much to unpack in the Fifth National Climate Assessment. But undergirding its urgings and cautious optimism is a reminder that we are shaped by the places we live. And when those places change, as every corner of America is now, we change, too.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.


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