Warming Harms the US More Than the Northeast

I’ve been looking at the recently released Fourth National Climate Assessment, the US government’s considered opinion on what climate change will do to the country.  This program has been running since 1990, and is protected from hostile Administrations by legislation.   It looks bad, as all these reports do, but I was struck by how much less bad things are for the US Northeast, my own region, than they are for a lot of the country.  Take the overall rise in temperature, as expressed by the number of cooling degree days:

From https://nca2014.globalchange.gov/system/files_force/downloads/low/NCA3_Full_Report_04_Energy_Supply_and_Use_LowRes.pdf

The baseline case in the upper right shows that the South is going to cook, while the Northeast changes hardly at all.   Cooling degree-days are calculated by taking the daily average of high and low temperatures and subtracting 65 F.  If the average is higher than 65F, it’s a certain number of cooling degrees; if less, it’s heating degrees.  Add them up for a year and that’s a measure of one’s air conditioning needs.   Boston has about 700 cooling degree days, while Miami has 4200. The Northeast will actually have less heating degree-days as things warm, which could  reduce CO2 emissions because of less natural gas usage.

The NCA breaks down effects by region, and does the 12 northeastern states here: Climate Change Impacts in the United States: Northeast .  They consist of New England, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, West Virginia, Maryland and Delaware.  This covers a fifth of the country’s population, 64 million people, and a fifth of its GDP, about $4T.   Temperatures have already risen here by 2 F from 1895, and sea level is up a foot.  It could rise by another 8F by 2080, and another four feet of sea level, depending on how fast Greenland and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melt.

It notes that agriculture could be hit hard by warming, but that accounts for only $17B in the Northeast, 0.5% of its GDP.   The Midwest and Far West are likely to be hit much harder.   Northeast agriculture is pretty diverse, and could shift crop mixes to match temperatures changes. 

Likewise, the Northeast could see much worse storms, with the precipitation in the worst 1% of events increasing by 70%.   Hurricane Sandy (2012) really damaged New York City, and was the third most expensive storm in US history at $65B, after Katrina (2005) and Harvey (2017), both at $125B.  It killed 150 people, half in New England, but that’s a far cry from the 1800 deaths of Katrina.  A Sandy could happen again, but New York is much better prepared these days, with fewer underground substations and better emergency plans for subway flooding.  The Southeast, though, has been hit by five big storms in just the last two years. 

Wildfires have become catastrophic in the West, but the Northeast is too wet for them.  It’s actually more heavily forested than any other region: 52% vs about 38% for the Southeast and Northwest, and 23% for the whole country.   The Northeast’s forests could do a lot of carbon sequestration if they were managed right, and could actually be worth a lot of carbon credits.  They’re not absorbing much at present, possibly because the temperature shifts are causing tree species changes.  The boundary between hardwoods and boreal softwoods has moved by 400 feet in the mountains of Vermont since 1964.   Changing temperatures also mean new insect species, and that has devastated forests in the Northwest.  We’ll get them too, along with more mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus.

So the climate here will change to that of the mid-Atlantic, and we’ll get more bad storms, and the vegetation will shift.   Beaches will wash away, so shore property values will decrease.  There’ll be more flooding, but that’s something that can be managed.  Last August Massachusetts authorized $2.4B in spending on climate adaptation, covering seawall, dam, and other infrastructure upgrades, surveys, and planning.  They’re also discussing “rolling easements”,  a plan to manage what happens when sea level rise claims land.  The plan tries to preserve wetlands and maintain access to beach property as the roads wash away.

The area is also doing its bit on CO2 reduction.  Its states have banded together into the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, and emissions from power generation have dropped in half since the peak of 2005.   This is partly due to demand reduction from better lighting, partly due to conversion to natural gas (coal is gone), and some due to wind and biomass power (largely methane from landfills).   For instance, I get 100% of my home power from wind farms at about $0.14 per kWh.  Natural gas appears to be $0.12/kWh in MA, so going green only costs me about $20/month.

The path to zero carbon for the Northeast is fairly clear: maintain the 25 nuclear plants still operating, open up hydro-power from Quebec, and expand on-shore and especially off-shore wind.  Solar will help, but the sunlight here isn’t steady and there is less open space.  Cars go electric, heating switches from furnaces to heat pumps, and planes go to biofuel.  Now that renewable energy generation is largely solved, the biggest thing the area can do for energy is to solve storage.  That could be through the enormous molten batteries of Ambri, or flow batteries that offer unlimited capacity but limited power.  In the longer term, we have to figure out how to get CO2 out of the air itself, either through better trees or some mechanical system.

Anyway, it’s a lot easier to adapt to beach erosion than it is to Cat 5 hurricanes and fire tornadoes!   The direct impacts on the Northeast are serious but not catastrophic. The larger impact will be damage to the national and world economy.   No one will come to our schools and hospitals if they’re broke!  We may be better positioned than many areas to adapt to this change, but we’re all in this together.

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