Is the West prepared for climate change?

A new report shows most states are vulnerable to future increases in extreme heat, drought, and flooding.

 

Last Saturday, in Paris, 195 of the world’s leaders reached a historic agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions in an effort to help stave off the most drastic effects of climate change — a momentous shift that will lay the groundwork for climate preparations across the globe. Just a few weeks before the talk began, a new report showed that many Western states are unprepared to face the increasing weather-related risks posed by climate change.

The States at Risk Project is a nationwide report card released last month by ICF International, a consulting firm, and Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and journalism organization. It’s the first-ever comprehensive assessment of threats to each of the 48 states in the continental U.S., such as extreme heat and drought that researchers predict will grow more severe in the future.

Check out your state's status in the interactive map from States at Risk below. Hover over a state to view its grade and toggle between the different threats:

Those findings matter because of the potential damage to human health, property, and the economy. Planning and taking steps to address these inevitable disasters cuts long-term costs, reduces impacts and ensures states and communities can more quickly rebound from losses, rather than continue to write big checks post-disaster.

In assessing those risks, the report’s authors hope to challenge the perceived lack of urgency amongst lawmakers and the general public that has helped thwart the kinds of policies needed to curb emission. Human beings tend to be motivated by relatively short-term concerns, but climate change is a colossal, slow-moving, planetary scale problem — the worst of which will unfold not in our own generation, but in the next one or one after.

“One of the challenges of climate change is to make it personal and not something that’s an abstract long-term concern,” says Richard Wiles, the senior vice president of Climate Central.

To help put climate change in concrete terms, researchers examined five major threats associated with warming global temperatures, using data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: extreme heat, drought, wildfires, and inland and coastal flooding. Analysts then assessed how prepared states are to protect people and infrastructure against those risks by looking at what each states has already done in terms of reducing current threats, as well as what states have done to plan for the future.  Those actions were evaluated in five major sectors of the economy, transportation, energy, health, water, communities, as well as states as a whole.

According to the report, states in the West faces some of the greatest threats from climate change. California ranks second in wildfire and inland flooding risk and third in extreme heat. Overall, the report found that extreme heat is the most pervasive threat to the lower 48 states. Heat wave days — which the National Weather Service defines as a period of abnormally and uncomfortably hot and humid weather lasting two or more days — are projected to more than triple by 2050 in every state except Oregon.

The West also faces a growing wildfire threat concentrated in California, Arizoa, and Nevada, where wildlands and development converge. Increasing drought is another big concern: by 2050, all eleven Western states are projected to see their summer drought threat more than double and in Washington, the threat level is expected to increase fourfold — the most of any state nationwide.

On the whole, the researchers found that states are prepared for the climate-related risks they face today. But 10-30 years down the road? Not so much. Arizona, for instance, completed a statewide plan in 2013 to help mitigate natural and human-caused disasters and recognizes that climate change could potentially increase some of those risks. But researchers found no evidence of funding, policies or guidelines to improve resilience against climate change-related extreme heat, drought or wildfire. Overall, the state received a C- grade for its preparedness. Neighboring Nevada fared even worse, with an F (the lowest in the West). The state has taken no action to plan for or implement measures for any of its future climate risks.

The lack of readiness for extreme heat days is particularly worrisome because of the direct threat to human health, says Wiles. That’s particularly true for people who work outdoors and those living without air conditioners, which includes the elderly and those living in poverty.

Many states have yet to begin even basic infrastructure planning required to address these future risks, like where to put cooling centers, temporary air-conditioned public spaces set up by local authorities to help people escape the heat. 

Other states that received grades of C+ or lower include Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho. In general, coastal states scored better in their preparedness, with California leading the way with an A grade for its efforts. Those include the 2014 Safeguarding California document, one of the most comprehensive climate change adaptation planning documents in the country.

What also distinguishes California from, say, Arizona is the state’s willingness to explicitly consider climate change in their planning documents. “There’s a subtlety there,” says Kathy Jacobs, who runs the Center for Climate Adaptation Science and Solutions at the University of Arizona and was not involved in writing the report.

“They feel like they’re prepared for the current risks but haven’t used the words climate change or climate risk,” she notes. In the future, as the threats from climate change become ever more pressing, that linguistic omission may be harder to ignore.

Sarah Tory is correspondent for HCN.