These Are the U.S. States That Will Be Most Affected by Climate Change

Every American will be affected by climate change, experts have warned, although extreme events like scorching heatwaves, devastating floods and ferocious hurricanes will hit some harder than others.

And yet too many Americans see climate change as either a threat only to people in other countries; a threat that will unfold in the distant future; as a problem that humans will simply innovate their way out; or part of a natural cycle, environmental scientists told Newsweek. In reality, the impact of global warming is being felt now.

"We are beginning to see effects already, such as stronger hurricanes and hotter, longer heatwaves, though the larger issues of displacement of populations due to a lack of choices for continuing to live in a place will likely begin in the coming decade or two," Vivek Shandas, professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University, told Newsweek. "Most of the climate models are set up for the end of this century, though at that point we will likely be living in a very different world than we know today."

Matt Fitzpatrick, associate professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, told Newsweek: "These changes are real, far beyond what is expected from natural cycles, and unprecedented in recent geologic history. They are going to substantially impact you, as well as the people you care about."

According to the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, humanity has about 12 years to respond seriously to the issue before it becomes substantially harder to manage. On Friday, protesters will demand leaders take action to tackle the issue. Their response is perhaps most urgent for the residents of areas that are prone to events such as heatwaves, coastal and inland flooding, droughts and wildfires, as well as hurricanes and related storm surges, which are likely to be worst affected by climate change, according to experts.

For instance, evidence suggests most states in the south, spanning Florida to Arizona will face larger, but perhaps less frequent, hurricanes that "destroy infrastructure" including homes, power lines and roadways, Shandas said. Heatwaves could, meanwhile, lead to blackouts and rolling brownouts caused by excess demand on electricity as buildings run AC for longer periods and more intensely.

Flooding and sea-level rises will also be a problem in low-lying coastal states like Florida and along the Gulf Coast, as well the Chesapeake Bay estuary of Maryland and Virginia. That's according to Frances Moore, assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at the University of California Davis.

But, Shandas stressed, "no state will remain largely unchanged."

"The weather affects every place on the Earth, from our backyard to entire forested, agricultural, or oceanic landscapes," he said.

Already, with climate change intensifying rainfall, it is thought to have contributed to major flooding in the Midwest, said Moore. It appears to have worsened recent droughts in California, which have contributed to wildfires and landslides, she added. In Western states, warmer conditions and wildfires are killing trees.

One recent study forecasting climate change in North America predicted that if greenhouse gases are pumped into the Earth's atmosphere at current rates for the rest of the 21st century, today's children will live in climates not only unlike anything their parents or grandparents have experienced, but not seen for millennia.

By 2080, the residents of New York, Boston and Philadelphia on course to see conditions currently found hundreds of miles to the south. Another piece of work by a separate team of scientists warned extreme heatwaves, the type that once every 30 years, could kill thousands of people in cities including New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia if current trends continue.

Fitzpatrick who co-authored the 2080 study, said vulnerability is only one piece of the puzzle. The impact of global warming also depends on how well-prepared areas are.

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People march from the U.S. Capitol to the White House for the People's Climate Movement to protest President Donald Trump's environmental policies on April 29, 2017 in Washington, DC. Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

"For example, California is vulnerable to climate change given the treat of increasing drought and extreme heat that can increase wildfires and impact agriculture. However, California is an excellent example of a state working hard to prepare for climate change and so we would expect impacts there to be less than in an unprepared state. Which brings us to Texas. Texas has done comparatively little to prepare, even though the state is prone to coastal flooding, extreme heat and drought," he said.

Worryingly, research shows states that are feared to be worst affected are doing the least to address climate change. For instance, the 24 who formed the United States Climate Alliance to continue with the commitments of Paris Agreement after President Donald Trump pulled out don't include at-most-risk states like Florida, South Carolina and Louisiana.

At this point, the stance states take on climate change will determine how, not if, climate change will affect every detail of citizens' lives.

"Even if we stopped all use of fossil fuels today, we are still in store for a significant amount of climate change from the massive amount of heat-trapping gases we have already pumped into the atmosphere," said Fitzpatrick.

"I'm doubtful that we'll be able to avert it, since all signs suggest that a dysfunctional climate is here," added Shandas.

"It is hard to think of an aspect of life that will not be affected by climate change," Fitzpatrick argued. "The climate of the place we call home—and the associated weather—impact many aspects of our daily lives."

Everything from how we dress to when we go outside, the cost of maintaining a comfortable temperature in the home and how buildings are created and altered, will change. The easier spread of infectious disease will likely be on the horizon, as well as more power outages, backups in sewer systems, road closures due to slope failures or broken bridges, and decreases in water and air quality.

Take mold, for instance. As hotter weather causes more water to evaporate from the oceans and humidity spikes, mold will become a problem in places it wasn't previously.

"If a household or business has to change their HVAC systems or pay for cleaning potentially dangerous mold outbreaks, then that additional money cannot be used for the goods or services," said Shandas.

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A man on a rooftop looks at approaching flames as the Springs fire continues to grow on May 3, 2013 near Camarillo, California. Climate change could cause wildfires to become more frequent. David McNew

Researchers at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences predict that Pennsylvanians, for instance, could see more days with dangerous levels of ozone in the coming decades, which could harm those with conditions like asthma. Residents of Washington might struggle to breathe for days at a time as smoke from wildfires drifts into the state.

Changes across the globe could also have a knock-on effect on the daily lives of Americans, said Fitzpatrick "whether it be increases in food prices, extreme weather events, or possibly even war associated with the mass migration of climate refugees and destabilization of governments."

So what now?

Pretty much the only thing that can be done to stop the benign and stable climate period humans evolved in coming to an end, said Moore, is acting ambitiously to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"Trying to adapt to every impact in every location will likely be expensive and only partially effective," she argued. "Reducing emissions has to be the primary strategy for avoiding climate impacts."

"Beyond reducing their use of fossil fuels associated with transportation, food, and home energy use, which is important, people need to understand that the future risks from climate change depend a lot on decisions made today," said Fitzpatrick.

"With that in mind, the most important things people can do is support leaders and policies that address climate change," he argued. "Also keep in mind that just 100 companies are responsible for nearly three-quarters of all greenhouse gas emissions. Addressing this relatively small group of fossil fuel producers would make a big impact."

"I am worried," Fitzpatrick said. "Each day we fail to take action, the more difficult it will become to address the problem. Life on Earth will be dramatically altered."

He concluded: "I often hear people say that maybe it will not be as bad as we expect or that scientists are being 'alarmist'—but there are good reasons to believe that the impacts could be worse than we expected, not less."

This story is part of a Covering Climate Now project from the Columbia Journalism Review.