Climate Change Effects in North America - USA and Canada | World Series Part 6
Updated: Nov 3, 2022
In Part Five of our World Climate Change series, we will be discussing the climate change impacts in North America - the United States of America and Canada.
North America is the third largest continent and the fourth most populous continent. The climate in this region ranges from subtropical and Mediterranean, such as in California, San Francisco, and some islands (USA), to being Arctic-like and covered in ice sheets, as seen in Greenland, Alaska, and some parts of Canada.
Having mostly developed countries and urban cities, this continent is bound to be a large contributor to global emissions. The US is currently the second-largest contributor to global GHG emissions, placed behind China. However, the US cumulatively has emitted double the amount of emissions China has since the 1800s, even more than any other country in the world.
Furthermore, Canada’s economy has been growing and the areas are becoming increasingly urban, which will subsequently result in higher emission outcomes. 90% of the global electricity should be replaced with renewable sources, with 70% from wind and solar, to reach net-zero by 2050.
US President Joe Biden has pledged to cut down the emissions by half from 2005 levels, by 2030.
Climate Change Impacts
Reaching net-zero and mitigating emissions is a big priority and target for most of the countries in North America. But firstly, let us outline what would happen if no sustainable effort were done and emission trends keep increasing.
Without major emission mitigation, the annual average global temperature would rise to 5°C (9°F) since preindustrial times. Although economic growth is becoming less carbon-intensive, this slowing trend has yet to reach a rate where the global average would be limited to 2°C (3.6°F) above preindustrial times, which is the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement.
As a result, severe weather events, rising sea levels, and other impacts from this rapid increase in temperatures are expected for the next few decades. Human safety, infrastructure, agriculture, water quality, natural ecosystems, and the economy would be negatively impacted by climate change.
Warmer years in the future are expected for the US when the warmest year on record was experienced back in 2012. This has caused changes in precipitation since 1900 and more frequent and intense heatwaves and droughts. Alaska and the Western regions of the US have increasingly forest fire events.
Subsequently, spring snowmelt and reduced snowpack are affecting the water resources for this region and are also impacting the fisheries and electricity, with the trends being expected to continue. While droughts and less precipitation are happening on one side of the continent, other regions may experience larger precipitation events.
Heavy precipitation in the form of rainfall or snowfall is increasing in intensity and frequency, especially in the Northeast and the Midwest of the US. Along with sea-level rise, this heightens the risk of coastal flooding.
Sea levels in the East and Gulf coasts of the US are rising higher than the global average due to the gravitational field from melting land ice, changes in ocean circulation, and land subsidence.
Severe weather events are anticipated, such as intense hurricanes and tropical cyclones. According to several modeling simulations, Atlantic and Eastern North Pacific hurricanes are projected to increase as precipitation increases in intensity.
Besides direct climate impacts, other sectors are also affected by climate change indirectly. Many communities in Canada rely on climate-sensitive natural resources, which are particularly vulnerable.
With increased precipitation of around 12% since the last century, fewer cold days, more extreme warm days, a decrease in snowfall in southern Canada, and increased snowfall in North and Northeastern Canada.
The volume of glacial meltwater is declining in Western Canada, which is altering the water resources for most of Canada. It is estimated that the small ice caps in the Canadian Arctic will completely vanish in the next 80 years. The amount and duration of snow cover are 5-10% less due to delayed winter seasons and earlier springs.
As a changing climate is altering systems, it is also causing economic losses for the country. Invasive species due to forced climate migration cause $34 billion of economic damage every year.
Besides being economically disadvantaging, invasive species also alter the ecosystem and food chain, which harms human livelihood through the spreading of diseases and disruptions in agriculture.
Greenwashing and International Conferences on Sustainability
As mentioned in previous articles, a high GDP corresponds with large emissions, however, it ideally has the best potential in combatting climate change effects from these anthropogenic causes.
Although North America is a developed continent and a major contributor to global emissions, most of its countries have pledged to reach net-zero, according to government policies and international accords such as COP26 and the Paris Climate Agreement.
Net-zero is when the amount of GHG emitted is equal to the amount removed from the atmosphere, through natural sinks such as forests, oceans, and soils, or human-made technologies such as carbon-capturing technology.
A strategy that companies and countries are adopting is to rely on natural sinks such as forests, to remove the same amount of carbon they emit. This is called carbon offsetting, where a certain area of land is made ‘green’ by planting carbon sinking trees, to counteract the number of emissions that are being produced from industrial activities.
Most companies in the US are now becoming noticeably more sustainable, or at least that is what they claim to be. Several oil and gas companies swear to be helping to tackle climate change, but not everyone is buying it.
The disconnect in actions and words is called ‘greenwashing,’ where companies exaggerate or make up misleading claims about sustainability so that consumers would choose their products.
Thus, awareness and education on sustainability among consumers should be communicated better to prevent greenwashing. Additionally, integrity within the companies should be practiced more, with the creation of international accords, such as the Paris Agreement and the most recent COP26 conference, which demands pledges in tackling climate change.
COP is short for the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change, which has ministers and high-level officials working on climate issues.
The Paris Agreement was the main concern of this conference for example, alongside some others which were assessed to be unproductive. The main goal of this conference was to keep the Paris goal of limiting the warming to 1.5°C alive.
According to the UN, limiting the warming to 1.5 instead of 2 degrees alone could result in around 420 million fewer people being exposed to extreme climate impacts. Scientists see 2 degrees as a critical threshold where extreme climate impacts could turn some of the world’s densely populated areas into becoming inhabitable.
Additionally, other goals include; putting an end date for the use of unabated coal, ending deforestation by the end of the decade, reducing emissions from methane, providing $100 billion of annual climate financing, and making all new car sales zero-emission within 14-19 years.
Many renewable and green alternatives are available for the biggest source of emissions. If the world could reach net-zero by mid-century or a reduced emission by 45% in 2030, global warming can be contained to around 1.5°C, according to the UN.
Disconnects between policies and actions should be monitored and prevented to support the achievement of targets set at COP26. As an example, the Supreme Court has agreed to hear cases challenging the US Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) authority to enforce power plants under Clean Air Act. Furthermore, coal power plants could be shut down and replaced with renewable energy sources such as wind and solar.
To conclude, the North American continent, especially the US as one of the biggest and most developed countries in the world should set an example and take the leading action in combating climate change.
Significant cuts to emissions are fundamental in reaching the goal of the Paris Agreement, also stressed in the recent COP26 conference.
Integrity within companies and countries, alongside education among the consumers and people, must be improved to support the achievement of the goal.
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References (click the arrow to expand):
https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/83624/climate-changes-in-the-united-states https://eos.org/features/how-will-climate-change-affect-the-united-states-in-decades-to-come https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-trending-59070451 https://edition.cnn.com/2021/10/28/world/china-us-climate-cop26-intl-hnk/index.html https://edition.cnn.com/2021/09/23/world/what-is-cop26-glasgow-un-climate-conference-cmd-intl/index.html https://www.governing.com/next/how-might-the-cop26-climate-summit-affect-local-government https://www.nrcan.gc.ca/changements-climatiques/impacts-adaptation/overview-climate-change-canada/10321 https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/how-is-climate-change-affecting-canada.html
Olivia Eugenia is an Environmental Science graduate from the University of Western Australia. She is also an activist and a content writer at IYOPS.
Inputs and Edits by Aswin Raghav R.