Read the U.S.’s 5th Climate Assessment to See How Bad It Really Is!

The Fifth National Climate Assessment is the US Government’s preeminent report on climate change impacts, risks, and responses. It is a congressionally mandated interagency effort that provides the scientific foundation to support informed decision-making across the United States. The report is issued every five years and the fifth report was released by the Biden Administration on November 14, 2023. The following is taken from this report and associated website.

Future climate change impacts depend on choices made today

The more the planet warms, the greater the impacts. Without rapid and deep reductions in global emissions from human activities, the risks of accelerating sea level rise, intensifying extreme weather, and other harmful climate impacts will continue to grow. Each additional increment of warming is expected to lead to more damage and greater economic losses compared to previous increments of warming, while the risk of catastrophic or unforeseen consequences also increases.

However, this also means that each increment of warming that the world avoids—through actions that cut or remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere—reduces the and harmful impacts of climate change. While there are still uncertainties about how the planet will react to rapid warming, the degree to which climate change will continue to worsen is largely in human hands.

In addition to reducing risks to future generations, rapid emissions cuts are expected to have immediate health and economic benefits (Figure 1.1). At the national scale, the benefits of deep emissions cuts for current and future generations are expected to far outweigh the costs.


Figure Top Left: Changes in multiple aspects of climate are apparent in every US region. The five maps present observed changes for five temperature, precipitation, and sea level rise metrics: 1) warming is apparent in every region (based on changes in annual average temperature in 2002–2021 compared to the 1901–1960 average for the contiguous United States, Hawaiʻi, and Puerto Rico and to 1925–1960 for Alaska); 2) the number of warm nights per year (days with minimum temperatures at or above 70°F in 2002–2021 compared to 1901–1960) is increasing everywhere except the Northern Great Plains, where they have decreased, and in Alaska, where nights above 70°F are not common; 3) average annual precipitation is increasing in most regions, except in the Northwest, Southwest, and Hawai‘i, where precipitation has decreased (same time periods as annual average temperature); 4) heavy precipitation events are increasing everywhere except Hawai‘i and the US Caribbean, where there has been a decrease (trends over the period 1958–2021); and 5) relative sea levels are increasing along much of the US coast except in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska, where there is a mix of both increases and decreases (trends over 1990–2020).

Figure Top Center: Every fraction of a degree of additional warming will lead to increasing risks across multiple sectors in the US (see Table 1.2 and “Current and Future Climate Risks to the United States” below). Without rapid, substantial reductions in the greenhouse gases that cause global warming, these climate risks in the US are expected to increase.

Figure Top Right: People born in North America in 2020, on average, will be exposed to more climate-related hazards compared to people born in 1965. How many more extreme climate events current generations experience compared to previous generations will depend on the level of future warming.

Figure Bottom Left: This climate stripes chart shows the observed changes in US annual average surface temperature for 1951–2022 and projected changes in temperature for 2023–2095 for five climate scenarios, ranging from a very high scenario, where greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase through most of the century, to a very low scenario, where emissions decline rapidly, reaching net zero by around midcentury (see Figure 1.4 and Table 3 in the Guide to the Report). Each vertical stripe represents the observed or projected change in temperature for a given year compared to the 1951–1980 average; changes are averaged over all 50 states and Puerto Rico but do not include data for the US-Affiliated Pacific Islands and the US Virgin Islands (see also Figure 1.13).

Bottom Right) Although climate benefits from even the most aggressive emissions cuts may not be detectable before the middle of the century, there are many other potential near-term benefits and opportunities from actions that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. {2.3, 8.3, 10.3, 13.3, 14.5, 15.3, 19.1, 31.3, 32.4}

Figure credits: (top left, top center, top right, bottom right) USGCRP, USGCRP/ICF, NOAA NCEI, and CISESS NC; (bottom left) adapted from panel (c) of Figure SPM.1 in IPCC 2023.

Meeting US mitigation targets means reaching net-zero emissions

The observed over the industrial era is unequivocally caused by greenhouse gas emissions from human activities—primarily burning fossil fuels. Atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2)—the primary greenhouse gas produced by human activities—and other greenhouse gases continue to rise due to ongoing global emissions. Stopping global warming would require both reducing emissions of CO2 to net zero and rapid and deep reductions in other . Net-zero CO2 emissions means that CO2 emissions decline to zero or that any residual emissions are balanced by removal from the atmosphere.

Once CO2 emissions reach net zero, the global warming driven by CO2 is expected to stop: additional warming over the next few centuries is not necessarily “locked in” after net CO2 emissions fall to zero. However, global average temperatures are not expected to fall for centuries unless CO2 emissions become net negative, which is when CO2 removal from the atmosphere exceeds CO2 emissions from human activities. Regardless of when or if further warming is avoided, some long-term responses to the temperature changes that have already occurred will continue. These responses include sea level rise, ice sheet losses, and associated disruptions to human health, social systems, and ecosystems. In addition, the ocean will continue to acidify after the world reaches net-zero CO2 emissions, as it continues to gradually absorb CO2 in the atmosphere from past emissions.

National and international commitments seek to limit global warming to well below 2°C (3.6°F), and preferably to 1.5°C (2.7°F), compared to preindustrial temperature conditions (defined as the 1850–1900 average). To achieve this, global CO2 emissions would have to reach net zero by around 2050 (Figure 1.4); global emissions of all greenhouse gases would then have to reach net zero within the following few decades.

Different scenarios of future carbon dioxide emissions are used to explore the range of possible climate futures.

Figure 1.4. The five scenarios shown (colored lines) demonstrate potential global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions pathways modeled from 2015 through 2100, with the solid light gray line showing observed global CO2 emissions from 2000 to 2015. See Table 3 in the Guide to the Report for scenario definitions. Many projected impacts described in this report are based on a potential climate future defined by one or more of these scenarios for future CO2 emissions from human activities, the largest long-term driver of climate change. The vertical dashed line, labeled “Today,” marks the year 2023; the solid horizontal black line marks net-zero CO2 emissions. Adapted with permission from Figure TS.4 in Arias et al. 2021.

Keep Reading the U.S.’s Fifth Climate Assessment Report.