Adapt or Perish

Preparing for the Inescapable Effects of Climate Change

It’s getting hot in here: a fire in Windsor, California, October 2019 Max Whittaker / The New York Times / Redux

Ever since climate change became a concern for policymakers and laypeople alike, the focus of public debate has largely been on mitigation: limiting greenhouse gas emissions, capturing carbon, and transitioning to renewable energy. Those efforts must continue if we hope to keep the planet hospitable. But it is also time to acknowledge that—no matter what we do—some measure of climate change is here to stay. The phenomenon has already affected the U.S. economy, U.S. national security, and human health. Such costs will only grow over time. The United States must build resilience and overhaul key systems, including those governing infrastructure, the use of climate data, and finance. 

Otherwise, the blow to the U.S. economy will be staggering. Assuming that current trends continue, coastal damage, increased spending on electricity, and lost productivity due to climate-related illness are projected to consume an estimated $500 billion per year by the time a child born today has settled into retirement. Other estimates suggest that the U.S. economy will lose about 1.2 percent of GDP per year for every degree Celsius of warming, effectively halving the country’s annual growth.

Climate change also threatens to fray the United States’ social fabric. Although no region will be spared, some parts of the country—especially the South and the lower Midwest—will likely suffer more from climate change, and poor and vulnerable people across the United States will feel the greatest pain. Hundreds of thousands of people will be forced from their homes by coastal flooding. Against the backdrop of already high economic inequality, these effects will further deepen the United States’ political and regional cleavages.

By 2100, an estimated 3.4 million homes nationwide could face regular inundation.

The country is already getting a preview of the chaos to come. Hurricanes in the Atlantic and on the Gulf coast and wildfires in the West have intensified. Floods have hampered agriculture in the Midwest, even as droughts and heat waves have grown longer and more common across

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