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Biden administration releases alarming reports on climate change challenges

The reports from 23 federal agencies examine how climate change will disrupt nearly all aspects of life, including more traffic and disease.
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WASHINGTON — Nearly two dozen federal agencies released reports Thursday identifying the major threats climate change poses to their departments and how they plan to respond, underscoring the enormous policy challenges the U.S. faces as the planet continues to warm.

The reports, which President Joe Biden asked each agency to prepare in an executive order in January, detail how climate change will reach all corners of everyday life — from where we live to what we eat and how we get to work.

Twenty-three agencies released climate-adaptation plans, including the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Homeland Security, Education and Transportation. Each report offers candid descriptions of how climate change is already affecting the federal government's work and what threats the country faces as climate change worsens. The reports outline solutions, including investing in more resilient infrastructure, ensuring that new buildings and facilities are green and educating employees about climate change.

Image: A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville as water levels remain low due to continuing drought conditions in Oroville, Calif., on Aug. 22, 2021.
A kayaker fishes in Lake Oroville in Oroville, Calif., on Aug. 22 as water levels remain low because of continuing drought conditions. Ethan Swope / AP

Changes in temperature, increases in floods and droughts, more pests and disease will all affect America's food supply, according to the Agriculture Department, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development warned that affordable housing "is increasingly at risk from both extreme weather events and sea-level rise."

Health and Human Services said that not only are more people exposed to deadly heat and floodwaters because of climate change, but also that exposure to certain infections increases as the life cycles of ticks and mosquitoes change. Severe weather disasters contribute to anxiety, depression and other mental health impacts, they added.

The reports make up one of the first agencywide looks at the impact of climate change since the Obama administration, when the federal government conducted a similar review. Government research into climate change largely stopped under President Donald Trump, who publicly cast doubt on the reality of human-caused global warming.

The U.S. is recovering from its hottest summer on record this year, and the United Nations released an alarming report in August warning that the global community has an incredibly short window of time to dramatically cut fossil fuel emissions or face catastrophic consequences.

Biden took office promising to make climate change a top priority, but some Democrats and activists say he has not responded with enough urgency. As Biden negotiates his infrastructure and social spending bills with lawmakers in Congress, advocates have voiced concern that climate initiatives could be watered down or cut from the final plans altogether.

In its report, the Education Department said that more than a million students in California alone were affected by school closings due to wildfires during the 2018-19 school year and that following hurricanes Maria and Irma in Puerto Rico, students missed an average of 78 days of school. A flood in West Virginia in 2016 cost $130 million in damage to nearby schools, and more than 6,300 schools nationwide are servicing 4 million students located in a floodplain.

The Transportation Department warned that asphalt roads degrade as temperatures increase, which leads to more traffic. Hotter temperatures also limit how far aircraft can travel and how much they can carry. Worsening major weather events could lead to widespread flight cancellations "for extended periods of time."

In the introduction to his agency's report, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin wrote that, around the world, climate change is a "destabilizing force" and that, in just the past few years, climate-related events, including wildfires and floods, have forced U.S. military bases to evacuate.

Severe droughts and storms, especially in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean, could "increase population movements, both legal and illegal, across the U.S. border," according to the Department of Homeland Security. Higher temperatures, the report warns, also can change the patterns of diseases, putting the public and plant and animal health at higher risk of illness.

Each agency emphasized the need to prioritize vulnerable populations who will be most at risk from climate change, mirroring the Biden administration's commitment to racial equity. The Transportation Department, for example, included a section in its report on "climate equity" that lists goals such as "alleviating the impacts of heat, poor air quality, vector-borne disease, and other climate change impacts when siting and designing projects."

Biden is expected to travel to Glasgow, Scotland, next month for the annual U.N. Climate Change Conference, where world leaders are supposed to provide updates on goals that were set in 2015 when the Paris climate agreement was signed.

Biden has pledged to cut U.S.greenhouse gas emissions at least in half by 2030 as part of the U.S.'s new commitment to the landmark pact.