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Published: Sunday, July 27, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

5 things to know about climate change costs

  • The basement of Chicago resident Lori Burns has flooded three times in the last five years because of frequent storms that the city’s aging infrastruc...

    Carlos Javier Ortiz / The Washington Post

    The basement of Chicago resident Lori Burns has flooded three times in the last five years because of frequent storms that the city’s aging infrastructure can’t handle.

“Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” scientists proclaimed in the Obama administration’s National Climate Assessment, released in May. It’s touching every corner of the U.S., the report claims: We can’t escape inland.
Here are five things you need to know about the unexpected costs of climate change:
1. Not everyone worries about climate change. That worries people who worry about climate change.
The data: Only 40 percent of Americans believe climate change is a major threat, according to Pew research. And only 42 percent of Americans think human activity is causing climate change. Meanwhile a review of 12,000 scientific papers that address the causes of climate change found that 97 percent of the studies agree that the phenomenon is being driven by human activity.
The story: Former journalist Wen Stephenson wrote an essay about confronting his old colleagues in the Boston Globe’s editorial department. He believed they weren’t adequately covering climate change.
“After a quick round of introductions, I explained to my former Globe colleagues that I wasn’t there to ‘save the planet’ or to protect some abstraction called “the environment.” I’m really not an environmentalist, and never have been. No, I said, I was there for my kids: my son, who’s 12, and my daughter, who’s 8. And not only my kids — all of our kids, everywhere. Because on our current trajectory, it’s entirely possible that we’ll no longer have a livable climate — one that allows for stable, secure societies to survive — within the lifetimes of today’s children.”
2. The difference between a livable Earth and a doomed inferno? Two degrees.
The data: Scientists have a warning: To avoid serious ecological damage, global average temperatures should not rise two degrees Celsius, or 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, above what they were before industrialization. Today, temperatures are on track to blow that target.
The story: Vox’s Brad Plumer explains how, in the early 1990s, a group of scientists identified the widely accepted threshold for global catastrophe:
“Around this time, an advisory council of scientists in Germany proposed a stunningly simple way to think about climate change. Look, they reasoned, human civilization hasn’t been around all that long. And for the last 12,000 years, Earth’s climate has fluctuated within a narrow band. So, to be on the safe side, we should prevent global average temperatures from rising more than 2° Celsius (or 3.6° Fahrenheit) above what they were just before the dawn of industrialization.”
3. Climate change isn’t just affecting coastal areas: It’s hitting the Heartland, too.
The data: Annual precipitation in the Midwest grew about 20 percent during the past century, climatologists say. Rains of more than 2.5 inches a day are expected to increase another 50 percent in the next 20 years. Environmentalists cry global warming.
The story: You might think about climate change in terms of rising sea levels threatening coastal cities. But what about rising sewage levels threatening houses in Chicago? As the city scrambles to update an already outdated sewer system, residents cope with flooding.
Lori Burns, is a 40-year-old Chicago woman whose basement keeps flooding with raw sewage. During the past century, downpours that force human waste up pipes and into homes, a particularly devastating effect of combined sewer overflow, have struck the Midwest metropolis more often. And it’s projected to get worse. That means more cleanup costs for residents like Burns.
4. Salt water is spilling into streets, wreaking economic havoc.
The data: More than 50 percent of Americans, or about 164 million people, live in coastal counties. An estimated 1.2 million are added each year. About 5,790 square miles and more than $1 trillion of property are vulnerable to sea level rise of two feet above current sea level, which could be reached by 2050 under a high rate of sea-level rise, according to the National Climate Assessment.
The story: The Post’s Lori Montgomery visited coastal Norfolk, Virginia, where sea levels are rising faster than anywhere else on the East Coast, in part because the land is sinking 0.12 inch per year. Renovation costs are mounting:
“At high tide on the small inlet next to Norfolk’s most prestigious art museum, the water lapped at the very top of the concrete sea wall that has held it back for 100 years. It seeped up through storm drains, puddled on the promenade and spread, half a foot deep, across the street, where a sign read, ‘Road Closed ...’ ”
5. Florida has the most properties vulnerable to surging sea levels — nearly half of the country’s at-risk roads and buildings.
The data: Waters around southeast Florida could rise two feet by 2060, according to a report by the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact.
The story: The New York Times’ Coral Davenport gives us a glimpse at Miami Beach’s flooding problem. (The Guardian recently reported the city is sinking.) Here’s Davenport:
“The sunny-day flooding was happening again. During high tide one recent afternoon, Eliseo Toussaint looked out the window of his Alton Road laundromat and watched bottle-green saltwater seep from the gutters, fill the street and block the entrance to his front door.”

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