Greenhouse gases won’t just be the ruin of our planet; they’ll be the ruin of us. A study published Thursday reinforces just how endangered humans are due to climate change and the greenhouse gases driving the problem.
The Environmental Protection Agency formalized the threat of greenhouse gases to humans through its so-called endangerment finding in 2009. Now, it didn’t do this on its own; the endangerment finding resulted out of the Massachusetts v. EPA lawsuit in 2007 that instructed the EPA to look into these greenhouse gases. This finding established that six gases—carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, perfluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride—endanger public health and welfare through increased air pollution, heat, extreme weather, and illness, among others. This finding has served as the legal framework for regulating these gases under the Clean Air Act.
Well, a lot more science around climate change’s impacts has emerged since 2009. This new study published in Science takes a look at whether the science has strengthened or weakened the case for the endangerment finding. And guess what? The evidence in support of the finding is stronger than ever—across areas like sea level rise, the economy, air quality, wildlife, and more.
“The health impacts and many of the other impacts really make climate change personal, make it real, and bring it home,” Philip Duffy, the president and executive director of the Woods Hole Research Center and co-author of the study, told Earther. “Climate change is touching people’s lives.”
He and the other 15 authors ranging from 15 different organizations decided to examine the endangerment finding anew because the Trump administration has flirted with potentially undoing it. That hasn’t materialized yet (and wouldn’t be easy), but the Trump administration has successfully repealed a number of environmental regulations that essentially enforce the finding. What’s ironic is that all this deregulation is coinciding with science showing we need more protections for our environment, not fewer.
“It’s not always obvious that those health impacts are related to climate change,” Duffy said. “It’s not always obvious that an extreme weather event is made more likely by climate change. It’s not always obvious that an economic cost is exacerbated by climate change, but if you look at the scientific data, it’s clear that all those things are happening .”
The team cited more than 250 studies, but the paper could’ve easily included more, Duffy told Earther. While the endangerment finding groups information into seven sections (air quality; food production and agriculture; forestry; water resources; sea level rise and coastal areas; ecosystems and wildlife; and energy, infrastructure, and settlements), this study went further and also looked at ocean acidification, national security, violence and social instability, and economic wellbeing.
“The Clean Air Act doesn’t say that ‘endangerment’ is confined to those areas,” Duffy explained.
The finding defines “endangerment” as actual or potential harm to public health and welfare. In 2009, many climate change impacts were still in the potential phase. Now, we’re actually feeling them, Duffy said.
As the review paper notes, increased wildfires in the West may double the frequency of smoke episodes in California by 2050. Apples and cherries will suffer from a lack of cool nights that help them grow. A lack of snowpack on mountains will exacerbate regional droughts. Expensive residential buildings will replace older, more affordable ones damaged by storms. Even Trump’s beloved energy infrastructure is at risk due to changes in water availability—and how will we frack all those wells without water?!
The paper breaks these impacts down into little sections and is quite frank and forthright: Greenhouse gases are no bueno for humans. Duffy, for one, hopes this paper serves as an obstacle for any attacks the Trump administration may launch on the endangerment finding.
Perhaps most importantly, the new analysis makes clear that climate change has become more urgent than it was nine years ago. As Duffy put it, “that’s big.”