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Eliot Glassheim: Defend against global warming risks

The day after Thanksgiving, 13 government agencies released a 1,600-page report on climate change that is an urgent call to action by America's leaders and citizens.

The report records current human and economic costs caused by global warming. It also contains dire warnings of serious threats to agriculture, energy, health, water, transportation and coastal cities in the future, if we do not act.

The fourth National Climate Assessment is based on solid evidence of independent records from weather stations, satellites, ocean buoys, tide gauges and many other data sources. The data has been reviewed and agreed to by 300 scientists and experts, public comment and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.

The major takeaways from the report are:

■ Global warming effects are observable in the present.

■ Storms, wildfires, flooding and other extreme weather events are more frequent, more intense, longer lasting and more destructive than in the past.

■ Damaging impacts are projected to get worse in the future as temperatures continue to rise, unless we take focused action to mitigate and/or adapt to global warming.

■ Measurements of solar output, and computer modeling, show that human burning of hydrocarbons is responsible for increasing both surface and ocean temperatures.

■ If we do not take appropriate action, the American economy is likely to shrink by as much as 10 percent a year by the end of the century

The increased heat is a result of greenhouse gases (CO2)—released by massive human burning of carbon—which form a canopy surrounding the earth, trapping heat from the earth's surface and preventing it from escaping into outer space.

If we totally eliminate the burning of coal and oil this year—an unlikely scenario—the next 80 years will show only modest effects from long-lasting heat-trapping gases. But if we disregard the report and do nothing, surface temperatures are projected to rise between three and 10 degrees by the end of the century.

If we do nothing, oceans will rise between four and 10 feet because of melting ice. At about four feet of ocean rise, water will permanently cover parts of New York, Miami, Boston, Houston and New Orleans.

Current examples of extreme weather events assault us on the nightly news. For instance, though California has always had wildfires, because of increased heat from global warming, they come earlier, burn longer and are more intense and destructive. This November, the deadliest wildfires in California's history have been raging out of control. They burned over 250,000 acres, destroyed 14,000 homes and 500 commercial buildings, and killed 88 people (with 49 still missing).

The total cost of the California fires is estimated to be $350 billion.

Still other weather events are made worse than normal by higher temperatures: There have always been hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico and along the East Coast. But increases in air and water temperatures mean that storms come earlier, last longer, are more intense and more destructive. Hurricane Harvey (2017) left a quarter of Houston underwater, 89 dead, and cost individuals, governments and businesses $180 billion in damages.

Some other recent hurricanes whose destructive power was increased by global warming:

■ Hurricane Florence (2018, North Carolina and South Carolina), $20 billion, 39 dead.

■ Hurricane Michael (2018, Florida) $4 billion, 49 dead.

■ Hurricane Harvey (2017, Texas), $180 billion, 88 dead.

■ Hurricane Maria (2017, Puerto Rico), $90 billion, 2975 dead.

■ Hurricane Irma (2017, Florida), $100 billion, 92 dead.

The National Climate Assessment describes a serious, continuous threat to our way of life. The summary should be a must-read for senators, congresspersons, governors, mayors and city council members, and newspaper publishers, editors and journalists. Their staffs should probably read the entire document.

Sometimes leaders are too conflicted to take action unless their donors, supporters or voters demand it. That's where the general public comes into play. We all need to come to the understanding that global warming is a greater threat to kill Americans and undermine our economy than Isis, illegal immigration, or the Afghanistan conflict combined.

We urgently need to defend ourselves against the risks.

Eliot Glassheim, of Grand Forks, is a former state lawmaker.

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