Tracks in a tree's bark left by the burrowing of bark beetles, whose spread is exacerbated by warming temperatures.

For all the doom and gloom forecasts that have dominated climate change warnings, it’s easy to understand why people have thought about global warming in futuristic, Hollywood-style terms: post-apocalyptic survivors struggling to save civilization in a barren world where people battle over scarce food and water supplies.

The realities of climate change will probably not be so sensational. But a landmark scientific report issued by the U.S. government this week clearly shows that the impacts of climate change will be just as scary.

Compiled by scientists from multiple government agencies, laboratories, and prestigious universities across the country, the report draws a vivid picture of what climate change means for each and every American: It will impact our infrastructure, our economy, our natural resources, our health — our way of life.

The report also makes clear that climate change is not something that will happen in the future. It’s happening now — and in our own backyards.

Across the United States, climate change is already affecting water, energy, transportation, agriculture, natural habitats and human health. Floods and droughts will likely become more common and more intense. Heat-related deaths are likely to increase as 100 degree F days become more and more common. By the end of the century, the report warns, heat-related deaths in Chicago could rise tenfold.

And, according to the government experts, the impacts will only worsen if we do not take immediate action.

The report comes at a critical time, just as Congress is set to make history and pass the country’s first climate change bill. The scientific evidence in the report should motivate our representatives to act quickly and unequivocally. Every member of Congress can now see how climate change threatens their districts and states, their local economies and their constituents. There should be no question of what needs to be done.

We must lower our carbon dioxide emissions immediately. The sooner we do that, the better our chances to lessen the impacts of climate change. Without action, the United States could warm 7 degrees to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. If we cut emissions now, we could halve those temperature increases, and reduce the impacts that would follow.

But the report also shows that lowering emissions is not enough. Climate change is happening now, and we must take action immediately to combat it.

Our government leaders must provide funding and policy support to ensure that we can withstand the impacts of climate change that are now sure to come, and be prepared for those that may follow. That includes ensuring that our natural resources are healthy and strong enough to continue to provide every American with the food, clean water, shelter and income that sustain our quality of life.

This report should motivate us to make the United States a world leader in the fight against climate change. One of the reasons we haven’t been fully engaged in international climate change negotiations is because climate change has not been a problem in the hearts and minds of Americans. This report makes climate change a personal issue to each of us.

Region by region the report outlines the climate impacts we will experience if we don’t take action to reduce emissions and prepare for changes:

  • Along the Gulf Coast, sea level rise will submerge about 2,400 miles of roadways and 250 miles of freight rail lines over the next 50 to 100 years.
  • In the Northeast, maple syrup production may disappear and the entire industry could move to Canada.
  • Across the United States, warmer winters and drier summers will lead to beetle outbreaks that could kill off millions of trees.

Damaged roadways, dying forests or the loss of maple syrup may not be the stuff of blockbuster movies, but for the millions of Americans who rely upon these and other national resources for their livelihoods, these climate impacts are scarier than any Hollywood thriller.

(Image: Bark beetle burrows. Credit: Vik Nanda via a Creative Commons license.)

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