To kick off NHPR's new reporting project By Degrees, we're unpacking the basics of how climate change is already affecting life in New Hampshire, and how the state is contributing to and responding to the problem.
Rachel Cleetus is the policy director for the Union of Concerned Scientists' Climate and Energy Program, based in Massachusetts.
NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with her about the effects of climate change in the Granite State and New Hampshire's role in climate change policy.
Rick Ganley: We're seeing effects from climate change already. We have been for a while. What are some of the effects of climate change that we are seeing here in New Hampshire?
Rachel Cleetus: So as global average temperatures warm, we're seeing accelerating sea level rise, and that is true everywhere and definitely true here along our New Hampshire coastline. And that's leading to increasing coastal flooding as sea levels rise. It also means that when we have storms, the storm surges are riding on higher sea levels, and so can they reach much further inland.
In the Northeast, we're also seeing a rise in temperatures. And the most recent national climate assessment that was released in 2018 says that by 2035, the Northeast is projected to have a more than 3.6 Fahrenheit increase in temperature above pre-industrial levels. And that's going to be the largest increase in the contiguous U.S. And what we recognize when we see that is that temperatures here are rising more and faster than they are in the global average.
And in New Hampshire, this means we're going to see more extreme heat, more heatwaves, more people exposed to the impacts of heat related illnesses. And when we look at scientific projections of what is to come, it is very sobering, because if we fail to sharply reduce our carbon emissions, if we fail to take action quickly, these impacts are going to get much, much worse.
Rick Ganley: What do you think the biggest worry for us is right now, here in the Northeast and in New Hampshire specifically?
Rachel Cleetus: We have a lot of people in coastal communities who are seeing increased coastal flooding because of sea level rise. Now, you know, in New Hampshire, for example, we did some analysis looking at the risk to our residential properties. And we found that by 2045, 2,000 of today's residential properties, which are currently home to about 3,000 people, are at risk of chronic inundation, meaning that they will see really destructive flooding to their properties that can diminish the value of those properties. We're talking about $645 million worth of property.
Now those people are finding themselves at risk through no fault of their own. This is global climate change and sea level rise that is coming to rest on their doorstep. So how is it fair to ask people to just cope with the loss of property value on their own or to deal with this problem on their own when they are not the ones who created the whole problem themselves?
And this is why there's the need for collective action so that we're not unfairly passing on the burden to particular individuals who are facing these impacts. Look, when the ski industry is threatened by climate change, that's a lot of jobs that can go away. You know, when we have changes in tourism, that's a lot of jobs here in New Hampshire. So we need to really be thinking about this in a holistic way and making investments right now so that we're not imposing real economic hardship and suffering on people further down the line.
Rick Ganley: How has New Hampshire responded to that change so far, though? I mean, especially if you look at other New England neighbors, we often hear about initiatives that are being done on the state level. I'm thinking about Massachusetts and California, in particular. People who live here often see us as a green, outdoorsy state. But how does that translate to environmental policies? Are state governments doing enough?
Rachel Cleetus: Well, frankly, no. New Hampshire has a lot more room to do more. The state is a part of a regional program in the northeast, the [Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative] that's designed to lower emissions from the power sector. That program has resulted in billions of dollars of revenues for the state. But unfortunately, that money has not been invested in ramping up renewable forms of energy sufficiently. So, you know, New Hampshire has huge solar potential, huge unexploited solar potential that really could be ramped up. We're getting a very, very small percentage of the amount of energy we could get from solar, for example.
We're also increasingly becoming dependent on natural gas, which is a challenge because natural gas, while it burns cleaner than coal, still does come with carbon emissions attached to it. It is still a fossil fuel and it has upstream emissions from methane, a very potent heat trapping gas. So we really need to be thinking carefully about the risk of getting over reliant on natural gas, both for heating as well as for power.
Rick Ganley: We often hear in climate change conversations that, of course, this affects places like the Seacoast where you're talking about sea level rise. We often think about that real estate and it affecting more wealthy people. But climate change, a warming climate in general, does have a disproportionate effect on lower income and communities with people of color, doesn't it?
Rachel Cleetus: Absolutely. Climate change all around the world and here in New Hampshire is taking a disproportionate toll on low income communities and communities of color. And the reason for this is because of these longstanding inequities. We have populations who are more exposed to the economic ravages of climate change. So whether it be impacts on the tourism industry or impacts on property values, impacts on jobs, impacts on, you know, things like farming, we have the heightened exposure to those economic impacts to people who are low income or fixed income.
And in many cases, there is a very important racial dimension of this. And these are all aspects of dealing with broader challenges that our nation faces, but they definitely intersect with how we deal with climate change as well, making sure that we're taking into account these kinds of disproportionate impacts and fashioning our policies to help address them upfront.