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How Is Climate Change Affecting New Jersey?

Count the ways: Warmer air temperatures, shortened seasons, and increased rainfall are already taking a toll

Climate change is real. It’s here. It’s caused by humans. That’s the conclusion of no less than three major scientific reports in as many months that warn the world is failing to make sufficient progress to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Dr. Robert Kopp, the director of the Rutgers Institute of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, uses computer modeling to demonstrate how sea levels would rise if humans kept pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

At 9 feet — the sea levels reached in Superstorm Sandy — Port Newark, the airport and much of Jersey City would be submerged. It would set off a cascade that could wash out homes and businesses, impede power lines, and cut off the supply lines for goods coming into harbor.

“Ten feet would nearly be a doomsday scenario. And it’s hard to get to, right? It requires that we have unchecked fossil-fuel emissions growth globally and that we’re unlucky in Antarctica,” Kopp said.

Kopp is also a lead author of volume one of the Fourth National Climate Assessment — the basis for the newly released climate report that warns of potential devastation to our coasts, economy and health. Devastation increases with each ton of carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere.

‘Need to get emissions down to zero’

“To stabilize the climate,” said Kopp, “we ultimately need to get our emissions down to zero and [be] taking active measures to deal with the impacts” — impacts that appear irreversible in the short term, like 20 years, because several greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, can stay in the atmosphere for decades causing rising temperatures, rising seas and intensifying storms.

The report shows warmer air temperatures, shortened seasons and increased rainfall already hurting forestry and farming, and threatening the food supply.

“Winters in New Jersey are warming faster than summer — in fact, about three times as fast, according to the National Climate Assessment. And what that means is that we’re seeing earlier springs, but winter is still winter, right? It still gets cold in the winter and will, even with global warming. That means we have, more frequently, early buds followed by cold snaps and that can be quite damaging to fruit crops,” Kopp said.

Warmer seas are already hurting fisheries down the Shore, and more extreme storms and surges are eroding beaches and putting added stress on aging critical infrastructure in cities. And all of it is threatening the health and well-being of New Jersey’s residents.

‘Wider spread of vector-borne diseases’

“Heat waves are bad for human health. You have more cardiovascular disease, you have more heat stress, and we see more hospitalizations and more deaths during these,” Kopp said. “We also have more allergies when we have a longer blooming season. We have, in a moister spring and summer, which we’re also getting, we’re also seeing a wider spread of vector-borne diseases and particularly things like ticks, Lyme disease.”

Scientists describe the quickening rate of carbon dioxide emissions in stark terms, comparing it to a “speeding freight train.”

“To stabilize the climate we need to get not just New Jersey emissions, not just U.S. emissions, but global emissions to net zero, which is one of the goals of the Paris Climate Accord,” Kopp said.

Three years ago, nearly 200 nations hammered out the Paris Agreement with a goal of holding global warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit over 18th century preindustrial levels. The earth has already warmed 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit.

At the start of the 21st century, we’re already halfway there.

This is the first part in the four-part series, Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change, lead funding for which is provided by Dr. P. Roy Vagelos and Diana T. Vagelos. Major support is provided by the Marc Haas Foundation and Sue and Edgar Wachenheim, III.

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