Sunday, April 16, 2017

Climate Disorder = Global Upheaval

Recently, the Trump administration made it clear that the U.S. does not intend to live up to its commitment made as part of the Paris Agreement to slow climate change.  As the second major source of climate change pollution (after China), this is significant.  This retrenchment has been met with howls from environmental organizations and the international community, but the U.S. public has been mostly silent.

This post seeks to examine this issue and the U.S. public’s apparent assumption that the impact, on us at least, will be slight and that technology can be depended upon to allow us to adapt to any changes.

Our Earth is undergoing changes.  We have been having a conversation about this using the phrases “global warming” and “climate change.”  Given the facts I will present in this post as to what is already happening and the predictions, I think the terms “climate disorder” which results in “global upheaval” are more accurate and appropriate.

The result of these conversations has not been significant.  Yes, there is a global commitment now (all countries, even China, are still committed despite the U.S. pullback), but it is at such a low level that while it may slow the process, it will not stop it.  Indeed, there is serious question whether we have passed the tipping point and there is nothing that could be done to stop it.

There are several reasons why our response has been so weak.  One reason is the persistence of those who deny that these changes, these disruptions, are man-made … they're just part of the natural cycle that the Earth has experienced over the ages.  This has found a receptive audience in many people owing to their habit of being in denial of inconvenient truths.

There are many ways to challenge that position.  But assuming for the moment that the deniers are right, wouldn’t it still be advisable to take whatever action we can to minimize the changes?  The problem with that question is that the changes have been presented as so non-threatening to us if not most of mankind that the answer is, “no.”

The next reason is that any action we could take to significantly reduce CO2 emissions (and thus slow or halt these changes) would involve such an alteration both to our lifestyle and to the operation of our industrial base that it has minimal support from either the public or industry.  From a cost/benefit analysis, the benefit just doesn’t seem to be sufficient to warrant the cost.

Which brings me to the last and most important reason:  the presentation of the issue - the facts marshaled and its packaging - have been woefully understated and ineffective.  Even the more dire predictions, even slick media presentations like Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, seem almost irrelevant to most people.  The common reaction is, “So what?  So some people will be displaced by rising oceans and we’ll have to adapt to warmer temperatures.  No big deal.”  The general feeling is that the change will not be significant, and what change there is can be dealt with through adaptive technology.  Bottom line, no disruption. 

What we must therefore attempt is to accurately ... there is no need to exaggerate or embellish ... and clearly present the facts and predictions in a way which makes them relevant to people in the U.S. and around the world.

1.  What is happening already?

The enormous weight of the Greenland ice sheet impacts the axis of the Earth’s rotation and the location of the poles. As the Greenland ice sheet melts, as it is doing with increasing speed … each year the sheet is loosing 287 billion tons of ice … the axis and the location of the poles will change.  How much no one knows, but the loss of just a fragment of the Greenland ice sheet, as well as Antarctic and North Pole ice, is already having an impact with the North Pole moving ever so slowly towards the UK.  This will without question impact worldwide weather and climate, but in ways unknown.

The seas have risen 2.6 inches since 1993 and are rising at an increasing rate. In low-lying places around the world, from Miami Beach to islands in the South Pacific, the water at high tide is routinely covering land that was only flooded during serious storms in the past.

Large areas of Asia and Africa have experienced terrible drought; desertification is increasing.  California has experienced a severe multiple year drought.  Yes, they’ve recently had lots of rain and snow, but that does not signal the end of the drought; just a brief respite.

Due to flooding and drought and other natural disasters, areas of the world have been made uninhabitable and so there have already been masses of climate change refugees.  In 2014 more than 19 million people from 100 countries were forced to flee their homes (how many of these were just temporary evacuations is not available).

Warmer winter temperatures have already extended the range of a variety of pests with devastating impact on pine and other forests.  Moose in Maine are dying because ticks are not being killed by winter cold.  Alfalfa crops in areas of California have encountered a new disease due to climate change.  This is just a sampling.

2.  What are the current predictions?

Sea levels could increase anywhere from a conservative 3 feet up to nearly 10 feet by 2100, depending on CO2 concentrations in the air and the speed at which polar ice melts.  Even a 3’ increase will mean huge areas will become uninhabitable.  In the United States, almost 40 percent of the population lives in relatively high-population-density coastal areas, where rising sea levels will play a major role in the extent of flooding, shoreline erosion, and hazards from storms. Globally, eight of the world's 10 largest cities are near a coast, according to the U.N. Atlas of the Oceans.

In the US, the south-west and the Great Plains will likely face decade-long droughts far worse than any experienced in recorded memory, including recent droughts.  The risk of drought from 2050-2099 rises to 96% in both areas compared to only 45% in the plains and 62% in the south-west from 1950-2000.  The will mean the end of U.S. food production as we’ve come to depend on it.  One quarter of all US food production occurs in the central valley of California; the great plains is the bread basket of the country.   Food production in those areas would suffer a major decrease.  

As for the rest of the world, most of Europe, the Middle East, large parts of Africa and parts of South America are at high risk for extreme drought.  The most serious impact for most people will again be on food production and water, which will be significant.

It is impossible to predict how many climate change refugees the combination of drought, increasing desertification, floods, and other natural disasters will bring in the future.  The estimates range anywhere from a low of 25 million to a high of 800 million.  But whatever the figure, the resettlement of these refugees will pose huge stresses on countries as so much of the world will be suffering.

There are no predictions on the change in insect infestations and plant diseases as a result of climate change.  But there is no question that the impact will be significant, given what we see happening already at the beginning of this century.

Then there are the national security questions.  In recent Congressional testimony, Defense Secretary James Mattis called climate change a national security threat, impacting stability in areas of the world where U.S. troops are operating.  Nations under stress from climate disorder will be subject to internal unrest and conflicts may erupt between nations to gain control of diminishing resources.  It also presents logistical problems for the military.  The extent of these problems are unknowable, but they will certainly occur.

Note that, to date, all the best scientific predictions have been significantly off in that greater change has occurred within a shorter period of time.  Whether it’s the loss of ice at the poles and Greenland, or the bleaching death of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, scientists keep saying we didn’t think this would happen for another 20-30 years.  So it would be wise to take these predictions as low.

Why is it so hard to make accurate forecasts even with sophisticated computer modeling?  All elements of nature … the water we drink, plants growing, weather patterns … are dependent on a multitude of interacting factors.  The water we drink is the product of a complex interaction of meteorological, geologic, and chemical forces.  Plants are dependent on so many things - light, water, nutrients - which are in turn dependent on a variety of natural forces.  Weather patterns are again dependent on a complex interaction of meteorological and geologic forces.

The answer to the above question is that even the most accomplished scientists have an incomplete understanding of the interaction of the forces of nature that impact the changes we have already seen and will control what happens in the future.  Since the value of computer output is based on the value of the inputs given the computer, the computer cannot produce accurate results.

Clearly, this issue should be a big deal for everyone.  These are not things that one can just adapt to through improved technology.  The human dislocation will be massive.  Our food production system, which has developed over the past century, will be devastated; we will have to make changes, start over again in new places and perhaps in new ways.  And this at a time when the world’s burgeoning population needs a constant increase in food production to prevent disaster.   Pests of various types will appear in areas where they never have and wreak havoc on the native vegetation and animal life. 

The more accurate phrase to describe what is happening and what will happen in the future is not “global warming” or “climate change,” but “climate disorder” resulting in “global upheaval.”  We must do whatever we can, at whatever cost to both convenience and finances, to slow down this process so that our children and their children don’t inherit a hell on earth.