Climate Change - Sure It Is a Problem, Let's Fix It
Climate change is back in the news and it is time we all get used to it. I know many people do not get worked up about the climate change threat. I wish more people would respond to the issue emotionally, as Bill McKibbon and I do, but that might be asking too much (MicKibbon 1989). Instead the world and all its creatures may have to rely on cold, hard reason to convince the powers that be that collectively we must acknowledge the reality of climate change and act. For all but the most selfish, I am confident the growing body of scientific evidence will be enough. The question that remains is: Can the convincing be done soon enough?
The headline grabbing climate news continues to be extreme weather. Extreme drought conditions now blanket the Southwest and parts of California are likely to roll through January (typically one of the wettest months) with zero precipitation. After recently suffering the frigid temperatures of a “polar vortex,” much of the rest of the country is now experiencing another major cold snap. The nation escaped the 2013 hurricane season without another catastrophe, but the effects of Sandy (and even Katrina) will be with us for years to come. And while the U.S. was spared, the Philippines was not. Scientists are just beginning to uncover the significance of climate extremes (Smith 2011). Forecasts, however, confirm what anyone paying attention has noticed, weather extremes are increasing in frequency and severity and will continue to do so.
The doomsaying that often accompanies the climate change conversation is essentially rooted in caution. Scientists do not fully understand the effects of extreme climate events (Smith 2011). The consequences of crossing ecological response thresholds, where an important species collapses for example, are sufficiently worrisome, however, to warrant additional investigation. Given the high stakes, humility begs us to act conservatively until there is a better understanding.
Scientists already confirm that climate change is affecting the natural world and threatening species in a measurable way (Paresan and Yohe 2003, Walther et al. 2002). When observed in combination with other factors such as land-use changes, the risks for species are stark. Where a species might once have migrated northward or southward, up or down in elevation, or inland, the options are increasingly constrained by the barriers of human development. Precaution dictates that we not follow the economists who discount future risks. Rather, we should heed the biologists who consider the importance of weakly measured phenomena that are likely to persist and grow.
The discussion of climate change turns really gloomy when examining the what-if scenarios. National security analysts are among those counted upon to plumb these frightening depths. In 2003, two such scholars, Peter Schwartz and Doug Randall, considered the U.S. and global security effects of an abrupt climate change scenario wherein the weather system humankind has known for all recorded history is interrupted (2003). Taking care to ground the proposed scenario in historical reality (such interruptions are observable in studies of thick ice), Schwartz and Randall foretold consistently harsh weather, economically devastating storm events, reductions in agricultural productivity, forced migrations due to flooding and sea-level rise, and disputes over natural resources. Ultimately, the scenario envisioeds a decreased global carrying capacity where limited resources would lead to war, exacerbated by disease.
The direst predictions are not pleasant to consider. It is impossible to quantify the likelihood that the events Schwartz and Randall describe will play out. Yet when we consider the possibility that this scenario is what we might leave coming generations, it should give us pause.
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is in the process of releasing its most current assessment report (IPCC 2013). The first of three sections was released in September 2013. In it, the IPCC reports that global warming is “unequivocal” and that it is “extremely likely” (signifying with greater than 95% confidence) that human activities are the cause. Reuters and the New York Times recently reported (here and here) on the leaked third section of the IPCC report, not officially due out until April 2014. In it, the IPCC describes a world where the available time to respond to dramatic climate change is limited and the anticipated costs of future response and mitigation efforts are high. In short, the world’s climate experts increasingly foretell risks of the Schwartz and Randall variety.
What can you do to respond? For starters you can examine your own lifestyle and plan to personally reduce your ecological footprint. If you find it does not make sense to personally act, you should consider supporting others who are in a place to do so. While I am a renter and do not have a roof on which I can personally install solar panels, I recently invested $1,000 through Mosaic in a 645 kW solar installation on a bee farm in Red Bluff, California. Write a letter to a policy maker asking that fossil fuel industry subsidies be redirected to renewable energy. Ride your bike to work. Divest your investments in fossil fuels and encourage institutions with which you are associated to do the same. Do something, anything. And when you do, leave a comment to give other readers ideas so we can learn together what to do instead of simply wallowing in the mud of our climate predicament.