Overlap

It really annoys me when people treat climate change purely as an environmental issue.

I care about the environment, probably more than most people. I pick up litter so birds won’t eat it and get sick. I’m maintaining three composting systems at the moment. When I have my own house one day, I’m going to tear up the sod and let prairie grasses take over the lawn so it becomes a habitat conducive to frogs and sparrows.

But I hold climate change in an entirely different category. It hardly even overlaps with the “environment” section of my brain.

Climate change certainly will severely impact ecosystems and the environment. Wildlife will be forced to adapt, shift its range, or face extinction. Droughts will lead to lower water levels in some areas, which increases the concentration of pollutants. Habitat loss, the other major threat for species, will be aggravated in many areas: forests, coral reefs, year-round ice, and lakes – to name a few – face stress from changes in temperature and precipitation.

But it doesn’t end there. Climate change is way too complex and far-reaching to be labelled as “just another environmental issue”. Yes, it is an environmental issue. But that’s the least of it.

Consider agriculture. A recent study in Science claims that average temperatures in the tropics and subtropics – areas which are home to more than 3 billion people, the majority of whom depend on community agriculture for sustenance and income –  are highly likely (>90%) to exceed even the warmest temperatures on record by the end of this century. “Experimental and crop-based models for major grains in these regions show direct yield losses in the range of 2.5 to 16% for every 1°C increase in seasonal temperature,” the report states, and “despite the general perception that agriculture in temperate latitudes will benefit from increased seasonal heat and supply food to deficit areas, even mid-latitude crops will likely suffer at very high temperatures in the absence of adaptation.”

An even more fundamental requirement for human survival is drinking water. More than one-sixth of people worldwide depend on glacial/snowpack meltwater to drink (IPCC AR4 WG2, 3.4.3), a source which could become threatened in the near future, as “many small glaciers, [especially in the Andes], will disappear within the next few decades, adversely affecting people and ecosystems.”

One of the scariest impacts is sea level rise. Nearly every major city in the world is coastal, and could be wiped out in the centuries to come. We’re only expecting an increase of 0.6 m by 2100, but there’s enough ice in the world to increase the sea level by 80 m, should sufficient warming come to pass. This would take at least a few hundred years, but consider how long some of those coastal cities, such as Amsterdam and Shanghai, have been standing, and how many years of cultural significance they contain. Imagine that we only have a few centuries left before we have to move everything in them – or lose them altogether.

It gets even scarier when you start looking at climate change from a national security perspective, at its potential for political conflict and resource wars. Scientists give the best estimate; but military officials prepare for the worst possible scenario. Unfortunately, most of these documents are classified – I can’t find anything unclassified that would qualify as an acceptable source under our comment policy. However, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (a bipartisan foreign policy think tank) recently published a fairly terrifying report on this topic. I’m also reading a book called Climate Wars, by Canadian journalist Gwynne Dyer, which contains cheery scenarios such as the breakup of the European Union (due to drought in southern Europe, leading to conflict with the north for food supplies) and a “Colder War” over Arctic sovereignty.

It’s not just about polar bears. It’s about the life, security, and prosperity of our civilization. It seems radically unfair to classify climate change as one of many environmental problems – somehow implying that it is just an environmental problem, no worse than commercial pesticides or eutrophication. We can’t fix this with a single law. We need more than a change in what kinds of products we buy. This is one of the worst problems, if not the worst problem, of our time purely because its impacts are so far-reaching and it is so hard to fix.

And that’s why it takes up so much more space in my mind.

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15 thoughts on “Overlap

  1. [citations needed – last interglacial maximum was 150 years ago. Perhaps you typed the number wrong, Mike?]

    Regarding sea level, I think the discrepancy in sea level rise estimates comes from just how cold is it in Antarctica? I can’t find any temperatures anywhere, but if someone else can, look up what is the warmest temperature ever reached there? It’s possibly so cold that any amount of global warming won’t melt it.

  2. Runaway greenhouse is not in the cards, nor am I aware of anybody studying the area who has ever said it was. Runaway is to heat up to the point where the oceans boil and all water vapor is in clouds instead. If the ostriches were right, and water vapor were the overwhelmingly important greenhouse gas they claim, the next El Nino should throw us in to runaway.

    Significant warming, on the other hand, is already in the cards (taking significant to be ‘more than 10% of a huge change’, and taking ‘huge’ to be the transition to or from an ice age). We can choose some on just how large the change is, though our options for less change get worse with every day of proceeding as if climate change had nothing to do with us.

    In looking at the major ice sheets, a few centuries is a fast, but not unreasonable, time to get rid of the West Antarctic or Greenland ice sheets (or both). They are about 6 m each. But the East Antarctic, which is 60-ish, is more like a few thousand years for an aggressive collapse.

    [You’re right, I mean “catastrophic” warming instead of “runaway” warming. I wasn’t aware there was an exact definition for the runaway GH effect. Good to know so I don’t embarrass myself later! -Kate]

  3. Well said. I take it you haven’t yet got to the bit in Dwyer’s book where he talks about a possible nuclear war between india and pakistan over water supplies. I thought he was talking about decades in the future, but it turns out India is suffering a massive water shortage right now, and this years crops are in danger:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/12/india-water-supply-bhopal
    when you can’t get enough water for your family to stay alive, there is no civilization.

    [Yikes! No, I haven’t got to that bit in the book yet. -Kate]

  4. Kate,

    Inaction on climate change is inexcusable given the magnitude of the problem.

    And yet, it’s still considered acceptable for fossil fuel interests to secretly fund PR disinformation campaigns featuring bogus science, with the explicit aim of postponing effective action..

    Case in point: Contrarian business consultant (and non-scientist) Lord Monckton is touring Canada with appearances at the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, the Fraser Institute in Vancouver and, yes, closer to home for you, at presentations for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy in Regina and Winnipeg.

    Among other things, Monckton calls global warming a “scientific fraud” perpetrated by the “intellectual descendents of Goebbels”. As a fellow Canadian concerned about climate change, I’m sure you will join me in condemning this outrage.

    See:
    http://deepclimate.org/2009/09/22/friends-of-science-behind-moncktons-magical-mystery-tour/

    http://deepclimate.org/2009/07/16/friends-of-science-theyre-back/

    [Ah yes, the ironically named Friends of Science, the Canadian version of CEI et al. I had heard about Monckton coming. I’ll look more into it in the next few weeks. -Kate]

  5. I agree. What annoys me especially is when concern about climate change is compared to “environment above people,” “ecology before economy,” or “worshipping creation.”

    Personally, the risk to non-human species (like polar bears) would be enough to justify cutting emissions. But the message is even stronger when the human element is shown.

    If anyone’s interested, I happened to write a post about this on my blog recently – http://throughagreenlens.com/2009/09/23/the-human-face-of-global-warming/

  6. Kate, when you do look into the FoS, pay special attention to any mention of the Calgary Foundation. You’ll probably find a few links that aren’t generally mentioned, especially if the name “Barry Cooper” shows up. (There was also the Dan Johnson fiasco a couple of years ago which pretty much has to be linked to anyone who still cites Tim Ball, but…).

    Have you seen The Denial Machine yet? It deals, in part, with how Canadian opposition to climate science has unfolded, and Ball and the FoS feature in it.

    Dyer’s Pakistan-India scenario is one of the scarier ones, and also showed up in the podcast version of Climate Wars. There’s some empirical problems with the “water wars” claim (see, for instance, here, although this is still a contested conclusion and – based on my own quick journal searches – appears to be a minority position), but on the flipside, it’s also considered very serious in its own right by folk who make it their business to understand threats (see, for instance, this conversation with General Zinni, released concurrently with the CNA report Dyer cites). Still, it’s one of the few scenarios I’ve mentioned to others that seems to gain purchase – most of the others are dismissed, especially by denialists, as alarmist imaginings, but for some reason they “get” his India/Pakistan point. No idea why. (Side note: The war is actually a side effect of a bigger scenario that involves depleting water supplies for about a billion people, and the nuclear war is actually rather small-scale (as far as those can go; it’s contained to the region). For some reason, the denialists aren’t moved by water plights on one out of six people on the planet, but add a couple nukes to the picture and they sit up and listen.)

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    David R: I’m actually on my way to catch the (only!) local screening of The Age of Stupid, which attempts to put a human face on the climate crisis. I’ll write a review as soon as I get back; we’ll see how effective it is.

    [Yes, I have seen the Denial Machine, it was fantastic. CBC puts out some great stuff. -Kate]

  7. i never mentioned glacial maximum. i said the thermometer record goes back 150 years. A record in that doesn’t say much, especially when the little ice age ended not long before that

    [Oh, little ice age…..you just said we were coming out of an ice age 150 years ago….which really threw me. That “little” is quite crucial! -Kate]

  8. Brian, thanks – I hadn’t seen the Barnaby paper. But it strikes me as an obvious case of the past being a poor guide to the future. The central argument is that, in the past, whenever countries are short of water they turn to trade. But that clearly breaks down if there’s nobody to trade with because everyone’s water supplies are stressed at the same time. Seems like Barnaby suffers from a belief in unlimited growth.

  9. MikeN:
    The very coldest parts of Antarctica remain well below freezing year-round.

    The warmest parts, on the other hand, already got above freezing in summer — before there was the added warming around the already-warm periphery. For ground stations, check the University of Wisconsin’s Antarctic Research Center. Or, I’m sure, the National Climatic Data Center.

    Since the area that melted previously was rather small, the modest warming has greatly increased the area of melting — to the point of Antarctic moving in to a clearly melting status. It had long been arguable whether it was gaining or losing mass.

    Kate:
    Yes, just a heads up. There’s a lot of terminology out there.

  10. Steve: As I said, it appears to be a minority view, and therefore given undue attention by what little science journalism we have. I saw one report mentioning the paper a while ago (and I couldn’t remember if it appeared in Nature or Science), so when I searched for the news report, I actually found several others, including an overview by Seed Magazine of a lot of literature on the subject – but the only one taking the No Problem stance was Barnaby’s, and it was the only paper I saw multiple times.

    This is really a Planet 3.0 topic, but I’ve been meaning to rail on “science journalism” for a while as a system that looks for single oddball results within a system that progresses through slow processes. Even when they get it right (which is rare), it’s still subconsciously promoting the idea that a single paper instantly overturns a consensus.

    Perhaps this is an extension of the whole Journalistic Objectivity problem (that is, a scientist is objective relative to the data, but a journalist is objective relative to the opinions – meaning that when opinions vary while data is strong, or vice versa, the two have a mismatch).

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    I’m back from Age of Stupid, by the way, but am too tired to write a solid review now. I’ll tackle one tomorrow, but the one-word review is Wow. (It’s pretty moving, but I’ll have to double-check the scientific claims in the framing story. They’re on the extreme, especially with respect to the timeline, but they seem ballpark to what I understand the worst-case-scenario could be. That said, that’s the framing story, not the meat of the film – which delivers its point like a slap to the face.)

  11. The latest IPCC’s projection of sea level rise does not include the effects of mechanical instability, which could speed up the melting of ice sheets. It should thus be considered as a lower bound estimate.

    The rate of rise is perhaps more uncertain than the equilibrium sea level, which could arguably be deduced from past climate states (eg 125,000 years ago, sea level was 6 metres higher than today, while golbal avg temperatures were ‘only’ 1-2 degrees higher, see eg http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v404/n6778/full/404591a0.html)

    There have been more recent estimates of SLR that have either tried to include the (very uncertain) effects of mechanical instability, of by-passed it by using a semi-empirical approach.
    (some ref’s at http://ourchangingclimate.wordpress.com/2008/09/09/sea-level-rise-and-the-dutch-deltacommission/)

  12. Kate

    The largest early impact in my opinion from AGW is indeed water supply related. But it isn’t just AGW that is the cause. Depletion of ground water reserves, declining glacial runoff and then changing weather patterns is a triple whammy. And the real hotspot for this will be South & Central Asia. As groundwater is exhausted in India, Pakistan and Northern China and flows in the Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra, Yangtse & Yellow rives decline – the Yellow river already fails to reach the ocean around half the year – the water supply for agriculture may drop by 30-50%. Already in India some states have regular blackouts because 1/2 the electricity supply is used for pumping water from up to 1 kilometer underground. And when wells run dry, suicide rates can climb. One estimate I read says that 47% of the water for agriculture in China comes from runoff from the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

    In the next few decades the population in this region might reach 4 Billion. And water supplies may only be enough to grow food for 1-2 Billion.

    And yes, India & Pakistan have Nukes. But as the Chinese government casts around for sources of food for its people, the newly warming steppes of Siberia might look really tempting. And China & Russia have Nukes to.

    India is likely to have food shortages next year. But when food shortages become the norm in 20-30 years and then bad years produce truly massive famines things will get really ugly. You don’t save 1-2 Billion people who are starving with a few planes loads of food aid from the UN

  13. Brian D. mentions the possible involvement of the Calgary Foundation in the Monckton tour.

    Indeed, as I explain in my posts, the Science Education Fund at the Calgary Foundation is a likely conduit for the monies used to pay Monckton’s travel expenses and speaking fees. The SEF is a “donor-directed” flow-through fund that funneled $200,000 to Friends of Science projects in 2005-6 (including a radio ad campaign in key Ontario ridings during the 2006 election campaign and subsequent lobbying). All of that money (and more) was funneled through U of C Poli Sci professor Barry Cooper’s “climate research fund”.

    After the U of C shut down Cooper’s fund (an interesting story I hope to tell someday soon), the Science Education Fund switched over to the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. Almost $200,000 has been funneled there up to March 2009. Needless, to say Friends of Science and FCPP are co-operating on the Monckton tour.

    For info on FoS current activities my two posts are the most extensive as far as I am aware.
    http://deepclimate.org/2009/07/16/friends-of-science-theyre-back/

    http://deepclimate.org/2009/09/22/friends-of-science-behind-moncktons-magical-mystery-tour/

    Lord Monckton actually commented on the second one here:
    http://deepclimate.org/2009/09/22/friends-of-science-behind-moncktons-magical-mystery-tour/#comment-407

    For details of FoS up to 2008, see this SourceWatch article (I wrote most of it).
    http://sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=Friends_of_Science

    By the way, I would classify FoS as an “astroturf” group, rather than a think tank like CEI. The Fraser Institute and the FCPP are closer to being Canadian equivalents of CEI. Of course, all three are playing the same PR disinformation game, using largely the same set of “experts”.

    P.S. to Kate: If you think this too far off topic, feel free to move it to a new thread. (And feel free to get in touch to discuss FoS or anything else).

    [I don’t really mind off-topic comments. As long as they’re on the topic of this blog, I don’t expect them to stay strictly on the topic of the post. I’ll likely be writing a post about Monckton in the coming week; I’ll definitely use your posts as a resource. -Kate]

  14. Glenn, India has been having blackouts for decades, it has nothing to do with using electricity for pumping water, and everything to do with not enough power generation, and not charging the full price to customers.

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