“We are not going to get through this without taking a lot of casualties, if we get through it at all”
Gwynne Dyer, Climate Wars
“I can say with some confidence that we’re losing the fight, badly and quickly – losing it because, most of all, we remain in denial about the peril that human civilization is in.”
Bill McKibben, environmentalist and founder of 350.org
“Imagine a giant asteroid on a direct collision course with Earth. That is the equivalent of what we face now, yet we dither.”
Dr. James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
It’s probably already too late. Humanity may survive, but if it does, it will be in a very different world, with a very different level of civilization. It won’t be the flooding of coastal cities and islands that kills people. That happens relatively gradually, and populations will be evacuated first. It will be the starvation caused by a massive decrease in food production coupled with an increase in overall population. It will be the exponential increase of climate-related diseases. And it will be the political repercussions of climate change, namely war.
With a warmer climate there’s actually more rainfall overall, but less of it in the global bread baskets in Earth’s mid latitudes such as the American Midwest, northern India, the Mediterranean, and Australia (because of the expansion of the Hadley cells). Canada and Russia may experience a slight increase in food production, though nowhere near enough to offset decreases everywhere else, and not even enough to export anything. America will be able to feed itself, but just barely, and certainly won’t be able to export any food.
The Earth, like the human body, experiences massive changes with just a small change in average temperature. As a general rule of thumb, global food production goes down ten percent with each degree C (1.8 degree F) of temperature increase. In some regions, such as India and China, it’s actually more than that. As journalist Gwynne Dyer writes:
“A 25 percent loss of food production [predicted with a two degree C increase in temperature] would be an almost measureless calamity for India. It now produces just enough food to feed its 1.1 billion people. If the population rises by the forecast quarter-billion in the next twenty years, and meanwhile its food production falls by 25 percent due to global warming, half a billion Indians will starve.”
Most of the damage is going to be done in tropical and sub-tropical regions. Almost all developing nations are in these regions (which is cruelly ironic since 80 per cent of carbon currently in the atmosphere was put there by the developed world). In these regions, semi-permanent droughts and massive floods will become routine.
To compound the problem, most underground aquifers are going to go dry within the next 30 years. These aquifers supply water to two-thirds of the world’s irrigated land. Irrigated land provides about 40 percent of the world’s food.
As it is, nine hundred million people already go hungry and two billion people are malnourished. The U.N. predicts that we must increase food production by 70 per cent by mid-century if we are to feed the predicted global population of nine billion people, but with a two degree increase, food production goes down one fifth.
The U.N. also predicts a global food crisis in 2013 because of low crop yields in the U.S., Ukraine, and elsewhere. World-wide, we’ve been eating more than we’ve been growing for six of the past 11 years. Experts warn that the global food supply system could collapse at any point.
Gwynne Dyer points out the political consequences that will kill many people long before they ever go hungry. “A crash in food production doesn’t just bring hunger. It brings chaos: collapsing governments, waves of starving climate refugees crossing borders, even wars between countries that depend on the same river for irrigation water.” Dyer, who has a PhD in military history, notes that historically people always choose war before starvation.
What happens when the Indus river starts drying up between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan? Or the Tigris-Euphrates between Turkey, Syria, and Iraq? Or the Jordan River between Israel and Jordan? What’s China going to do when it’s faced with mass starvation and just across the border in Siberia are huge sources of grain? When the American army has to start shooting masses of climate refugees from a starving Mexico, what are Hispanics in the U.S. (which will be one quarter of the population by then) going to do? Europe will face the same problem with a flood of refugees from North Africa.
Gwynne Dyer discusses the coming climate wars
If the average global temperature reaches two degrees C above normal levels, climate change becomes irreversible (“runaway global warming”). Even if all CO2 production ends at that point, the warming process continues because of so-called “positive feedbacks.” These include increased evaporation from warmer oceans (which amplify the Greenhouse Effect), and melting polar ice (ice absorbs 30 per cent of sunlight, but ocean absorbs 94 per cent. When permafrost melts, methane and CO2 will be released in massive quantities, causing further warming).
The problem is, we’re already 0.8 of a degree above normal levels, and even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 of a degree thanks to carbon already in the atmosphere (CO2 stays in the atmosphere and continues to have a warming effect for about a century). That means we’re already three-quarters of the way to two degrees.
Many scientists say the two degree target itself is far too conservative. The most prominent climate scientist in the world, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute James Hansen says “The target that has been talked about in international negotiations for two degrees of warming is actually a prescription for long-term disaster.”
With a two degree rise, many island nations disappear (as sea levels rise by seven metres), all coral reefs die, one third of all species go extinct, and malaria and dysentery rates explode. The effects would be particularly catastrophic to places such as Africa and the Amazon, the latter of which turns into desert and grasslands. Bangladesh, where most of the 150 million people live only 20 feet above sea-level, would be utterly devastated.
The fact of the matter is that we are virtually destined for a temperature increase of more than two degrees. Current CO2 levels (391 ppm) are the highest they’ve been in at least 800,000 years (when they never rose above 300 ppm). When they reach 450 ppm, which they will, we reach the two degree limit (though the British government’s former chief scientific adviser, Sir David King said that even if CO2 levels stay below 450 parts per million there is a 50 per cent probability that temperatures will exceed two degrees).
We need to decrease greenhouse gas emissions 80 per cent by 2030, and 100 per cent by 2050, or we run into massive problems. This means we should be decreasing them by four per cent a year, but we’re currently increasing them by three per cent. Fatih Birol, the International Energy Agency’s (IAE) chief economist, has said that “When I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.” Six degrees means probable human extinction.
Scientists estimate that we can pour roughly 565 more gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere by 2050 and still have some chance (the estimate is four chances in five) of staying below two degrees. At the current rate of CO2 increase, we have 16 years until we reach the limit. The IAE actually says we’ve only got five years until we hit irreversible climate change, when calculating the lifespan of energy infrastructure that’s being installed now.
Here’s why blowing past the 565 gigaton limit is almost certain. There are 2,795 gigatons of proven fossil fuel reserves (worth $27 trillion) currently owned by oil companies and petro states around the world. That’s five times higher than 565. The capital from these reserves is already figured into share prices, companies are borrowing money against it, and countries are basing their budgets on the presumed returns from it. Fossil fuel companies are already given $400 billion in subsidies, which distorts the market and makes it almost impossible for alternative energy sources to emerge on a large scale. How many people believe that some of the most powerful organizations on the planet are going to give this treasure up simply from the goodness of their hearts? Do we really believe “morality” is going to persuade them? Remember when all the top Big Tobacco executives swore that nicotine isn’t addictive, or when Ford knew about the lethal design flaw of the Pinto, yet decided it would be easier to pay off the dead victims’ families than change the design?
The current irrational shift away from nuclear power only worsens the situation. There are only three sources of baseload (continuously-operating) power: coal, hydro, and nuclear. Coal causes climate change, not to mention tens of thousands of deaths a year from air pollution, and hydro is already maxed out in most parts of the world. Nuclear is far from perfect, but is far safer than coal and far more reliable than solar and wind, which only work when the sun is shining and it’s windy. Nuclear also requires far less alteration of land than massive solar and wind farms. If countries turn away from nuclear energy, the result could be an increase in emissions equivalent to the current emissions of Germany and France combined. For the above reasons, James Hansen strongly advocates nuclear power, as do many others.
President Obama, who’s given Shell permission to start oil drilling in the extremely sensitive Arctic, has said that “Producing more oil and gas here at home has been, and will continue to be, a critical part of an all-of-the-above energy strategy…You have my word that we will keep drilling everywhere we can.” His climate bill was so watered down that’s it’s laughable. Romney, who may not even believe in anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change, has an energy plan that would be nothing short of a calamity. Both presidential candidates are completely ignoring climate change in their campaigns and debates. Legislation to deal with climate change isn’t going to get passed so long as there are five climate lobbyists for every member of Congress.
The annual international climate conferences are a complete joke, and will perhaps one day be remembered (if there’s anyone left alive) as the greatest political failures in the history of human civilization. The U.S. isn’t going to sign a substantial international agreement on climate change unless China (which currently builds one new coal plant every week) does the same, and China isn’t going to unless the U.S. pays for China’s transition to a green economy (wind panels, solar panels, etc. are much more expensive than coal plants to produce the same amount of energy). China doesn’t think it’s fair that they have to stop industrializing, yet the developed world became developed by creating climate change. As Dyer writes, “You can’t insist that everybody must make equal cuts in their emissions when one group bears much more responsibility for the problem than the other.” Without the U.S. and China onboard, it doesn’t particularly matter what the rest of the world does (they alone account for about 40 per cent of global emissions).
Public opinion remains divided on this issue because oil corporations spend millions funding think tanks that produce a disinformation campaign whose goal was not to disprove climate change theory, which even they acknowledge is impossible in the face of overwhelming evidence, but to create enough doubt that a false debate gets created. During the “Snowmageddon” storm that hit Washington DC in February 2010, those who don’t “believe” in science found validation for the global warming “myth,” not realizing that melting Arctic sea ice causes colder winter weather in the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere.
Oil-funded think tanks create an unfounded sense of doubt, as tobacco companies before them did
The challenge is also on an individual level. Environmentalist Bill McKibben outlines the incredible difficulty of starting a movement to change the way we live and reduce CO2 production:
“Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself – it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.”
Scientists are more than familiar with these facts, and are thus realistic about the outcome. The chief scientific adviser to Britain’s Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that a four degree increase is more likely than two.
With four degrees, we will watch Italy, Spain, Greece, and Turkey, as well as much of the U.S. and Africa, turn into deserts. Arctic ice will permanently disappear, and summer temperatures in Europe will be 50 degrees C. Up to 300 million more people will be affected by coastal flooding each year, there will be a 30 – 50 per cent reduction in water availability in southern Africa, agricultural yields will decline 15 – 35 per cent in Africa and up to half of all species on earth will go extinct.
Gwynne Dyer writes that most scientists he’s talked to (and he’s spent years interviewing hundreds of them all over the world) predict a three degree increase. However, with even three degrees, enough positive feedbacks come into play that temperatures actually increase a lot more than that. As Dyer writes, “We may end up trapped on an escalator heading up to +6 degrees C (+10.5 degrees F), with no way of getting off.”
Part 1 of this series can be found here.