The clip linked here is a great introduction to the impacts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere (embedding has been disabled for this clip from The Newsroom, an HBO television show in the United States). It’s humorous and accurate, although it stops well short of explaining how irreversibly dire the situation has become with respect to abrupt climate change.
The clip falls well short of revealing the full impacts of ongoing climate change, much less future effects. For example, the clip includes only the effects of atmospheric carbon dioxide, thus ignoring methane and the other major greenhouse gases. And, although it points out that a 23-m rise in sea level is guaranteed, it fails to note that a 6 C rise in global-average temperature is also locked in. If you’re into Fahrenheit, that’s a 10.8-degree temperature rise. No humans survive such a rise in temperature because it will be accompanied by the loss of human habitat.
All citations and data mentioned in this brief essay can be found at my long, often-updated essay. It’s here.
According to the International Energy Agency, in their May 2014 assessment, we’re headed for up to a 6 C global-average temperature rise by 2050. That’s taking into account only carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, and assuming business as usual.
We’ve never had humans on this planet at 3.3 C or higher above baseline. Baseline refers to the beginning of the industrial revolution, about 1750. At slightly less than 1 C temperature rise since 1750, native organisms cannot keep up via adaptation … by a factor of 10,000 times.
As with nearly every major assessment, including those by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the International Energy Agency, methane is ignored. Methane is more than 100 times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide at spans shorter than a decade or two.
Small wonder climate scientist Paul Beckwith said in late November 2014 we’re headed for a 5 C or higher global-average temperature rise within a decade or two. Beckwith is taking into account only one of dozens of self-reinforcing feedback loops, that of methane release from the Arctic Ocean.
I should also point out that all the impacts mentioned in the show are not events likely to occur in the future. Rather, they are already under way. Let’s take a look at each of the six of them, in order of mention:
- Mass migrations are already under way: I recently traveled in western Europe, where people are migrating in droves from northern Africa. Also, until last year New Zealand required for immigration either $2 million or one of a handful of rare skills. Now they allow anybody from small island states in the South Pacific where habitat for humans is being destroyed by climate change.
- Food shortages are already under way: California is increasingly unable to produce food. The ongoing dust bowl is the central U.S. is further exacerbating the problem. In the U.S., 40% of the honeybees died last year. These are primary pollinators for our food supply. That’s all on land, which accounts for half the food eaten by humans. But the oceans are dying, too, including a profound recent reduction in phytoplankton. These small organisms form the base of the marine food web. Already, 5 million people each year experience early death because of climate change every year.
- Water shortages are already under way: In northern California, many people have been without water through the taps for nearly a year. This matches the situation throughout much of the world. In Puerto Rico, for example — which is part of the U.S. — water rationing began in mid-May 2015.
- Spread of deadly disease is already under way: I was teaching my college students about the interaction between climate change and spread of infectious diseases more than 15 years ago. Examples that are reasonably well-known today include Lyme disease, malaria, dengue, and Ebola. Others are occurring, and many others are on the way.
- Endless wildfires are already under way: Most people are aware of ongoing fires in Siberia and British Columbia. This is shaping up to be quite the year in the United States and throughout the rest of the northern hemisphere.
- Storms that have the power to level cities are already under way: Katrina, Ike, Isaac, and Sandy are recent examples in this country. Typhoon Haiyan famously hit the Philippines in November 2013.
When asked how they could see the future, science-fiction writers George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, and Aldous Huxley each gave the same answer: Rather than predicting the future, they were reporting on events currently under way. I can relate.
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McPherson’s latest book is co-authored by Carolyn Baker. The revised second edition of Extinction Dialogs: How to Live with Death in Mind is available. Electronic copy is available here from Amazon.
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