A Warmer World?

Do we want these coming social, environmental and economic changes?

Originally known as “the greenhouse effect”, filling the atmosphere with CO2 by burning fossil fuels is a really bad idea. CO2, the molecule, does a great job of absorbing sunlight’s warmth, so the more of it there is in the atmosphere, the more warmth from the sun is absorbed by the planet instead of being beamed off into space. This chart from Prof. Michael Mann, aka the Hockey Stick Chart, shows the Earth’s average temperature over the last 2000 years. We started burning fossil fuels just about where it takes off.

Since the Industrial Revolution came full swing in 1880, the world has warmed by 1.1°C (1.9°F). This is starting to have some radical effects.

Aftermath of extreme flooding in Ahr, Germany, July 2021 caused by climate change-induced extreme rainfall. Image from Reddit https://i.redd.it/leui6ayiasb71.jpg
Aftermath of extreme weather in Ahr, Germany, July 2021, which killed over 100 people. Image from Reddit r/wtf

Extreme weather is the most visual example of what climate change does, but it is just the tip of the iceberg. Climate change is not a single, recognisable monster we can easily fight – it’s like the mother of monsters, spawning monsters wherever we care to look.

Can we escape climate change by moving somewhere less vulnerable? Not really, as all the people who thought rainy, damp Portland, Oregon would be safe before it suffered the June 2021 heatdome where temperatures reached 48°C/119°F and streetcars stopped running because the power cables started melting[1]Rolling Stone article from June 2021 on the heatdome, the shellfish on the coast were cooked at low tide and the resulting wildfires erased towns, including infamously the town of Lytton, British Columbia, which had just recorded Canada’s highest-ever temperature at 49.5°C/121°F.

If we can’t escape climate change, we must adapt, because our current economic and social systems just will not cope. We could rely on governments to upgrade the electricity grid to provide enough power for air conditioning in extreme heatwaves or heating in extreme winter weather, and to build adequate flood defences, sea defences, wildfire protection and extreme rainfall storm drainage. But governments will always be making compromises and judging where and when infrastructure investments make long term sense.

Screenshot from a NSW, Australia firefighter newsreel

We could rely on insurance companies to bail us out when disaster strikes, but the insurance industry is already wise to the risk in many countries, with climate risk considered as a huge factor in making many residential and commercial properties uninsurable.

But these are only the obvious directly damaging impacts. What we have to bear in mind is that climate change is simply making our lives grim:

  • increasing health crises as climate change allows disease like malaria and Lyme disease to spread north
  • an increase in food prices of whatever crop happened to be hit by climate change-induced draught, fire or flooding – from cauliflowers to Californian wine
  • droughts and fires in summer and with random extreme deluges causing mudslides and incineration in the countryside and wilderness
  • resources diverted to help populations in vulnerable tropical countries suffering or being displaced
  • devastating impact on wildlife and biodiversity as habitats and species are lost

This comes from the 2022 UN IPCC assessment review[2]From the United Nations 6th Assessment Report: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental … Continue reading which documents what is happening now.

As if that wasn’t enough, we in the developed world with our huge historical emissions are guilty of destroying the development opportunities for poorer nations around the equator which will slowly become almost completely uninhabitable, displacing up to a third of the humanity.

The longer term outcome for humanity is decidedly apocalyptic if fossil fuel use isn’t dramatically cut this decade, leading to:

  • sea level rise submerging coastal cities
  • regional temperature changes making whole countries uninhabitable
  • loss of the ability to grow enough food to support ourselves (we currently grow enough for 3 times the world population, but could lose much of the suitable land and see reduced harvests in the rest)
  • ocean acidification and warming liable to devastate the fish stocks we rely on.

If society wants to, it could turn this all around, and with a bit of luck, restrict the warming to 1.5°C (2.7°F), or if that turns out to be impossible, the next least apocalyptic goal of 2.0°C (3.6° F). But it has to be done now[3]From the UN IPCC report: “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and … Continue reading to catch a “brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future”.

By continuing to use such vast amounts of fossil fuels, we are laying demolition charges under the core fabric of our society and economy.

“This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning
Council,” the voice continued. “As you will no doubt be aware, the
plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require
the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system,
and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition.
The process will take slightly less that two of your Earth minutes.
Thank you.”

Douglas Adams – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy

References

References
1 Rolling Stone article from June 2021 on the heatdome
2 From the United Nations 6th Assessment Report: Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Contribution of Working Group II to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
3 From the UN IPCC report: “Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”