As this is the inaugural post for the Environmental Affairs section of this blog, I think it makes most sense for me to start out by addressing in broad terms that most intractable, most controversial, and most important of global environmental issues: anthropogenic climate change. Doing so should also help provide readers with some useful context for all future posts, given on the one hand that there are few important environmental concerns that do not already relate in some way to the underlying problem of climate change, and on the other hand that one of the key purposes of posts in this subject area clearly has to be to help inform readers on the wide range of matters relating to climate change and climate change mitigation.
Thus, Part 1 of this post introduces the basic idea of the “Anthropocene”—this brave new world we have now entered as a result climate change—while Part 2 provides an overview of what some of the most prominent effects of climate change are likely to be, and why they matter so much.
Part 1. The End Of The World As We Know It?
You’ve probably heard the old phrase: To someone holding a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, in order to preempt any pigeonholing, I want to state up front as a kind of disclaimer that while I have been deeply concerned about environmental issues for the better part of a decade, I have certainly never been one of those fanatical Greenpeace-types to whom ‘everything looks like a nail’.
I suppose most environmentalists aren’t either. But that being said, I have often felt frustrated with the alarmist rhetoric and extremist politics that frequently emanate from the environmental movement, not least because I think such tactics are usually counterproductive. Likewise, I have sometimes been a bit irked by how grossly unrealistic many environmentalists seem to be about the speed at which massive social-political-economic changes—such as those needed to substantially reduce global GHG emissions—can feasibly take place. With the world’s population at 7 billion and likely to reach 9 billion by 2050, with per-capita energy consumption from carbon sources still rising at a break-neck pace in the world’s emerging economies, and with the negative impacts of climate change becoming more pronounced with each passing year, I am resigned to the fact that the degradation of a vast array of vital natural or environmental resources across much of our world is only going to continue, and in many cases accelerate.
At the same time, environmentalists are certainly right to raise their concerns. Indeed, given the scale of global environmental degradation we now face with the onset of climate change, I think it would be rather “odd not to be worried.” So while I may have little patience for the self-defeating extremism of some environmentalists, I have surely been far more disconcerted by the complete lack of urgency over environmental issues—and climate change in particular—that I’ve perceived in many of my friends and acquaintances over the years.
Recent polling indicates that a sizable majority of Canadians (and a modest majority of Americans) believe that anthropogenic climate change is happening and are at least somewhat concerned about it, but it would probably be a stretch to contend that climate change mitigation has ever approached the level of being a major political priority at the federal level in either Canada or the United States. My guess is that this lack of urgency is still primarily owing to a general popular ignorance about climate change, as a result of which many otherwise relatively well-informed citizens still tend to either optimistically underestimate the threats it poses, or conversely, to despair that there’s much that can really be done to mitigate the problem.
I can’t help but think that North America’s leading news outlets, in their roles as guardians of the public interest, have really dropped the ball on educating the public on climate change over the past twenty years. Leaving aside for now that most of the Republicans in the U.S. Congress are climate-change contrarians who of course still widely propagate their contrarian views, it is particularly distressing that we still sometimes hear/read malinformed and misleading statements about climate change from high-level political commentators. An excellent example of this appeared recently in The New York Times—perhaps America’s best newspaper—when Joe Nocera wrote in his March 15 op-ed that “a reduction of carbon emissions from Chinese power plants would do far more to help reverse climate change than — dare I say it? — blocking the Keystone XL oil pipeline [emphasis added].”
This example also conveniently helps turn us towards this idea of the “Anthropocene”. As Joe Romm explains: “This notion that we can reverse climate change by cutting emissions is one of the most commonly held myths — and one of the most dangerous… The fact is that… we would need ‘an immediate cut of around 60 to 70% globally and continued further cuts over time’ merely to stabilize atmospheric concentrations of CO2 – and that would still leave us with a radiative imbalance that would lead to ‘an additional 0.3 to 0.8ºC warming over the 21st Century.’ And that assumes no major carbon cycle feedbacks kick in, which seems highly unlikely.” So even under Romm’s farfetched scenario involving massive overnight emissions reductions, we still clearly wouldn’t be talking about a “reversal” of climate change. It’s just way, way too late for that.
Unfortunately, such misunderstandings still abound, and often seem to be undergirded by a kind of blind optimism that supposes we human beings are somehow incapable of doing something really, really bad to ourselves (see: WWII, death toll estimated at over 60 million in six years). But while “reversing” climate change is clearly not going to happen, it’s also becoming increasingly unlikely that we will even come close to meeting the target formally endorsed by more than 100 countries in 2010 of keeping the earth’s temperature from rising above the ostensibly dangerous threshold of two degrees Celsius (3.6°F) as measured against a pre-industrial baseline. According to a PwC report released in November 2012, preventing a two-degree rise would require a decrease in global emissions (which are still rising) of 5.1% per year for every year from 2013 until 2050.
At this point, such a dramatic and sustained decline in the global rate of emissions seems highly improbable. And lest any readers are still sympathetic to suppositions that global warming might be occurring as a result of natural (non-anthropogenic) causes—still common wisdom among congressional Republicans—I suggest checking out a recent Mother Jones post by Tim McDonnell called “The Scariest Climate Change Graph Just Got Scarier”, which illustrates just how mind-blowingly and anomalously fast global temperatures have been rising over the past century.
The tough reality is that climate change is here to stay, whether we like it or not. And for all of us, but especially for many of the world’s poorest, it’s going to cause increasing problems in the coming decades and become harder and harder to ignore. As President Obama put it back in January: “Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”
Given these developments, scientists are actually starting to use a new term to describe this new climatic reality. No longer can we taken for granted the stable climatic conditions of the past 10,000—a period known as the Holocene—in which human civilizations were able flourish. Instead, “geologists say we are already living in the Anthropocene: the age of man.”
Of course, we’re not all going to die tomorrow in some kind of climate change apocalypse. There’s no need to start freaking out. But climate change does indeed herald the end of the world as we human beings have known it for the past 10,000 years or so. Hotter, more inclement weather is the new normal, so we all best get used to the idea. The Anthropocene is here.
Part 2. Strange Weather On the Rise
So what exactly can we expect to see in this new climatic reality? The following list has been as adapted from a 2012 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and provides an overview of the environmental consequences that are most likely to result from, or are already resulting from, the continued accumulation of GHGs in the earth’s atmosphere:
- Increases in the length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves over most land areas;
- Increases in the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall/snowfall from heavy falls over many areas of the globe;
- Decreases in total precipitation in some regions, often corresponding with increases in the frequency of heavy precipitation;
- Intensification of droughts in some seasons and areas, due to reduced precipitation and/or increased evapotranspiration;
- Increases in local flooding in some catchments or regions due to projected increases in heavy rainfall;
- Increases in extreme coastal high water levels due in part to mean sea level rise; and,
- Increases in the average tropical cyclone maximum wind speed and in heavy rainfalls associated with tropical cyclones.
Other commonly cited environmental effects (many of which, again, are already occurring) associated with climate change include: the melting of glaciers, arctic sea ice, and permafrost, the acidification of the oceans, and the desertification or savanna-ization of some currently fertile regions—accompanied by acceleration in the loss of species and biodiversity.
Ok, so what does this all mean for us?
Well, lots of things. But among the most obvious, it means you’re going to see more massively devastating hurricanes and other storms, though the actual frequency of hurricanes will not necessarily increase. Likewise, you’re going to see more extreme and more devastating coastal flooding in many places, over and above that caused by the occasional hurricane. Of particular humanitarian concern, the IPCC report spotlights India’s second largest city, Mumbai (pop. 20 million), as one of the cities most at risk to massive devastation and loss of life from coastal flooding, and identifies a number of other densely populated Asian cities as being at similar risk, including Kolkata (India), Dhaka (Bangladesh), Guangzhou (China), Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), Shanghai (China), Bangkok (Thailand), Rangoon (Burma), and Hai Phòng (Vietnam).
On the drier end of things, you’re also going to see increased hardship and devastation resulting from drought, including in some of the most food and water insecure places on earth. According to the IPCC, between 75 and 250 million people in Africa are expected to be exposed to increased water stress by 2020, and some African countries could see yields from rain-fed agriculture decline by up to 50% in the same time frame. Though developed countries are better suited economically to absorb prolonged hot/dry spells, the effects can still be severe, as evidenced by the heavy toll on U.S. agricultural production inflicted by last year’s summer drought, the worst drought in the U.S. in more than half a century.
For developed countries in general, the purely economic costs of such climate change-related shocks are indeed already becoming significant. Again, the U.S. found this out in 2012: “The price tag last year for the drought was about $35 billion… Hurricane Sandy cost a further $65 billion. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that last year ranked as the second-costliest in terms of natural disasters since 1980 — lagging only 2005 when Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans.”
Ultimately, there are lots of other climate-change-related effects on human communities that we should be concerned about—the increased incidence of wildfires, the spread of malaria- or dengue-fever-carrying mosquitoes, the disappearance of critical sources of drinking water (e.g. from glaciers), the possible inundation of small island nations such as the Maldives, Kiribati, Fiji, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands—and we should also bear in mind the likelihood that various climate change feedback loops will kick in, accelerating all of the above noted climatic changes. But all of this brings us back to the basic question: so what are we going to do about it?
As we have all seen over the past two decades, reducing GHG emissions on a global scale is proving extremely difficult. Dieter Helm recently noted that “since world leaders met in Kyoto, Japan, in 1997 and agreed to reduce the carbon dioxide emissions of industrialized countries by about 5 percent below 1990 levels by 2012, virtually nothing has been done to slow the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In 1990, [global] carbon emissions were rising at less than 2 parts per million per year. Now they are rising at nearly 3 p.p.m. per year.”
I have no idea what, if anything, will break this global impasse on emissions. The costs of substantial reductions obviously remain prohibitively high, but the costs of continuing to fail to make any progress whatsoever on a global scale will surely be much higher in the long-term.
Yes, climate change is happening, and it’s going to suck, but what we do to reduce global GHG emissions in the coming years and what we do to adapt (and help other countries adapt) to climate change will ultimately determine just how “catastrophic” its effects will be for humankind. Despite how little progress has yet been made, there is too much at stake for anyone to turn complacent now.
 Joe Nocera, “A Real Carbon Solution”, The New York Times, March 15, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/03/16/opinion/nocera-texas-might-be-on-to-something.html?_r=0
 Joe Romm, “The Dangerous Myth That Climate Change Is Reversible”, ThinkProgress, March 17, 2013, www.thinkprogress.org/climate/2013/03/17/1731591/the-dangerous-myth-that-climate-change-is-reversible/
 Eduardo Porter, “The Hard Math on Fossil Fuels”, The New York Times, March 21, 2013, www.economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/the-hard-math-on-fossil-fuels/?src=recg
 Tim McDonnell, “The Scariest Climate Change Graph Just Got Scarier”, Mother Jones, March 7, 2013, www.motherjones.com/blue-marble/2013/03/new-hockey-stick-graph-scarier
 Richard W. Stevenson and John M. Broder, “Speech Gives Climate Goals Center Stage”, The New York Times, January 21, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/us/politics/climate-change-prominent-in-obamas-inaugural-address.html
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Managing the Risks of Extreme Events and Disasters to Advance Climate Change Adaptation, A Special Report of Working Groups I and II IPCC (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, June 2012), 8-15. www.ipcc.ch/pdf/special-reports/srex/SREX_Full_Report.pdf
 Ibid, 511.
 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report — Section 3. Projected climate change and its impacts”, IPCC 2007, www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/spms3.html
 Eduardo Porter, “In Energy Taxes, Tools to Help Tackle Climate Change”, The New York Times, January 29, 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/01/30/business/energy-tax-is-underused-tool-in-climate-change-fight.html
 Dieter Helm, “To Slow Warming, Tax Carbon”, The New York Times, November 11, 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/11/12/opinion/on-climate-change-the-us-is-doing-better-than-europe.html