Global Climate Crisis

Right now about 41% of the planet is suffering drought, an increase of about 10-15% since 1990.  Given current trends in global climate change, the UN is warning that up to 70% of the planet could be in drought by 2025, potentially creating a global crisis of unprecedented proportions.   So what does this mean?

First, let’s be clear on one thing.   The earth is warming.   Click the following image: earth temperature.  Note that despite spiky results (e.g., 1997 was an especially hot year, leading to a huge spike and then drop, though now our ‘normal’ result is about at the level of that spike), there is consistent warming on average.   Note that this does not correspond to sun spots but corresponds almost exactly to the increase in CO2 in the atmosphere.   Here is a short video. Climate scientists are overwhelmingly convinced that global warming is real, and humans are a partial and probably major cause.   Those who dispute that are almost always driven by politics and ideology, not science.  Not that there aren’t scientific detractors — science can and should have doubters of major theories, including the big bang, evolution, and quantum physics.  For most, though, the science is as clear for this issue as it is for the link between cigarettes and lung cancer (which I’m sure also still has some doubters).    Nothing in science is ever absolutely proven.

While I hope the successor treaty to Kyoto, which will start being negotiated in Copenhagen in December, will include the US and a goal of lowering CO2 to 350 parts per million, the reality is that anything we do now is only going to have a significant impact decades from now.   I don’t think we can prevent the crisis, we can just try to mitigate it.    So while the fight to do something to fight climate change is worthwhile, this blog entry is focusing on what is likely to happen anyway, and what it means for us.

First, it is probable that we in the industrialized West will avoid the worst fates.  In South America, Africa and parts of Asia a mix of intense coastal weather and internal droughts could lead to extreme hunger and famine.   This will lead to wars, migration, and an increase in terrorism.   Future terrorism will likely expand to be general “poor vs. the rich” with economic targets.   That’s already happening on the Niger delta, as western oil companies are targeted to protest the way oil revenues go to the elites in Nigeria but aren’t shared with the people living where the oil is pumped.  They deal with intense poverty and environmental devastation.   This kind of conflict could expand, threatening supplies of minerals and other materials the West needs.

So how will this affect us in the West?  First, expect a significantly decreased standard of living.    Unrest in the third world will disrupt commodity markets and lead to a general global slow down.  Second, migratory pressures from South America to the US, and Africa to the EU, will lead the industrialized states to either have to open their borders and try to help as many people as possible, or to become something of a fortress, trying to protect what they have.   Almost nobody thinks the former option will be chosen.

So if the EU and the US become increasingly isolated and worried about migrations, the economic slowdown will lead to localization, energy shortages, and an increased need for self-sufficiency.    The US agricultural belt itself will produce less.   As people decide that the crisis is so severe that they need to change practices to try to turn around climate change, there will be a shift to more sustainable agricultural practices.   Meat will be limited in supply and more costly.   All this is  good for the long run, but will certainly end the “everything in the world you want at the local supermarket at affordable prices” era.     In the future we will have limited and seasonal choices.

Canada could potentially benefit from having greater cropland available, though depending on what happens with the ocean currents, it could be that Northeast US and Canada, as well as Western Europe, will get colder rather than warmer (or the warming may be mitigated).  Katrina like storms will be more numerous world wide, many coastal cities may find themselves losing large amounts of people, and be unable to rebuild afterwards due to a weakened economy.

The most dangerous effect we’ll experience is disease.  Global disease threats don’t respect borders, and while the bodies of third world folk may be more vulnerable due to malnutrition, that often doesn’t matter for severe diseases.   Ultimately the mix of disease, famine and war will yield a de-population of the planet.   That will dramatically reduce CO2 output, and a more livable climate may emerge (long after we’re dead).   Our children will dream less about traveling the planet than making sure they have supplies for the next year.  They’ll rediscover the skills of gardening, hunting, and practical repair work.   Communities will come closer together, realizing they have to cooperate to both survive, and to guard against those who would exploit the situation.

We’ll follow the news on the internet still, read about distant famines, and know that there is nothing we really can do to help.   There will be ideas and plans on how to save people, to use technology to mitigate the worst consequences, and explore different options.  Those with a profound faith in technology might think this will be enough to prevent the worst from happening.   Given the state of current technology, I think that would be a very optimistic faith to hold on to!   By 2100 the international system of sovereign states as we know it will cease to exist.  Some discrete borders will survive, but in the US and the EU politics will be localized as bureaucratic authority is decentralized, while in other areas all will be local.

A century from now people will likely look back at the 21st century as a constant crisis, with optimism that the lessons learned will allow them to build a sustainable future.  They’ll see the world wars and environmental degradation of the 200 years before as the result of a culture that was myopic, materialist, and disconnected from human ethics and the importance of maintaining the environment.  They’ll wonder why we lived as we do, thinking we were deluded and naive, caught up in a materialist fantasy.

For those who doubt global warming, or human involvement in it, the above may seem wild speculation.  I respect that.  But I ask you to investigate the science.   Ask if your disbelief is driven by politics and ideology, or by a cold, rational regard for the data.   Avoid partisan sites designed to debunk or push forward views on global warming.  Look for scientific sites and discussions.   I’ve seen neither Al Gore’s movie nor the “anti” responses.   Those are more political than scientific.  Look and consider the science.    If your disbelief is driven by a dislike of laws forcing companies to comply with regulations, separate that out from global warming.   One can believe it exists and that humans are a partial cause without wanting a big government solution.    What to do is a different question than “what is.”

Finally, now is the time I think all of us can start reconsidering how we live, what our values are, and how connected we are to our community.   We may need to get closer to our neighbors sooner than we realize, we may need to change our life styles and reconsider our values.    We may be at the end of the era of materialist decadence (for the industrialized West).   And, of course, we can be forgiven if we want to enjoy the material fruits of this lifestyle a little bit before it goes away.

I hope my speculation is either wrong or exaggerated.  For my children’s sake, I hope so!   But everything I read convinces me such a scenario is very possible.

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  1. #1 by henitsirk on October 7, 2009 - 03:54

    This reminds me of the medieval period I’ve been studying. Along with decentralized government, short-term climate change and the Black Death “corrected” the population with profound sociocultural effects. We had an interesting reading from Huppert’s After the Black Death about a French village that was able to survive, just barely, any epidemics or famine conditions that struck their region because their agriculture was diversified and they were self-sustaining economically. It certainly wasn’t a romanticized picture — really they were just on the edge of subsistence, which also profoundly affected their culture (e.g., very late marriages, since they couldn’t afford to feed too many generations at once) — but it did work and was sustainable. I wonder if we are headed in that direction.

  2. #2 by notesalongthepath on October 8, 2009 - 03:19

    A frightening picture, especially for our children and their children. Balance will be had upon our planet though. Perhaps whatever tough years we experience will be the basis for a new, grounded civilization where each person is a respected and loved member of the society. Very thought-provoking, Scott.

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