A dark overview of the effects of climate change: the future
It's time to take this out of discussions of numbers and years and talk about what global climate change means and more importantly will mean to the environment and to people around the world.
In fact, global warming is already wreaking havoc with ecosystems around the world. It has, for one thing, triggered the third recorded global coral bleaching, and in Australia 93% of the reefs along the 2,300km Great Barrier Reef have been affected by bleaching. In the northern parts of the reef, it's believed the majority of coral is dead, and on some reefs over 90% of the coral is dying.
For another, the National Center for Atmospheric Research says that climate change has caused a drop in the amount of oxygen dissolved in the oceans. (The warmer the water, the less oxygen it can hold.) The effect is already discernible in some parts of the world and should become evident across large parts of the ocean during the 2030s, leaving fish, crabs, squid, sea stars, and other types of marine life struggling to breathe.
Some types of fish off the south coast of California are feeling the effects already. These fish are not considered commercially valuable, so not a lot of attention had been paid to their decline, but they are part of the food chain that supports other species of marine life.
For a third, consider the Solomon Islands, a sparsely populated archipelago of more than 900 islands east of Papua New Guinea. They are low-lying, with the highest points on some of the islands being no more than several feet above sea level.
According to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, five of the Solomon Islands have completely disappeared under water since 1947, which was about the time the dramatic warming that marked the latter part of the 20th century got going. The most recent case of losing an island to the sea came in 2011.
Another six islands have lost more than 20% of their surface area, forcing communities to relocate as the shoreline closes in on their homes and islanders now face the likelihood of having to relocate Taro, a provincial capital. That will involve moving major infrastructure in health, education, sewage, and electricity services and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars which the islanders can't afford.
Those and other changes in climate and ecosystems have other, follow-on effects.
Warming temperatures will allow disease-spreading insects to spread to much wider areas. Threats now confined to the tropics will likely become problems at higher latitudes both north and south.
In fact, the American College of Physicians says that climate change is already harming people's health by promoting illnesses linked to warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns. They report that respiratory illnesses, heat stroke, and infectious diseases like Zika virus, dengue fever, and cholera are flourishing as global temperatures rise.
Other researchers point to tick-borne diseases such as babaseosis and Lyme disease or even anthrax, which killed 2000 reindeer in 2016 - along with killing one child and sickening 23 other people - after a 75-year-old carcass thawed. Some even point to the risk of so-called "zombie diseases," bacteria long frozen in the tundra which could still be viable, such as one that was discovered in the Siberian permafrost in 2015, still infectious after being frozen for 30,000 years. That particular one is harmless to humans - but it raises the clear possibility that there are others out there which aren't, that we potentially could be facing diseases with which humans have not had to deal for several millennia or longer. Shades of the X-Files.
Rising global temperatures have also been clearly linked to increasing waterborne food poisoning as the bacterium vibrio, which can make people sick from eating undercooked seafood or drinking or just swimming in tainted water, and which needs warm water to live, is spreading into new regions with the warming waters.
And as disease spreads, food shrinks. A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Oxford predicts that global warming will decimate nutritious crops, killing as many as half a million people every year by 2050 as the result of reductions in fruit and vegetable supplies.
Here at home in the US, the California drought is probably the best-known local example of the impact of climate change. We've seen the photos of the dried-up marinas and the almost-gone lakebeds. But what's less well-known is the disparate impact on low-income communities as the impacts of drought deepen and the cost of water goes up.
Because of course the poor bear the brunt of the impact. And it - as it shouldn't be necessary to say - of course that is true not only here.
A World Bank report from last fall said that absent aggressive efforts to help the poor, "Climate change could result in an additional 100 million people living in extreme poverty by 2030."
The researchers found that when they asked, people list three major factors in why they fell into poverty: "Agricultural shocks, including an increase in food prices; natural disasters such as floods, droughts, storms; and health issues, including malaria, diarrhea."
All of which come with global warming and in ample supply: The report itself referred to studies showing climate change could result in global crop yield losses as large as 5 percent by 2030 and 30 percent by 2080 - that is, the world would be producing 30% less food than it does now - and studies showing warming temperatures could increase the number of people at risk for malaria by 150 million.
The report also found that the "hotspots" for climate impacts on poor people were sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
At the same time, Jos Lelieveld, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry and a professor at the Cyprus Institute, says the annual number of extremely hot days in Northern Africa and the Middle East, where 500 million people live, has doubled since 1970 and "the very existence of its inhabitants is in jeopardy."
He says that by mid-century, the number of extremely hot days could rise from the current average of 16 to 80 - and if fossil fuel use is not cut back, the number of days of extreme heat, we're talking 122F or 50C, could reach 200 per year.
Such prolonged heat waves coupled with desert dust storms increased by the heat could render parts of the region uninhabitable.
That's the future we are facing, that is the future we are risking with our inaction: a future of disease, hunger, drought here and floods there, 100 million more people in extreme poverty in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, parts of Northern Africa and the Middle East uninhabitable from the heat, coastal cities awash with sea water, and millions - tens of millions, scores of millions - of environmental refugees.
We are facing, in short, mass social chaos on an international level.
The United Nations Environment Program has found that over the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all internal conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water. Conflicts involving natural resources have also been found to be twice as likely to relapse, that is, to relapse into violence and blood.
That study, yes, concerned itself with internal conflicts. But are we really going to think that those types of conflicts, conflicts over resources such as access to food, to water, to energy, have stopped or ever will stop at national boundaries? Are we really going to think that the pressure of dealing with a sea of refugees is not going to create a tinderbox of xenophobia even among those nations making at first an honest attempt to deal with them? If you wonder about that, just consider how quickly Europe's welcome for Syrian refugees has worn thin and realize that the numbers involved there would be swamped by those driven from their homes by climate change, by flood, by drought, by hunger, by sheer heat.
And as you contemplate that world of perhaps, just to take a middle figure, 30 to 50 years in the future, that world of both ecological disruption and social disorder on a world scale, that world of conflict, of struggle for the basic resources of life and civilization, remember one other thing:
I have, as I said I would, drawn a very dark picture. But it is not hopeless and next week I promise to discuss some of the reasons for that, some social or political, some technological.
But the truth is, heading off the worst effects of global climate change will require some moderation in the standard of living for those of us in the industrialized world, those of us who have drawn the most benefit from our indifference to the long term.
So for the moment, until next week, I want you to think about where we are headed right now and I want you ask yourself a question: Think about, say 20 years ago, or 30 years ago, or heck if you're an old fart like me think back to the '60s, and ask yourself if the way you lived then, if the level of technology and convenience you lived with then, ask yourself if that was so horrible that you would sacrifice a world to avoid living that way again.
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