I have a lot of thoughts about the minutia of climate change. The other day, I posted a blog exploring how we should relate to one another about individual actions, after posting another blog a few weeks ago exploring other elements of individual responsibility for climate change. I am planning to explore all of my questions and ideas in blogs throughout the rest of the year – and although this blog might makes points to the contrary, I don’t feel totally hopeless about the future of humankind. But reading more into what might be waiting for us at the end of the century should we continue to burn fossil fuels with abandon does suggest some scary possibilities. And while grappling with how we will deal the problem is of paramount importance, it seems prudent to know what exactly the problems we’ll be facing are. What’s really at stake here?
Popular climate change coverage revolves primarily around rising sea levels. Most people know that burning fossil fuels releases carbon dioxide (among other noxious gases), which build up in the atmosphere. These gases have the property of allowing visible light into the atmosphere but trapping infrared radiation. Some of the visible light released from the sun makes its way to Earth and is absorbed by the land, sea and ice. Some of this radiation is re-released by the Earth as infrared radiation, rather than visible light. Gases like carbon dioxide and water vapour sit in the atmosphere and stop much of this radiation being sent back into the universe. This process heats up the whole planet, like a greenhouse – hence the moniker ‘greenhouse gases.’ As the planet heats up, ice melts. Melted ice becomes water and the seas begin to rise. That prospect is scary enough, as even a sea level rise of a few feet will end up changing coastal communities for hundreds of years, displacing millions of people in Bangladesh and other vulnerable countries and drowning low-lying nations like the Maldives and Kiribati entirely.
In his impressively informative book Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, Joseph Romm makes clear that a few feet of extra ocean is the best-case scenario. In fact, we could well be on track for a rise of more than a few feet by 2100, due not to continued warming but due to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet already having reached the tipping point needed to break up entirely, regardless of whether we change our emissions patterns or not. So, that’s a fun thought. As I was reading this book I looked up how far above sea level London is. It’s 36 feet, if you were wondering. But not everyone is lucky enough to live somewhere so far from the first sites of disaster.
However, while rising sea levels are a core climate change issue, they are, ironically, just the tip of the iceberg.
So many of the potential disastrous impacts on humans go beyond being swept underwater – or at least, are far less localised. I didn’t understand just how widespread the effects of climate change could be, and perhaps most scarily, many scientists are convinced that there are myriad effects that we won’t be able to imagine or predict until they arrive, which is another fun thought.
Paradoxically, while rising sea levels are one of the major consequences of global warming, severe droughts are also on the menu for future humans. Warming dries out the Earth and increases the likelihood of droughts. Warming also causes earlier snowmelt, which reduces crucial reservoirs of water for warm periods, along with shifting precipitation patterns in a way that makes already arid areas become parched.
Of course, given the enormous diversity of climates all over the planet, droughts and dust aren’t expected everywhere. Climate change has the unfortunate effect of exacerbating almost all remotely extreme climates and weather events. While warming will make some parts of the Earth drier, dangerously so, warming also increases the amount of water vapour in the air which makes massive rainfall more likely in certain parts of the world. So, to recap, parts of the world will be so dry the ground is crispy and other parts will be regularly subjected to waterfalls coming from the sky. Also, there might be hail the size of golf balls. FUN.
Unfortunately, the list just gets longer. There will likely be more droughts and deluges and hurricanes and storm surges and floods, there may well be prehistoric diseases coming out of the permafrost, malaria will spread as more regions become hot and humid, the oceans are already acidifying and climate change makes violent conflict more likely and may well have been a defining factor in a lot of the conflict in the Middle East over the past decade. If that wasn’t enough, carbon dioxide reduces cognitive function and our air will become even more saturated with particulates and we will struggle to feed the ten billion or so humans of the future on a planet that has drowned or burned most of its arable land.
(Also, every living thing on this Earth is now full of microplastics. That’s not actually a global warming issue but I thought I’d throw it in there as another example of how the actions of modern humanity have permeated every aspect of our natural world.)
I haven’t even touched on the effect of more frequent, more severe heatwaves, or the lack of freshwater, or the terrible wildfires that are already becoming more common, because I can feel you all losing me. I know it’s super depressing. I know it’s even more depressing for those of you who live in places that are most at risk from the rising seas, wildfires and toxic air. It is worth noting that climate change doesn’t so much cause these extreme weather events as it makes them more likely and more serious should they occur, though I’m sure that is of no consolation when a fire breaks out or heavy rainfall floods your home.
I get that hearing about the myriad ways in which the seemingly unstoppable mechanisms of global consumption are set to change civilisation beyond recognition is terrifying. No one wants to sit there and listen to the ways in which something they are powerless to stop may well impact them and the people they care about. Most of the things I want to write about climate change are altogether more hopeful than this. But it would be remiss of me to try to unravel the reality of our changing planet without facing up to what we’ve done in its entirety. Until I started to open my eyes to what’s happening, I thought it was a few feet of sea level and a few extra degrees, and maybe a storm or two. I had no idea just how much our incessant burning of coal and oil was going to permeate every facet of our world and our societies. Not in detail, anyway.
I pride myself on being someone who can face reality. I believe we are most effective at changing things when we can fully grapple with the challenges ahead of us. Making plans based around sugarcoated scenarios only leaves us more vulnerable to failure in the future. If you can’t bring yourself to look at where A is, it is difficult to map a path to B.
There is something depressingly awesome, in the truest sense of that word, about how we have brought the Earth to the brink of environmental collapse in only a few hundred years, despite humans having been tilling this ground for hundreds of millions and the Earth itself having spun around the sun for billions and billions. Like a frog in gradually boiling water, it is hard to see the occasional humid week or record high temperature or unusually large wildfire as anything but an anomaly. The science shows us that it is not. A future full of environmental and agricultural challenges like nothing we’ve ever seen awaits us mere decades down the line. What did we do?
The two books that enlightened me the most to what our future really holds were Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know by Joseph Romm and the Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Highly recommended.