(Links to the entire climate change series are listed at the end of this article.)
Climate change. It’s a subject we’ve all heard so much about over the last decade. It’s also a subject most of us haven’t really thought about actively in our day-to-day lives. And, really, why would we? Aside from some warmer winters here, some harsher hurricanes there, it hasn’t really affected our lives all that much. In fact, I live in Toronto, Canada, and this winter (2014-15) has been a whole lot less depressing. I spent two days rocking a t-shirt in December!
But even as I say that, I also recognize that mild winters like these aren’t natural. I grew up with winter snow up to my waist. And if the pattern of the last few years continues, there may be a year where I experience a snow-free winter. While that might seem natural to a Californian or Brazilian, to me that’s downright un-Canadian.
But there’s more to it than that obviously. First, climate change can be downright confusing, especially for those who don’t get the difference between weather and climate. Weather describes what happening minute-to-minute, day-to-day is. It answers questions like: Is there a chance of rain tomorrow? How many inches of snow can we expect? Is there a heat wave coming? Basically, weather describes our climate anywhere between real time and up to 14-day forecasts (i.e. short time scales). Meanwhile, “climate” describes what one expects to happen over long periods of time; it’s the trend line; it’s the long-term climate forecast that looks (at least) 15 to 30 years out.
But that’s the problem.
Who the hell really thinks 15 to 30 years out these days? In fact, for most of human evolution, we’ve been conditioned to care about the short term, to forget about the distant past, and to mind our immediate surroundings. That’s what allowed us to survive through the millennia. But that’s also why climate change is such a challenge for today’s society to deal with: its worst effects won’t impact us for another two to three decades (if we’re lucky), the effects are gradual, and the pain it will cause will be felt globally.
So here’s my issue: the reason why climate change feels like such a third rate topic is because it would cost too much for those in power today to address it for tomorrow. Those gray hairs in elected office today will likely be dead in two to three decades—they have no big incentive to rock the boat. But on the same token—barring some gruesome, CSI-type murder—I’ll still be around in two to three decades. And it will cost my generation so much more to steer our ship away from the waterfall the boomers are leading us into that late in the game. This means my future gray-haired life might cost more, have less opportunities, and be less happy than past generations. That blows.
So, like any writer who cares about the environment, I’m going to write about why climate change is bad. …I know what you’re thinking but don’t worry. This will be different.
This series of articles will explain climate change in the context of the real world. Yes, you’ll learn the latest news explaining what it’s all about, but you’ll also learn how it will affect different parts of the world differently. You’ll learn how climate change may impact your life personally, but you’ll also learn how it might lead to a future world war if it goes unaddressed for too long. And finally, you’ll learn the big and small things you can actually do to make a difference.
But for this series opener, let’s get started with the basics.
What is climate change really?
The standard (Googled) definition of climate change that we’ll refer to throughout this series is: change in global or regional climate patterns due to global warming–agradual increase in the overall temperature of the earth's atmosphere. This is generally attributed to the greenhouse effect caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and other pollutants, produced by nature and humans in particular.
Eesh. That was a mouthful. But we’re not going to turn this into a science class. The important thing to know is the “carbon dioxide, methane, chlorofluorocarbons, and other pollutants” that’s scheduled to destroy our future generally come from the following sources: the oil, gas and coal used to fuel everything in our modern world; released methane coming from the melting permafrost in the arctic and warming oceans; and massive eruptions from volcanos. As of 2015, we can control source one and indirectly control source two.
The other thing to know is the greater the concentration of these pollutants in our atmosphere, the hotter our planet will get. So where do we stand with that?
Most of the international organizations responsible for organizing the global effort on climate change agree that we cannot allow the concentration of greenhouse gases (GHG) in our atmosphere to build beyond 450 parts per million (ppm). Remember that 450 number because it more or less equals a two degree Celsius temperature increase in our climate—it’s also known as the “2-degrees-Celsius limit.”
Why is that limit important? Because if we pass it, the natural feedback loops (explained later) in our environment will accelerate beyond our control, meaning climate change will get worse, faster, possibly leading to a world where we all live in a Mad Max movie. Welcome to the Thunderdome!
So what is the current GHG concentration (specifically for carbon dioxide)? According to the Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Centre, as of February 2014, concentration in parts per million was … 395.4. Eesh. (Oh, and just for context, before the industrial revolution, the number was 280ppm.)
Okay, so we’re not that far from the limit. Should we panic? Well, that depends on where on Earth you live.
Why is two degrees such a big deal?
For some obviously non-scientific context, know that the average adult body temperature is about 99°F (37°C). You have a flu when your body temperature rises to 101-103°F—that’s a difference of only two to four degrees.
But why does our temperature rise at all? To burn off infections, like bacteria or viruses, in our body. The same is true with our Earth. The problem is, when it heats up, WE are the infection it’s trying to kill off.
Let’s take a deeper look at what your politicians don’t tell you.
When politicians and environmental organizations talk about the 2-degrees-Celsius limit, what they aren’t mentioning is that it’s an average—it’s not two degrees hotter everywhere equally. The temperature on the Earth’s oceans tend to be cooler than on land, so two degrees there might be more like 1.3 degrees. But the temperature gets hotter the further inland you get and way hotter at the higher latitudes where the poles are—there the temperature can be up to four or five degrees hotter. That last point sucks the worst, because if it’s hotter in the arctic or Antarctic, all that ice is going to melt a whole lot faster, leading to the dreaded feedback loops (again, explained later).
So what exactly could happen if the climate gets hotter?
First, know that with every one degree Celsius of climate warming, the total amount of evaporation rises by about 15 per cent. That extra water in the atmosphere leads to an increased risk of major “water events,” like Katrina-level hurricanes in the summer months or mega snow storms in the deep winter.
Increased warming also leads to accelerated melting of arctic glaciers. This means an increase in the sea level, both due to a higher oceanic water volume and because water expands in warmer waters. This could lead to greater and more frequent incidents of flooding and tsunamis hitting coastal cities around the world. Meanwhile, low-lying port cities and island nations run the risk of disappearing entirely under the sea.
Also, freshwater is going to become a thing soon. Freshwater (the water we drink, bathe in, and water our plants with) isn’t really spoken about much in the media, but expect that to change in the coming two decades, especially as it gets super scarce.
You see, as the world warms, mountain glaciers will slowly recede or disappear. This matters because most of the rivers (our main sources of freshwater) our world depends on comes from mountain water runoff. And if most of the world’s rivers shrink or completely dry up, you can say goodbye to most of the world’s farming capacity. That would be bad news for the nine billion people projected to exist by 2040. And as you’ve seen on CNN, BBC or Al Jazeera, hungry people tend to be rather desperate and unreasonable when it comes to their survival. Nine billion hungry people will not be a good situation.
Related to the points above, you might assume that if more water evaporates from the oceans and mountains, won’t there be more rain watering our farms? Yes, for sure. But a warmer climate also means our most farmable soil will also suffer from higher rates of evaporation, meaning the benefits of greater rainfall will be canceled out by a faster soil evaporation rate in many places around the world.
Okay, so that was water. Let’s now talk about food using an overly dramatic topic subheading.
The food wars!
When it comes to the plants and animals we eat, our media tends to focus on how it’s made, how much it costs, or how to prepare it to get in your belly. Rarely, however, does our media talk about the actual availability of food. For most people, that’s more a third world problem.
The thing is though, as the world gets warmer, our ability to produce food will become seriously threatened. A temperature rise of one or two degrees won’t hurt too much, we’ll just shift food production to countries in the higher latitudes, like Canada and Russia. But according to William Cline, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, an increase of two to four degrees Celsius can lead to losses of food harvests on the order to 20-25 per cent in Africa and Latin America, and 30 per cent or more in India.
Another issue is that, unlike in our past, modern farming tends to rely on relatively few plant varieties to grow at industrial scale. We’ve domesticated crops, either through thousands of years of manual breeding or dozens of years of genetic manipulation, that can only thrive when the temperature is just Goldilocks right.
For example, studies run by the University of Reading on two of the most widely grown varieties of rice, lowland indica and upland japonica, found that both were highly vulnerable to higher temperatures. Specifically, if temperatures exceeded 35 degrees during their flowering stage, the plants would become sterile, offering few, if any, grains. Many tropical and Asian countries where rice is the main staple food already lie on the very edge of this Goldilocks temperature zone, so any further warming could mean disaster. (Read more in our Future of Food series.)
Feedback loops: Finally explained
So issues with lack of fresh water, lack of food, an increase in environmental disasters, and mass plant and animal extinctions is what all these scientists are worried about. But still, you say, the worst of this stuff is, like, at least twenty years away. Why should I care about it now?
Well, scientists say two to three decades based on our current ability to measure the output trends of the oil, gas, and coal we burn year-to-year. We’re doing a better job of tracking that stuff now. What we can’t track as easily are the warming effects that come from feedback loops in nature.
Feedback loops, in the context of climate change, is any cycle in nature that either positively (accelerates) or negatively (decelerates) impacts the level of warming in the atmosphere.
An example of a negative feedback loop would be that the more our planet warms, the more water evaporates into our atmosphere, creating more clouds that reflect light from the sun,which lowers the earth’s average temperature.
Unfortunately, there are way more positive feedback loops than negative ones. Here’s the list of the most important ones:
As the earth warms, ice caps in the north and south poles will begin to shrink, to melt away. This loss means there will be less gleaming white, frosty ice to reflect the sun’s heat back into space. (Keep in mind that our poles reflect up to 70 per cent of the sun’s heat back to space.) As there is less and less heat deflected away, the rate of melting will grow faster year-over-year.
Related to the melting polar ice caps, is the melting permafrost, the soil that for centuries has remained trapped under freezing temperatures or buried beneath glaciers. The cold tundra found in northern Canada and in Siberia contains massive amounts of trapped carbon dioxide and methane that—once warmed—will be released back into the atmosphere. Methane especially is over 20 times worse than carbon dioxide and it can’t easily be absorbed back into the soil after it’s released.
Finally, our oceans: they are our biggest carbon sinks (like global vacuum cleaners that suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere). As the world warms each year, our oceans’ ability to hold carbon dioxide weakens, meaning it will pull less and less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The same goes for our other big carbon sinks, our forests and our soils, their ability to pull carbon from the atmosphere becomes limited the more our atmosphere is polluted with warming agents.
Geopolitics and how climate change may lead to a world war
Hopefully, this simplified overview of the current state of our climate gave you a better grasp of the issues we’re facing on a science-y level. The thing is, having a better grasp of the science behind an issue doesn’t always bring the message home on an emotional level. For the public to understand the impact of climate change, they need to understand how it will impact their lives, the lives of their family, and even their country in a very real way.
That’s why the rest of this series will explore how climate change will reshape the politics, economies, and living conditions of people and countries across the world, assuming that no more than lip service will be used to address the issue. This series is named ‘WWIII: Climate Wars’ because in a very real way, nations around the world will be fighting for the survival of their way of life.
Below is a list of links to the entire series. They contain fictional stories set two to three decades from now, highlighting what our world might one day look like through the lens of characters who might one day exist. If you’re not into narratives, then there are also links that detail (in plain language) the geopolitical consequences of climate change as they relate to different parts of the world. The final two links will explain everything world governments can do to combat climate change, as well as some unconventional suggestions about what you can do combat climate change in your own life.
And remember, everything (EVERYTHING) you’re about to read is preventable using today’s technology and our generation.
WWIII Climate Wars series links
WWIII Climate wars: Narratives