The Climate Change Imperative

February 4, 2009 at 2:14 pm
Contributed by: Chris

In this week’s article for Energy and Capital, I survey the damage from recent extreme weather events around the world, consider the environmental consequences past and future, and argue that insufficient science on global warming is the very reason to take action, not an excuse for inaction.

The Climate Change Imperative

Why We Must Stop Global Warming

With all due sympathy for my readers in the Midwest and the East Coast, who have been suffering through relentless snow and extremely cold weather, here in California we’ve had just the opposite problem. Since the start of the rain year July 1, the state’s rainfall has been only 56% of average.

Marin County, where I live, had the third-driest January on record with just .58 inches of rain. At the Shasta Dam to the north, it was the driest ever, with just 4% of normal rainfall.

This is shaping up to be the third consecutive dry winter for the Golden State. Water levels in reservoirs and snowpack are so low that officials are predicting the worst drought in California history, and calling for cuts of 30% to 50% in water consumption, including immediate conservation measures and rationing.

High temperature records fell like dominoes across the state for weeks on end, with many locales besting the past highs by seven to 18 degrees. By all accounts, it has been a most unusual January.

As beautiful as it was, I found it a bit hard to enjoy the warm weather because I have an inkling of its implications. I was reminded of a piece I wrote at the end of another hot January two years ago (“Hot Fun in the Wintertime“) when, like this year, I was worried about the trees budding ahead of schedule and the impact it might have on fruit production.

This year, they’re even earlier. The acacia have been in full bloom for two weeks already. My plum tree has already budded and bloomed. Various insects are showing up earlier than they should, and others are not showing up soon enough to catch up with the warmer weather. It just ain’t right. Not right at all.

California vineyard owners are particularly concerned, as their vines are budding a month too early, leaving them vulnerable to frost. Vineyards normally combat frost by spraying the vines with water, but this year their water supply is too low to do that without depleting their wells, which may not get refilled later in the season. Growers with over 30 years in the field say they’ve never seen such a dismal winter rainfall. This is on top of a tough 2008, where a late spring freeze, wildly fluctuating temperatures, low rainfall and high winds conspired to cut into the harvest.

The lack of water is seriously threatening the survival of many of the state’s species of fish as well. Requirements to maintain sufficient water in streams and rivers to keep them from extinction are quickly coming up against the needs of farmers, who are concerned about having enough water to maintain their crops.

Extreme Is The New Normal

California is hardly alone in its extreme weather this winter. New York state had the 16th-coldest January on record, and cities from the Midwest to the East Coast received double their normal amounts of snow for the month.

The worst snow in 18 years brought London to a halt this week, paralyzing transportation in what was classified as an “extreme weather event” by the Met Office. Record low temperatures were recorded across Britain, marking the coldest winter in 13 years and raising the chances of 2009 being the coldest winter on record. This follows record rainfall in Britain in September, after a month’s rain fell in 24 hours, causing widespread flooding.

Meanwhile, Australia is suffering through its worst heatwave on record. Temperatures over 110 F were recorded for three days in a row. The nation has been in drought for a decade, making the worst drought on record.

Drought is the key concern in China right now as well. Last week, a drought “red alert” was issued for Henan province, the nation’s major grain producer and home to some 100 million people (that’s one-third the population of the United States). The drought is the worst since 1951, according to the provincial meteorological bureau. Droughts in northern China have reportedly affected 10 million hectares of crops, leaving livestock and millions of people with insufficient drinking water.

At this time last year, you may recall that China was groaning under record-breaking snows which later melted and became catastrophic floods.

In fact, extreme weather has become the norm worldwide, and it’s getting more extreme. Temperature and rainfall records, both high and low, are being broken year after consecutive year.

According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), the top 11 warmest years on record have all been in the last 13 years. The past decade was the warmest on record, but the next decade is expected to be warmer still.

Don’t Call It “Global Warming”

I can hear some of you now: “So if there is global warming, why am I shivering in the snow?”

The “global warming” label, while accurate enough for scientists who study average global temperatures, doesn’t really communicate to the average person what’s truly happening, which is climate change.

Every time I hear somebody say that global warming must be a hoax because “it’s cold out” I cringe, because they have completely misunderstood the concept.

The threat of climate change is not only that melting ice caps will lead to inundated coasts, but that weather will become more unpredictable, and more chaotic. The sort of wicked weather the world is experiencing now, be it hot or cold, is precisely what we should expect from global warming.

In turn, changing weather will have enormous implications on food production, species survival, and the very landscape of Earth.

Now, I know I said just last weekthat peak oil, peak gas, and peak coal should be our main focus, not climate change, and that by transitioning to an all-electric infrastructure powered by renewable energy, the CO2 problem will take care of itself. I still believe that is true.

However, there remains the possibility that we will respond to peak oil and natural gas not by taking the “powerdown” and renewable energy route, but by pulling out all the stops to produce the remaining hydrocarbon sources like coal and tar sands without also controlling their emissions.

Let’s explore some of the reasons why we must not take that path.

Climate and Crops

Crop yields are incredibly sensitive to temperature and rainfall. A mere one to two degree rise in temperature can reduce grain harvests, due to dehydration and poor fertility. For example, a study on wheat in India found that a two-degree Celsius rise in temperature led to a 37-58% loss in yields. Another study from the Philippines found that rice fertility was 100% at 94° F, but nearly zero at 104° F. A third study from India found that for each degree Celsius rise in temperature, rice yields fell by 6%.

Research in the U.S confirms the sensitivity problem. A study by scientists at the Carnegie Institution found that a one degree Celsius rise during the growing season reduced the yields of both corn and soybeans by 17%. Another study by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008 showed that a one degree Celsius rise cut corn and soybean yields by 13-16%.

Record heat and drought in Europe, the U.S. and India led to record grain worldwide shortfalls in 2002 and 2003.

Last year, floods and heavy rains in China, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, North and South Korea, and the Philippines cut severely into the crop output of Asia.

Encroaching Deserts

Declining crop yields are only a highly visible example of the effects of extreme weather on the natural world, though. Changes in climate are killing off trees across the North American west, as drought and changing soil conditions lead to plagues of insects, disease and invasive species, as well as increasingly frequent and devastating wildfires. Hot-burning wildfires are actually scorching the topsoil, preventing new trees from sprouting.

Researchers on the subject have concluded that a rise in local temperatures was responsible for the tree die-off, after ruling out other factors such as air pollution and forest management practices.

Disappearing trees are only a part of a much larger dynamic: that of the gradual desertification of arid climates. In a new report released this week in New Scientist, climate scientists found that low-latitude weather systems are moving toward the poles, while the tropics are expanding. Detailed measurements of the altitude of the tropopause–the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere–found that after adjusting for natural variation from year to year, the edges of the tropics are moving toward the poles at a rate of roughly 70 kilometers per decade.

The team also found that their data matched the results predicted by a leading climate model when human emissions were taken into account, but didn’t without them.

This observation matches well with apocryphal observations and scientific data showing that the climate that used to exist in, say, Missouri 40 years ago is now found in Tennessee, and that Tennessee’s historical weather is now more likely in Kentucky.

As warmer weather marches north, the deserts of the American Southwest are slowly growing. A 2007 study published in Science showed that “a broad consensus among climate models” would bring conditions reminiscent of the Dust Bowl to the region by 2050, and that the deserts would eventually stretch all the way to San Francisco.

Putting the two studies together then, the desertification of Australia, an arid sub-tropical climate moving toward the South Pole, is essentially the flip side of the desertification of American Southwest, with its arid sub-tropical region moving toward the North Pole.

Unfortunately, plants and animals don’t move at such a rapid pace, leaving them increasingly out of step with their environments. This in turn has a domino effect, further changing local ecosystems.

Changing and unpredictable weather patterns will not only transform our environment, but make farming increasingly difficult, and maintaining our infrastructure a nightmare. We have still hardly begun to recover from the damage caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and Ike, which are believed to only the first of a series of increasingly severe storms in the Gulf due to its warming waters.

All considered, even “climate change” may be too nice a phrase.

What If The Science Is Wrong?

It’s clear enough that we have a rapidly changing and increasingly chaotic climate, and rising global temperatures; about that there is little disagreement. The hot debate is about whether the burning of fossil fuels is responsible for it.

From the perspective of petroleum geology, it makes intuitive sense to think so. Releasing carbon into the atmosphere in just 200 years that took hundreds of millions of years to accumulate is bound to have some serious effects.

The available science on anthropogenic global warming is incomplete, to be sure, yet there is enough consensus to influence policy. In addition to the scientific community, the Pentagon, former officials from the CIA and the White House, many heads of state, even the chiefs of oil companies and automakers have agreed that CO2 emissions are a serious problem we must address.

But suppose the science on CO2 emissions is wrong. What if the climate changes we’re seeing aren’t caused by human activity, but by larger cycles we don’t yet understand? If the science is incomplete, shouldn’t we wait until it’s more certain before going to all the expense of fighting emissions?

The answer is no.

Consider this: Humanity cannot accurately predict the evolution of a puff of smoke blown into a bell jar, even with modern mathematics and computing power. Modeling turbulence in a bell jar, let alone a hurricane, remains a major challenge. Small variations in complex, 3-D, chaotic natural systems quickly ruin our predictive capabilities, no matter how precise the model.

Science is still struggling to identify all the factors that affect the global climate, let alone model them accurately, or understand the complex interactions between them, or predict how they will change.

If we can’t model the weather in a tiny controlled environment like a bell jar, how much faith should we have in our models of climate change?

The Precautionary Principle

The lack of absolute scientific certitude should be the very reason we take action on global warming, not an excuse for inaction.

With our very survival on the line, we would be wise to follow the precautionary principle, which boils down to “If you’re not sure you can fix it, don’t break it.” Merely poking holes in the existing body of research, meager as it is, may be satisfying to global warming deniers, but is not an assurance that we know what damage we might be causing, or that we know how to fix it. By the precautionary principle, we should be absolutely certain that CO2 is not the problem before continuing to produce it.

Or perhaps we should follow a reformulation of Pascal’s Wager, along the lines of “With the health of ourselves and the entire planet at risk, and insufficient knowledge about it, we should err on the side of safety.”

By the time our models are capable of accurately measuring and predicting what will happen with the global climate, it could be far too late to do anything about it.

Indeed, it may already be too late. As I mentioned last week, a new study by a US team of environmental researchers, sponsored by the Department of Energy and published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that even if carbon emissions were halted, global temperatures would remain high for another 1,000 years as the CO2 already in the atmosphere continued to warm the planet.

Instead, we should be employing all of the knowledge and tools at our disposal to address this potentially devastating threat.

If the Earth were threatened by a massive asteroid that might or might not hit us, but we couldn’t be sure, would we argue about whether we should go to the expense of building a rocket to deflect it, or would we build that rocket just in case? Of course we would build it.

Perhaps the only difference is that we love to build fancy machines that go into space and blow stuff up, but we don’t love having to give up our cars or change what we do.

Inconvenient Questions

Humanity is essentially conducting an unplanned, uncontrolled, and unexamined experiment with the global climate, with potentially catastrophic effects.

Should we not take a moment to ask why on earth we would ever take such a risk? And are we not now obliged to reconsider our choices?

If the world’s leaders had sat down 150 years ago and decided whether or not to take a short, 200-year journey up and down the peak of fossil fuel use, potentially throwing the global climate into disarray, would they have chosen it? Would the farmers and the regular folk have gone along with that choice? The religious leaders?

Have we not pushed other species to the brink of extinction and beyond, without even considering the cascading effects that might have on the ecosystem? Are we not now at a tenuous point in our own survival, with shortages of water, energy, and food creeping around the globe?

Can we do no better than blindly stumbling down the doomed path we’re on?

Finally, if we had the option to end the age of fossil fuels in our lifetime, and take a greener path, how could we possibly not take it?

Until next time,



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1 Comment

  1. Hi Chris
    I once had a kerosene fridge which used a flame to create cold. So does a gas frige. How hot becomes cold I’m not sure. However as I understand global warming, it is melting more ice at the poles, which is putting more icebergs in the oceans making the water colder. Air moving over the colder water gets colder and then it blows colder on the land, making it colder.
    Graham Mewburn

    Comment by Graham Mewburn — February 4, 2009 @ 10:26 pm

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