Tornadoes, climate and a rocky future
Long-time science journalist Alex Smith finally admits his own hopes and fears, knowing what we know now. Some neglected new science shows up, plus clips with Todd Rose on collective illusions, and a word from 11-year-old climate podcaster Zach Fox-DeVol. It’s a collection.
DID HUMANS ALREADY BREAK THE WEATHER?
A tornado destroys Rolling Fork Mississippi. Not just any tornado. Some people found it’s track for 90 miles (145 kilometers). The U.S. Weather Service counts 59 miles of tornado damage along the ground (95 kilometers) – all struck with powerful EF4 strength. Are tornadoes worse due climate change? Yes, but not the way you think. We will explore news and science of tornadoes. Other neglected science shows the amount of land to be swallowed by the sea this century was badly underestimated. In fact, I have a whole collection of missed and downplayed stories about serious changes.
Then I break the rules of Radio Ecoshock. Instead of informed predictions by guests, as a long-time science journalist, I will tell you what I really think. Alex Smith unchained. If this is your first time listening, this is not what to expect from this show. In every other program, you meet two or more brilliant minds talking about the world as it is and will be. The show let’s you hear top scientists, authors and activists in their own words.
But let’s get to that first tornado cluster that killed at least 25 people in Mississippi and one in Alabama. I feel for those families. People across a half dozen states that went through a terrifying night on Friday March 24, 2023. Some will never be able to forget it.
Unlike hurricanes, that killer storm cell does not even have a name. We don’t know what to call a cluster of 21 tornadoes unfurling death, wiping out homes and businesses, everything in it’s wide path. S week later and another series of tornado clusters strikes again. This time dozens of tornadoes hit 11 states, killing at least 29 people. People were killed by tornadoes in Delaware and in New Jersey. Since when it New Jersey a tornado state? And then more tornado deaths a few days later. What is going on?
Are these Hellish winds going to come again? Did humans already break the weather?
GETTING THE WRONG IDEA ABOUT TORNADOES AND CLIMATE
Yes and no. Tornadoes are not new to the American South. One thing has changed, likely with global warming: there are fewer storms in so-called “Tornado Alley” states of Oklahoma and Texas. The pattern of tornadoes has move generally East – more into Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia. That is new, compared to 1970.
But surprisingly, and despite predictions, the number of days with tornadoes in the United States has not increased since the 1970’s, even with climate change. When storm scientist Harold E. Brooks added up the numbers in a benchmark 2014 paper, he wrote: “Will global warming cause more tornadoes? If so, that has not happened yet.” One study found days with tornadoes in America have actually decreased up to 33% since 1970, as the world warmed most.
I have seen misleading headlines on all this, saying tornadoes are increasing with global warming. The relationship between climate change and tornadoes is not a simple assumption. There is a change as the world warms. When tornadoes do arrive, they are clustering more than in the 1970’s. So there are fewer days with tornadoes, but more days with multiple tornadoes. That is exactly what we saw recently in the U.S. South in late March 2023. Twenty one tornadoes struck from Texas to Georgia in the same day, with multiple tornadoes striking Mississippi.
We can say the same about hurricanes. A decade or two ago, scientists wondered if global warming would create more hurricanes (or typhoons, tropical cyclones). What we see so far since 2010 is not more hurricanes, but storms which are far stronger and more damaging when they do form. We do not know for certain what gives birth to a tropical cyclone (hurricane etc). But the forces which cause them to gain strength include primarily hotter sea surface temperatures, and we certainly have that, well-measured.
Likewise, tornadoes can become stronger when more extreme cold and hot air meet. We are getting those extremes of temperatures.
It would also be interesting to know if tornadoes are affected by warmer ground temperatures, as hurricanes are more energized by warmer sea surface temps. Obviously, there is a ton I don’t know about tornadoes, and likely a lot nobody knows about them, yet. The best recent science I found is “A review and analysis of possible changes to the climatology of tornadoes in the United States” by Todd W Moore and Tiffany DeBoer. That is an Open Access paper from 2019.
THE HUMAN FACTOR
The Daily Kos has a good summary of some related social problems surfacing in this change of tornado behavior. After the March Mississippi tornado disaster, Mark Sumner wrote “Yes, the climate crisis is behind more – and more deadly – tornadoes like those on Friday night”.
Sumner finds storms are shifting toward areas with more population, putting many more people at risk. And unlike the plains of Tornado Alley, the geography further East makes it harder to see the tornadoes coming. There was a myth that tornadoes do not hit cities. They do.
Of course few people in the south have protective basements. Being unaccustomed to tornadoes, there are not many storm shelters. The small town that was Rolling Forks had no tornado sirens to warn people in the night. About one third of that country’s residents had incomes below the poverty line. Another study on storm recovery found that white people were more likely to have insurance covering storms, and were more likely to rebuild. That can change the demographics following a devastating storm. Again, violent weather reveals on-going racial injustice.
Just last week in a Radio Ecoshock interview Laurie Laybourn and I discussed the real possibility that humans will not be able to adapt or recover from repeated disasters during changing climate. This 21 twister night in the South sounds like another warning from Nature: do not upset the energy balance that makes planet Earth the sweet-spot for life.
By the way, I want to pass on a tip about searching the Net for answers. As Dr. Mushtaq Bilal tells us in a Tweet, quote: “Don’t use ChatGPT for academic research. It creates fake citations to papers that don’t even exist.
Instead, use Consensus — an AI-powered search engine designed for academics. Ask it a question and it’ll give you a summary of top 5-10 (real) published papers.” I tried it by going to www.consensus.app This search engine does clear out a lot of misinformation. Keep in mind the results are not in date order, so check the dates if you want more recent science. Climate papers from 1995 may have been superseded by more recent work. You can also check the number of citations to gauge how widely used the paper is. Consensus.app is a good find for people with questions who want real verified answers.
THE SEA ICE AND RISING SEAS – CATASTROPHE IN THE MAKING
Also in last week’s show, we investigated disappearing sea ice around Antarctica, like 90% gone within the last decade. As I said in that show blog: “Just imagine the loss of reflection of solar energy, replaced by the dark absorbing sea. This must affect the Earth energy imbalance (EEI) – which adds more warming.” But the big story in my view is the way low sea-ice lets lose more melting by Antarctic glaciers. I think we are operating with a wild underestimate of the coming coastal floods as sea levels rise. There is new science showing the real picture.
But first, even experts are still mulling over the latest huge science summary from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This is the last report we get from global scientists on climate change until another five years have passed. Given the rapid deterioration of weather all over the world, it is crazy not to have interlocking institutes of scientists working daily to build the global picture for all of of us. We need them not every five years, not every year, but reporting as close to real-time as possible. Many of those reporting scientists already another five years of emissions will be too late. For real-time climate reporting on actual events, the people at an organization called World Weather Attribution are as close as we come.
THE IPCC SEA LEVEL BOMB
One of the information bombs hidden in the recently released IPCC report concerns sea level rise. This summary was approved by over 190 national governments. It says between 1901 and 2018, global sea level increased by about 8 inches or .2 meters. If you had a dock half a foot above the ocean in the early 1900’s, it would be under the sea now.
Since the year 1900, the rate of sea level rise has nearly tripled, from about 1.3 mm. per year between 1901 and 1971 (only .05 inches) – to about 3.7 mm. a year (.14 inches) between 2006 to 2018. Our changes to the atmosphere have tripled the rate of sea level rise. We do not know how fast the seas will rise as we continue to load up the atmosphere with more greenhouse gases. Some scientists expect sea level rise may not be gradual, but may appear quickly, developing step-wise rather than a steady increase.
The IPCC reports, quote:
“Thermal expansion explained 50% of sea level rise during 1971–2018, while ice loss from glaciers contributed 22%, ice sheets 20% and changes in land-water storage 8%. The rate of ice-sheet loss increased by a factor of four between 1992–1999 and 2010–2019. Together, ice-sheet and glacier mass loss were the dominant contributors to global mean sea level rise during 2006–2018 (high confidence). “
As I mentioned, new science shows increasing sea levels will swallow more land than we thought. Dutch scientists Ronald Vernimmen and Aljosja Hooijer released a study called “New LiDAR-Based Elevation Model Shows Greatest Increase in Global Coastal Exposure to Flooding to Be Caused by Early-Stage Sea-Level Rise” I asked them both to explain on Radio Ecoshock. Ronald was going off-grid in Vietnam, while Aljosja was unavailable in Indonesia. I should let it go, but I can’t.
As the U.S. Science agency NOAA explains, Lidar stands for Light Detection and Ranging. It is a remote sensing method that uses light in the form of a pulsed laser to measure ranges (variable distances) to the Earth. This generates a precise image of the shape and surface of the Earth more accurate than any previous mapping technique. Our maps, including coastal areas, are all out-dated. These are the same maps used by government agencies to plot where the sea will take over, and where flood defenses – if any – could be built.
In plain language, Vernimmen and Hooijer’s science shows:
“Land elevation models applied to date suggest that the increase of land area below sea level will be limited at first but will go faster when Sea Level Rise [or SLR] continues. When we apply a new and more accurate elevation model we find the opposite pattern, with the fastest increase during the early stages of SLR.
In one-third of countries most of this increase will be during the first meter of SLR, and in almost all within the first 2 m. We conclude that in many regions the time available to prepare for increased exposure to flooding may be considerably less than assumed to date, and that better elevation data will support timely preparations.”
Most governments, following earlier science and mapping, assume sea level rise will come slowly, with the worst impacts arriving late this century and into the next. The newly-known reality is the first meter or two of sea level rise will flood much more land than we thought. More of the Mekong Delta of Vietnam will get salted and then flooded sooner. You can hear my 2016 report on the Mekong with Southeast Asia expert David Brown. Listen to the audio interview with David Brown here.
More of Bangladesh will flood, further inland, more often. Expect mass climate refugees from there. More of the heavily populated Nile Delta will go under, sooner. The U.S. Navy will have to give up it’s largest naval base, in Norfolk Virginia. Until this January 2023 paper, we did not understand how much there is to lose. Imagine, as world population continues to expand toward 9 billion people, there will be less land for them to live, and far less food from formerly fertile river deltas, now reclaimed by the sea. The latest IPCC report is hiding a monster in fast sea level rise, and even that is very conservative, as we learn the ice world is losing rapidly to the heat.
Right now there is a global marine heat wave. Ocean waters are abnormally hot from the Pacific right around to the Atlantic. Brand new science reveals hotter water is already reaching to the bottom of the sea. That was not expected so soon.
Now I am going to break a long-standing Radio Ecoshock rule. That rule is to let the experts speak. You don’t hear a lot from Alex Smith. Under the circumstances, I will talk for a few minutes about the obvious question: what do I think is going to happen? For what it is worth, here a few personal thoughts about our common future.
SO WHAT DO I THINK IS GOING TO HAPPEN?
After 16 years of broadcasting, I should probably own up to my own feelings about our future.
Start with this. The coming decades will be the most stressful and challenging humans have known since the 1300’s, with changes into social and physical landscapes never seen by any human. The severity of change may increase beyond the 2030’s to include mass death events. At first these will seem shocking, as a million or more die in a few months or less. Humans have seen such events on much smaller scale, for example during periods of mass famine in India. But the population of India even two centuries ago was a fraction of today’s population. So death numbers will be greater.
The challenges of trying to survive record long-lasting heat waves, droughts, fire seasons, floods – all of them potentially lasting months, plus storms stronger than before and sea surges into cities and agricultural lands – will all come to a population weakened by a decade of diseases. Things like floods and increasing heat base lines can also help spread vector-born diseases like those from tropical mosquitoes moving north and south into new populations. The average human may have less energy, damaged immune system, lower intelligence, less stamina and higher medical needs due to unrestrained repeated viral infections. As best it can, the population will be trying to support large numbers of disabled and partially-disabled people. Even if the social support networks fail (like nursing homes or hospitals), most people will try to keep family members alive at home. That by itself is draining, even more draining if everyone has been damaged by the virus.
Humans may have less vitality when the worst climate impacts arrive.
All during those hard and messy times, I have no doubt people will fall deeply in love. Many will have periods of happiness so strongly – that alone would justify wanting to be alive. Even now, knowing what I know, several hours a day I feel some joy in life. We should not lose the ability to be happy.
SCIENCE AND INNOVATION MAY CONTINUE
The drive to innovation and discovery will I think continue. That may sound strange, when power gets knocked out from time to time as the weather or crowds rage. But once electricity and data are known, it would take a lot of damage over a long time to knock it out.
I am not among those who image the whole world just goes dark one day, due to an accident, war or the ultimate hack. The Internet was designed for the possibility of survival even after a nuclear war. It is generally distributed. Yes, a few key switching grounds in America could go down, paralyzing a lot of the net, but I would expect new connections to be made. Solar power also adds a source of very local electricity for at least a decade or two.
We are discussing the way science and medical research might be able to continue despite a general weakening and dislocation due to health and environmental threats. The juggernaut of science we have now may not last more than a decade or two, but some science may continue until the species really loses power and communication. Remember, some of the basics of science, including the make-up of gases in the atmosphere, were discovered in private labs using glass globes and early instruments – before electricity. The same is true of mineral and chemical studies. Astronomy was already launched with telescopes in the 1700’s. Human knowledge and invention may continue despite what the pessimists say.
PREDATION OF THE LAST OF NATURE
But it looks like humanity will continue to prey on the last of Nature for a while. We have shown little ability for self-control of our consumption or desires. I expect nature to continue to lose species and spaces at alarming rates. This predation of the last of nature would continue even through and partly because of repeated crisis conditions.
The economy of production and consumption will likely continue for the next decade or two, unless there is a mass revolution, nuclear war, or some such cataclysmic driver of sudden change. Continuing consumption of the planet will seek out the last resources and plunder and waste them. It will drive other species out of their habitats leading to chains of extinctions which we only see in hindsight, if at all.
There will be breakdowns and “supply chain problems” that last for years. During those local or regional shutdowns, if the larger social system cannot cope, then masses of humans will range out into nature looking for food. This is already happening in some places due to current population expansion (think “bush-meat” in tropical Africa).
Suppose the power system and regional banks around Michigan USA fail. After a few days without food, all those people with guns will go out and shoot whatever meat they can find. Say goodbye to ducks, geese, farm animals, deer, most mammals and some plants. We need food now. We need to survive.
Even if that region gets restored to a reduced system, a repaired system, the wildlife has been decimated and some will not return. The point: whether the production/consumption system limps on or fails in some places, in either case MORE of nature will be damaged.
WHAT ARE LIKELY HUMAN RESPONSES?
What will we do? Here are a few unorganized thoughts.
Number One: Life expectancy may decrease, with a corresponding attempt to increase reproduction. This could mean humans return to the short life spans that were “normal” during most centuries until the 1900’s with bigger families.
WHAT THE LEMURS TELL US…
We get a glimpse of how this could work from a new study of how those cute Lemurs of Madagascar are handling climate change. As published in PNAS March 27, 2023, this new science contains an insight into the way humans may adapt to increasing climate extremes and continuing viral loads, all tending toward a shorter lifetime. Note the Government of the United Kingdom just dropped a measure to raise their retirement age to 68, now that life expectancy is dropping there, mainly due to COVID.
The key point from this little study of a short-lived mammal in Madagascar is this, quote:
“The climate trends led to decreased survival rates for the lemur as well as increased reproductive rates. The contrasting demographic trends have prevented population collapse but destabilized the population by further speeding up their life cycle through increased reproduction and reduced lifespan.”
In earlier centuries, humans often mated or married shortly after puberty, when reproduction was possible. A fourteen year old male was already in whatever workforce or army would provide food. The fourteen year old female was bearing children. Average life expectancy was 35 or 40 years old. The average is slightly bias by including the very high death rate of babies and mothers in birth in those times. A few people lived into their 60’s or beyond, but few. One of the famous warrior kings of England was considered very old and infirm with diseases of old age at 48. Because so many children would be lost, there were large families, often as large as the woman, or several wives, lived to reproduce.
PAST PEAK LIFE EXPECTANCY?
Are we already past peak life expectancy? Exactly like the Lemurs, humans may have “decreased survival rates” and “increased productive rates”. Given the coming times of extreme stress, decades of normalized crisis, humans may live shorter lives but produce more children, which could keep world population in the multi-billions despite numbing losses in mass death events. We may have already passed peak life expectancy.
Of course increased reproduction in compensation assumes that chemicals or radiation in the environment have not already increase sterility in males or females. Evidence is growing that male sterility in developed countries is growing. In that case (of decreased sterility), the strategy of reproducing the species to cope with lower immunity during higher extremes and violent weather may not work. Then population declines, perhaps relatively rapidly (say over a decade or three punctuated by events of obvious mass deaths). That would reduce the human burden on natural systems, but only after most of those systems have been pushed into the hot world phase.
2. WE MAY FIX SOME THINGS
Second thought: human responses to decades of crisis may also surprise us. We may actually fix some things. Adding to genuine understanding of how this planet operates along with continuing innovation may bring new unexpected benefits for humans. For example, we may finally find a cure for ALL varieties of Corona viruses, and perhaps a technology to help the body repair previous damage to the immune system. I expect anti-aging science to continue to advance. This could slightly off-set population loss due to climate extremes.
3. JUST STAY HOME?
How about this: humans respond to long crisis by… just staying home. Are you staying home more? Many people I talk with are.
Walking the other day, we met an older couple in our village. They were staying home during the continuing pandemic risk, not going out much, not much social life. But they were “house happy”. Millions of us are shrinking into our homes – for good reason. Actually, without all the flying and consumption, “house happy” can be (a) better for the planet and (b) closer to the human animal we really are. Perhaps home cooking will increase health too.
I expect the isolated ’cellular” lifestyle will increase. It may not become a majority and perhaps should not be. But that may describe a significant part of the population in coming decades.
When a barbarian army arrives to a rich land with few defenders, some of the local population runs away. The majority probably go home and stay there, waiting to see what happens, hoping to make it through. That is where we are today with both the pandemic, climate change and social instability. Poll after poll shows the majority of humans with any education know big trouble is coming. They are stressed and afraid in great numbers. They are staying home on climate change.
4. HUMANS MAY DEVELOP A FACT-BASED BELIEF SYSTEM
Response number four will make some laugh with disbelief. How naive! Humans may develop a fact-based belief system (as strong as religion) leading us to live peacefully and properly with nature. We return to a state of respect and awe for other creatures on this planet. We aim to make the world richer, not poorer, to help, and to do the least harm. No one can say with proof or certainty this is not possible. Does a better humanity become harder to imagine just before the egg cracks open?
Yes, we must eat and find shelter. That does not mean the current carnival of destruction must continue, apparently without guilt or even awareness. The first inhabitants of North America did kill other mammals to eat. But for thousands of years they carried a culture of awareness, respect, and dependence on their prey. It was a traditon to apologize to the rabbit or deer for needing to eat them.
Likewise, we could appreciate and live with plants and all creatures, while limiting our numbers and impacts not just to the maximum sustainable level, but to a low, sane number of humans taking little, as they travel through a short time of existence. It may sound like a dream vision of living well with Nature, but we do not know enough to say this is impossible. All of our ancestors lived sustainably with Nature before us. That may our actual character, rather than the cancerous plague image of last days living. We may return to being one strange species among many, rather than self-appointed monarchs and Kali destroyers. We may return to humble living. Even though that sounds impossibly distant, things may be closer than they appear in the rear view mirror.
Some academics and activists are already working on various lifeboat responses like “managed retreat”. This June, Columbia University will hold it’s recurring event “At What Point Managed Retreat?” The Transition Town movement is quieter but still going. Others develop The Future of Humanity Institute and various attempts at deep-time think tanks to see a way ahead. Check out the new report “Future Proof”.
At What Point Managed Retreat?: Habitability and Mobility in an Era of Climate Change, will be held from June 20-23, 2023, at Columbia University.
ALEX PEERS INTO A DISTURBED FUTURE
These may be the first steps toward surviving the future we made. We may actually prepare enough to keep learning and innovation alive, avoiding another “Dark Age” or Delightenment instead of The Enlightenment. That is what the Nick Bostrom, Tony Ord crowd is about, but many others are working on this in less well-known ways.
Human readiness and prepared tools may make the journey less ugly, at least for some people. Humans may respond better than our strong pessimism suggests. Who knows, we may develop many more positive social traits and even the ability to be happier with much less. Nobody can guarantee that, but nobody can guarantee we go out in brutish violence either. We don’t know.
It is also possible civilization and the economy will have to shift toward rewarding care-givers. Volunteer aid is already badly needed, even before we recognize the wave of COVID disability. Some people devote their lives to helping the victims of disease and climate change, whether human, animals, or plants. The new generation could be the greatest public service ever seen. Just as millions of men marched off to their deaths in war, millions of people of all sexes may go to help. That alone could lift up a better humanity, a gift out of the tragic times.
Anyone can sell more novels about “The Road” or “The Lord of the Flies”. But the future may be less eye-catching and better, at least better than the worst version of humanity. Doomery is understandable, but doomer absolutists have over-reached. There is no certainty how all this will turn out. Anyone who says they are certain, has fallen back into self-delusion. The physics of climate, the operations of microbial threats, these things may be known. But the human response is not.
If you have a subscription, check out this article on Doomers in the Washington Post: “Why climate ‘doomers’ are replacing climate ‘deniers’”. The look at the comments! Almost every person says they do think we are doomed… It’s no secret.
ONE MORE TRY FOR HOPE – COLLECTIVE ILLUSIONS
The last time we tried for “realistic hope” on Radio Ecoshock, with guest Thomas Homer-Dixon, I got some critical emails. Apparently hope has become a dirty four letter word. Hope has been badly abused by apologists for mass suicidal civilization. But there is a way things could change more rapidly than we currently imagine, without a false daydream. It is just a chance, but still… a chance… we may avoid the worst future.
On this show, scientists like Tim Lenton in the UK or Johann Rockstrom in Stockholm work through climate tipping points and then hope for social tipping points. See this paper: “Social tipping dynamics for stabilizing Earth’s climate by 2050”.
History shows a few instances of revolution, times of sudden social change. Institutions and foundational ideals fall to be replaced by the new. A common example is the French Revolution of 1789. The Baby Boom generation hoped 1968 would break down war, hate, and injustice. The Soviet Union looked like an impregnable fortress until it suddenly collapsed in 1991.
Societies can change rapidly. We need this one to change quickly away not just from fossil fuels, but the destruction of Nature – which includes destroying each other. We too are gifts of Nature.
There is a strong new voice on this front. I am talking about Todd Rose with his 2022 book “Collective Illusions: Conformity, Complicity, and the Science of Why We Make Bad Decisions”. Canadian climate scientist Paul Beckwith brought this book to my attention in a recent YouTube video. Like me, and probably you, Paul has come to realize the threat to our continued happiness and existence is not because we lack science or technology. We know and we know how. We are missing something about ourselves. We need to solve the communal code leading to destruction.
Todd Rose points to collective illusions. Think of Medieval people burning women said to be witches. That horrible delusion infected everyone from royalty down through the village blacksmith. It was led by a male-dominated church supposed to protect humanity from the worst human impulses. Later, allegedly in the modern age, Germans led mass slavery and execution of the Jews. It was all a horrible collective illusion. We desperately need to find out how mal-coding of human minds develops and how to heal.
In the tradition of Radio Ecoshock, we should let author Todd Rose speak for himself. Todd was a psychologist at Harvard leading projects investigating individuality and the mind. He is now “the co-founder and president of Populace, a Boston-based think tank.” Rose became a best-selling author with his 2015 book “The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.”
In this radio program and podcast, I play a couple of excerpts from Todd’s “Big Think’ series on Youtube, called “Psychologist debunks 8 myths of mass scale”.
As you hear, Rose explains why humans could change more rapidly than we imagine. We have that demonstrated capacity. Worse yet for absolute doomers, Rose finds most humans have a better nature than we generally think.
Todd’s story about honesty in that telephone study reflects what I have experienced so often. Most of the people I met on the road, in big cities and at the fringes of the wilderness, were good at heart, even when there was little reward for it. It is no longer fashionable to talk like this. But Todd Rose finds, and validates in various tests, that most humans try for good, even while they despair about others. I don’t know if that basic goodness can survive the hate business, and false personalities in cyberspace. But the better side of people might still win. Even you doubters cannot prove that evil will triumph in coming years. The only honest answer is “No one knows.”
COUNTING FUTURE HEAT
One thing we do know: in almost every scenario, the world will get hotter if we keep increasing greenhouse gases. There are a thousand ramifications, whole chains of change, attached to that climate shift. Underlying them all: more heat.
It looks like we are already committed to dangerous warming. Check out this Stanford article about new AI studies of the future, led by Radio Ecoshock guest Noah Diffenbaugh: “Earth likely to cross critical climate thresholds even if emissions decline, Stanford study finds”.
The study, published January 30th in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides new evidence that global warming is on track to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial averages in the early 2030s, regardless of how much greenhouse gas emissions rise or fall in the coming decade.
As you know, scientists try to estimate the amount of warming at an arbitrary benchmark: a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, compared to pre-industrial times. They call this “equilibrium climate sensitivity”. The latest AR6 report says, quote:
“the very likely range of equilibrium climate sensitivity is between 2°C (high confidence) and 5°C (medium confidence). The AR6 assessed best estimate is 3°C with a likely range of 2.5°C to 4°C
There are at least two problems here:
THERE IS NO EQUILIBRIUM BALANCE POINT IN OUR FUTURE…
1. First, the untrained public might read “equilibrium” as though Earth reaches some kind of climate balance point when CO2 reaches the doubling point. That would be somewhere around 560 parts per million carbon dioxide, and lower if we add in all greenhouse gases. This is another case where scientific terminology is misleading for the non-scientist. There is no resting point, or equilibrium, as long as more greenhouse gases enter the atmosphere, whether from human fossil fuels and land use – or from more natural sources triggered by human-made warming, like increasing CO2 and methane from thawing permafrost and more methane from hotter tropical bogs.
STOP TRYING FOR A SIMPLE HARD NUMBER FOR WARMING…
2. Second, the human mind is looking for a hard number to grasp. The AR6 report settles on 3 degrees C of global average warming at the doubling point, choosing from a range of 2.5 C as a low up to 4 degrees C as a possible high, when doubling occurs.
We know from past experience with almost every IPCC report, their choices and predictions are almost always too low. They are institutionally too conservative. Scientists are careful and the report has to get approval from 190 governments. But the IPCC just said, with medium confidence, the world could be 5 degrees C warmer at doubling. We know a world 5 degrees hotter than the 1700’s would be catastrophic for most living things today, driving toward a mass extinction event that may include our species.
Listening to the experts, one could come away with 3 degrees warming as a solid safe number. That is what our minds want. Not so long ago, business reports on climate suggested we could settle for 3 or 4 degrees of warming. They said that would have costs, but still affordable for civilization and the GDP, Gross Domestic Product. No one knows if that is true. Most scientists I speak with doubt the current economy, not to mention current population, could survive in a 3 degree C hotter world.
YOU WON’T RECOGNIZE THIS NEW PLANET…
The planet would be almost unrecognizable. In the last year alone, 2022, the European Alps lost 6% of their snow and ice mass. At 3 degrees, the Alps and most other mountain systems would be bare, exposing darker surfaces to absorb instead of reflecting the sun’s energy. Great belts of deserts would girdle the world across not just the Middle East and North Africa as now, but much of northern China, where the Gobi desert expands. The South West United States runs out of water for cities or agriculture. The African desert moves north into Southern Europe.
Massive storms might form tracks as we just saw in California in late 2022, early 2023. Hurricanes and typhoons may depopulate some Caribbean Islands, South Pacific Islands. Certainly higher seas would surge ashore. Many of the world’s largest ports would be underwater for parts or all of the year. Hundreds of millions of people would have to flee formerly productive delta lands, salinated by the rising salt water table. Burning heat, lasting for a month or three, makes it dangerous to go outside.
The planet becomes a lonely place with great vacancies where favorite and useful plants grew. Breadbasket regions may not produce a surplus for global trade. We have no idea what insects and microbial life will do in response to a hotter world. No idea. Some may multiply out of control, while others go extinct. We depend on small things for food, and even to process food in our guts.
An Earth 3 degrees C hotter – on average – is not a good place for humans. It is a curse to send our grandchildren to hothouse earth.
The IPCC report has one very compelling graphic. Is shows the different levels of possible heating according to our emissions path. These are in shades going to red and dark red for heat. Then we see three human figures: those born in 1950, now 70 years old, them a person born in 1980 – turning 70 in 2050, and finally one born in 2020, turning 70 in the year 2090. On our current course, people born after 1980 experience a hot disturbed world. Babies born in 2020, if they reach age 70, will live on that different hot planet – a world wildly changed in just three generations.
There are signs that people in less developed countries, who are less dependent on the fossil economy, are ready for more climate action. The IPCC Summary Report makes clear that 10% of wealthy humans are burning more than half the fossil fuels. The poorest 50% of humans on this planet emit tiny amounts of greenhouse gases. Yet the poorest half will suffer the most from climate damages, with little capacity for protection or rebuilding. Climate refugee camps become new slum cities. The fall from fossil fuels is not so far for the poorest people. When you have nothing, you have nothing left to lose. How long will the poorest suffer in silence?
WE THE CHILDREN ARE COMING…
At least a few children are speaking up, as we see in the School Strike for Climate movement. In this show I play the short introduction to the “We The Children” podcast by then 10 year old Zach Fox-DeVol. Now at 11, Zack’s podcast is totally professional. The kids already know while we callously demand more of our high fossil lifestyle. We are in danger of becoming fossils too. I hope to speak with young climate podcaster Zach Fox-DeVol in early April.
Seniors in the United States protested continued funding of fossil fuel projects by major American banks. There was a die-in in Washington D.C., a rocking chair protest, and thousands of bank customers threatening to withdraw if fossil funding continues. A photograph from that protest, March 31, 2023, as my theme photo for the Radio Ecoshock blog last week. Seniors in New York City protested as well. Climate awareness is percolating in all ages, from kids to grandparents and in between. There is still some sanity out there. A new and better collective illusion may take us forward. It is not likely from what we see now. It is possible and as Zach said: we have to try. And keep on trying.
From the famous Farm in Tennessee, that visionary hold-over from the 1970s, environmental lawyer Albert Bates told us: “If the boat is sinking, and I have a can to bail water, I will keep on bailing.”
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I’m Alex Smith. Keep on, with Radio Ecoshock.