Climate Science For Dummies III – The Bad Stuff

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Here is another bit of my upcoming book:Ten Technologies to Save the World – Kicking the Fossil Fuel Habit. Aside from the Ten Technologies, a number of small essays are included. Three on Climate Science (The Basics, The Complex, The Bad) outline why we need to Kick The Habit. This is the third (and quite negative) one. 

Copyright©2009 Tom Rand, Eco Ten Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission.

Motto: Just because we can’t predict “when”, doesn’t mean we can’t predict “what”.

This is a book about hope. It is a celebration of what’s possible. We can kick the fossil fuel habit and live in a world supplied with clean renewable energy. So why this negative bit? Food shortages, geopolitical upheaval, an end to much of the world that we take for granted; why paint such a picture? Bluntly put, to motivate the effort it takes to reset our energy economy. That job is possible, but difficult, and it’s important to understand why it is worth the effort. So I depart from the upbeat tone for just a moment.

An image in New Scientist magazine (March, 2009) – had it not been reflective of current science – would seem alarmist in its vision of the earth later this century. In it, a sort of ‘super-desert’ occupies much of the planet, a desert much hotter than anything we find now. Canada looks just fine, but China, Africa, Central and South America, the United States, Australia, much of Asia – what used to be the world’s breadbasket  – is now incapable of growing crops. Hospitable land is limited mainly to small, crowded bits near the poles. Much of what used to be coastal land is underwater, or headed underwater. New Orleans, Mumbai – gone. The image is a nightmare.

Our problem is this nightmare scenario is not unlikely. It’s not science fiction, but what some of the smartest people in the world are telling us. And – it’s based on a mere 4 degrees C of warming. Without a full reset of energy production, that level of warming could occur as early as 2050, and will almost certainly be here by the end of the century.

Four degrees may not seem like much. It’s less than the swing from dawn to mid-morning, or early to late spring. But a global average temperature change is not the same animal, and 4 degrees is the difference between a planet that supports what we have, and one that does not. The single biggest problem? Food. At a 4 degree rise, Mother Nature is firmly back in charge. What might it look like?

We have just a small window of opportunity and it is closing rather rapidly. There is not a moment to lose…We are risking the ability of the human race to survive” (Dr Rajendra Pachauri, Chair of the IPCC, 2005).

Most of the world’s glaciers will be gone. While mountain-lovers may be upset at the news, the problem has nothing to do with the incredible beauty or deep sense of history glaciers provide. The problem is food. Glaciers store water during the winter, and release it during the summer, and it’s their spring run-off that irrigates much of the world’s crops. Parts of the American plains, China, India and most certainly Pakistan will suffer. Pakistan, just one example, is really a big desert with a river running through it. The Indus river system supplies water to the largest irrigated land system in the world. No Indus run-off, no crops. At present melting rates, this will happen by the early 2030’s.

The deserts will have grown, and are really hot. The increased energy of the Hadley cells that form our deserts (see Chapter 2 – Wind) causes those deserts to expand. Most of Asia, including Japan and China, have become inhospitable desert. So has much of the United States, Mexico and Africa. The Amazon is gone. None of these deserts can grow food. Average temperatures exceed the hottest days on record now. The hottest days are off the charts.

Global grain markets may no longer exist. Since deserts have taken over what used to be our bread-baskets of grain production, global output has diminished so much that little is for sale. Countries that can grow it (Russia, Canada) feed themselves or their closest friends.

The oceans won’t be able to feed us anymore. Higher temperatures and increased acidity from carbon absorption has taken out key life-supporting species (plankton, for example) throughout much of the oceans. They are no longer much of a food resource.

Storms will be really strong. Katrina was an indicator, a clue to how storms will change. With warmer waters, hurricanes gather more energy, since it’s the water that provides it.

Many of the world’s great cities will be drowning. Seas levels have risen 3-6 feet (1-2 m), and are set to keep rising for many centuries no matter what we do. Cities like Mumbai and New Orleans are already under water. The world’s ice takes a long time to melt, probably a century or more, but when it does the total rise in sea levels will be near a hundred meters.

Our population will have severely shrunk, be displaced from where we live now, or both. Only a fraction of the planet is productive – mostly Russia and Canada, as it happens – and so we all learn to live very efficiently on that land, or not. 

So – how fast do we need to de-carbon? We couldn’t do it fast enough. If we want to buy some insurance against this scenario, then we should probably fully de-carbon – no fossil fuel use at all – by 2050, and hit 80% reductions by 2030.

We are getting almost to the point of irreversible meltdown, and will pass it soon if we are not careful” (Sir John Houghton, Former Co-Chair of the IPCC, 2006).

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