What do we mean, when we say that climate change could “drive us off a cliff”, or, that President Trump and rabid anti-environmental policies championed by his administration are a “runaway train”?
For our species, the maximal climate change event is the elimination of civilized society. In his 2011 “Collapse: How Societies Choose To Fail Or Succeed”, Jared Diamond wrote how civilizations collapse repeatedly throughout human history. In the outerlying suburbs of humanity — in failed nation states like South Sudan and parts of sub Saharan Africa — much hotter temperatures are significantly contributing to starvation and war. On these fringes, affecting millions of humans, collapse isn’t speculation. It is fact.
There are approximately 7.5 billion people alive today. Only a small percent live in first world conditions and above the poverty line. In Western democracies, climate change is an accelerant to mass, uncontrolled migration. That is why, in large measure, Europeans are incredulous at the Trump administration’s doubling down on climate change denial.
From a Hobbesian perspective, the concentration on national security is — through the lens of climate change — a willingness to anticipate future threats as matters of locking in privileges of the first world. Still to imagine the upper income earners are immune to climate change, or can spend their way out, is pure, unmitigated folly.
In some respects, third world societies are better organized to adapt to climate change. Accustomed to hardship, the third world is resourceful and organizes economic activities around barter trade and hand skills. The problem for these populations is seasonal insecurity.
Living so close to the economic edge, third world security is especially vulnerable to crop interruption and depletion of fisheries. Today, the world is in the midst of the largest migration of distressed populations since the end of World War II. Most conservatives attribute the uprooting to war and, especially, to terrorism. The military knows differently: climate change is a threat multiplier.
When climate interruptions reach a subsequent plateau, it is easy to visualize the contraction of the world’s population by a third or half. This could occur through war, famine or disease. Nationalism, walling off states, and building safe rooms cannot cure that threat.
In 2014, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hegel wrote, ““Rising global temperatures, changing precipitation patterns, climbing sea levels and more extreme weather events will intensify the challenges of global instability, hunger, poverty, and conflict … They will likely lead to food and water shortages, pandemic disease, disputes over refugees and resources, and destruction by natural disasters in regions across the globe.”
Recently the UK Guardian reported, “Climate change will fuel acts of terrorism and strengthen recruiting efforts by terrorist groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram, a report commissioned by the German foreign office has found. Terrorist groups will exploit the natural disasters and water and food shortages expected to result from climate change and allow them to recruit more easily, operate more freely and control civilian populations, argues the report by Berlin thinktank Adelphi.”
Lukas Rüttinger, an author of “Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming World”, writes: “The scarcer resources become, the more power is given to those who control them, especially in regions where people are particularly reliant on natural resources for their livelihoods. As climate change affects food security and the availability of water and land, affected people will become more vulnerable not only to negative climate impacts but also to recruitment by terrorist groups offering alternative livelihoods and economic incentives.”
The Horn of Africa is one of the global hot spots where drought is creating chaos now.
“LONDON, March 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Prolonged drought in Somaliland has killed between 65 and 80 percent of the semi-autonomous region’s livestock, creating conditions that are “the worst time in our lives” and could threaten regional security, says the region’s environment minister. With 70 percent of Somaliland’s economy built around livestock, “you can imagine the desperation of the people, the desperation of the government,” said Shukri Ismail Bandare, the minister of rural development and environment. “Pastoralists say this is the worst we have seen, a kind of nightmare,” she said. “They have 400 or 500 goats and then just 20 left. They have lost practically everything. I don’t know how they are still sane.” Previous droughts have hit one area of Somaliland, but “now it’s five regions of the country. We’ve never seen it before”, she said in a telephone interview from Hargeisa, the capital, with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. … villages and cities in turn are now overwhelmed by “thousands and thousands” of migrants, the minister said. “What they have is practically exhausted because of the pressure,” she said.
Unprecedented levels of C02 in the atmosphere and hotter, more acidic seawater are having disastrous impacts to world-wide fisheries; not in the future, now. 93 percent of the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is in the midst of a massive bleaching event due to extremely hot water temperatures. Overfishing at coastal zones around the globe has fundamentally changed market availability and cost. According to recent research, coral reefs could entirely disappear by 2050, stripping an essential building block of the protein chain that leads to food on the table. It is heart-breaking to watch hundreds of road-side vendors in Kerala, India competing to market fish that are only a few inches long — because larger species vanished.
“Continuing to burn fossil fuels at the current rate could bring atmospheric carbon dioxide to its highest concentration in 50 million years, jumping from about 400 parts per million now to more than 900 parts per million by the end of this century, a new study warns,” according to another recent Washington Post report.
The implications for mid-latitude forests and for agriculture, like the American farm belt, are profoundly troubling. Over millions of years — but particularly since humans migrated from nomadic to settled societies some 12,000 years ago — plant species evolved to reproduce in cycles depending on time of year, predictable rainfall and temperature.
From rapidly melting polar ice to wild extremes in weather events, we are already experiencing instability in crop production; from wheat, to corn, and other staples. To see the future, one only has to glance at data-based visualizations of how rapidly the oscillations are deviating from normative values that our food supply depends on.
Of threat assessments, the one that is least predictable is disease. However, scientists are training attention on the way that climate change is forcing the expansion of microbial and virus threats from insects to human populations, but the greater threat — already manifesting in industrial scale food crops — are crop diseases. Fungal rots at the microbial scale have massive agricultural chemical companies chasing increasingly expensive and dangerous solutions that pit hubris, genetic engineering against evolution.
Those who believe science and technology can steer the influence of climate change in a benign, even a productive way, are whistling past the graveyard.
None of the foregoing is hypothetical. Hard to digest, but not hyperbole. According to a recent report in the Washington Post, “The latest one-, two-, three-, four- and five year periods — ending in March — rank as the warmest in 122 years of record-keeping for the Lower 48 states, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration… Freakish bouts of warm weather have accompanied this long period of historic warmth, unlike anything previously experienced.”
Every tranche of climate science, no matter the discipline or segment of expertise, has under-estimated climate change impacts in the past decade. Yet, the Republican Congress is actually entertaining budget cuts that would severely handicap the ability of federal agencies like NOAA from information the public what is happening with climate change.
This year, Spring arrived so early in South Florida that the growing season was abruptly curtailed by too much heat. (One Homestead farmer told me that this winter, his fruit trees bloomed three times!) But the state’s top political official, Gov. Rick Scott – who is one of President Trump’s strongest supporters – won’t even allow state bureaucrats to use the term “climate change”, or, makes one excuse after another why “jobs” take priority.
It is evident, more and more clearly, that feed-back loops reinforcing and accelerating the rate of change point in the direction of a collapse of biodiversity coincident with the loss of the planet’s cooling system at the polar extremes.
Wise civilizations would have reacted, forty or fifty years ago, as scientific evidence appeared. It is not just a paradox, that with all our tools and technology, we ignore evidence or wage fake arguments to counter facts. Voters who obsess about putting healthcare in the best hands willingly allow charlatans to safeguard the climate. You don’t shit in the bed you sleep in, but we are.
So far, as American voters amply demonstrated in November 2016, there is not a broad base of public support to use government regulation to calibrate econimic activities in ways that redirect fragile industrial scale infrastructure from collapse. Instead, we have Americans reaching for guns and conspiracy theories, literally turning their backs on provable science in favor of unprovable myths.
This will go on, unfortunately, until it can no longer go on. What will come in its place, in the midst of great suffering, will be control of populations by authoritarian governments to deliver the maximal benefits to the few at the expense of the remainder.
Unless Western democracies take the lead, what lies ahead could look more like the Middle Ages than a 22nd century vision of progress. President Trump, the GOP and its supporters are setting the United States backwards at the most inopportune moment. In the end voters will correct course. Or not. Reason enough for everyone to issue their own Earth Day expletive.
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