Adaptation, Reduction, and the Inevitability of Global Climate Change

I want to discuss the strategies of adaptation and reduction in lieu of all the news articles being published about National Economic Foundation's findings that economic growth is not possible if we want to prevent runaway climate change. One of the most disturbing findings in the article is, to prevent an increase of more than 2 degrees celsius of pre-industrial levels, the world needs to reduce carbon emissions by 95% of 2002 levels by 2050. This would require a global reduction of emissions at a rate of 6.5% per year compared to the Kyoto Protocol targeted decrease in emissions of 5.2% over 12 years. When looked at from what will probably be an impossible goal to reach barring economic collapse, we must seek a global strategy to adapt to climate change. This is not necessarily a reason to forsake global emissions reduction efforts, but it is a reason to be leery of arguments from climate change groups that denounce strategies to reduce emissions in the long-term.

The truth is, climate change is not something that will be solved by signing a treaty because emissions targets have historically been set too low. One of the reasons for such low targets is necessary greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions are tied to an economic contraction, which makes sense because economic expansion is one of the determining factors in emissions output. Even while the US economy stagnates, the expansion of other economies prevents a net reduction of GHGs globally. This will become especially problematic since the emissions output of developing nations are predicted to eclipse the emissions output of developed nations by 2015. Another contributing factor is population increases create an exponential expansion of the global carbon footprint. However, like the researchers from the previous article, I'm not a big fan of government making policies on this issue. Government regulation coming from the Obama administration would probably include forced sterilization, while conservatives would prefer starving people to prevent breeding.

One of the fundamental factors for understanding climate change is realizing almost every human action has an effect on the global GHG footprint. It is also necessary to recognize that individual efforts to reduce emissions do little to combat vastly greater industrial emissions driven by economic interests. For instance, the 16 largest vessels in the shipping industry produce more GHGs than every car on the planet (not to mention the similar GHG production of the beef industry). Moreover, an increasing amount of CO2 is produced by energy and cement production, and gas flaring. Another problem facing reduction efforts is the length of time GHGs stay in the air. CO2 can remain trapped in the atmosphere for decades, if not millennia. Additionally, shifting to alternative energies in the US would, at the minimum, require building more than 20,000 miles of high-voltage cables and an investment of $60 billion. Instead of utilizing a US smart grid to bolster the low-emission alternative energy sector, the US intends to spend over $4 billion to provide people with a digital readout of their electricity use and decrease electricity demand by 4%.

With no foreseeable reduction in emissions at the required rate the average global temperature will rapidly increase. This change in climate will cause, at the very least, sea levels to rise several feet, an increase in unpredictable severe weather, food scarcity, fresh water scarcity, the destruction of sea life, and a massive release of GHGs that are currently sealed away in the permafrost. Many of these problems only have the solution of reducing the amount of GHGs, but since that is going to be impossible, it is necessary to develop strategies to mitigate the impacts of global climate change. Currently, the only stance being taken by international bodies is to respond to climate change catastrophes after the fact.

The battle against rising sea levels won't be won by building walls around low-lying areas because climate change also causes bigger waves. The current estimates suggest that sea levels could rise between 18 centimeters and 6 meters by 2100. Tuvalu, a Polynesian island nation, is currently seeking a new home because of rising sea level rises, and we've already witnessed the first climate change refugees. Approximately 100 million people live less than 3 feet above sea level. Aside from moving further inland or to higher elevations, other solutions still include constructing walls and levees. These solutions have worked in places such as the Netherlands, but since deltas naturally subside and levees break, the Netherlands are beginning to design houses that float or are on stilts. Unfortunately, many countries that have a similar geographical landscape do not have the resources or infrastructure that would allow them to implement those same solutions in a timely manner.

As for unpredictable weather conditions? For two days this winter, Californians were in disbelief because they were experiencing tornado warnings. This doesn't include other climate change effects in the Northern hemisphere, such as a spike in the number of hurricanes we've experienced, or disappearing Arctic ice. In 2005, The London Times reported that melting ice would slow down ocean currents and cause sharp drops in temperature across northwestern Europe. Even prepared with the knowledge of the temperature drop, The London Times was reporting in 2010 that the UK had almost run out of its salt supply because of a long, deep freeze. Even though the Antarctic ice has been experiencing slight growth, ice shelves with natural rifts have been collapsing with the added stress of a warmer climate; and, as the hole in the ozone closes over Antarctica over the coming century, warmer temperatures are expected to eliminate more Antarctic ice.

The problems of food scarcity are being felt as food costs are driven higher. Though food expenses are increasing at a slower pace than many other commodities, families have been experiencing higher food costs as crops such as wheat skyrocket. In 2008, the world previewed what scares of rice scarcity, a crop that supplies more than 1/5th of all calories to the global population, will be like in the future. Some of the biggest culprits of food scarcity are farm subsidies and, consequently, agricultural dumping. As food insecurity fuels agricultural subsides, trade protections, and dumping, it prevents similarly priced imports from competing. This eventually forces the populations of developing nations into a cycle where growing food is unprofitable, and purchasing food is too expensive. The sad thing is, we produce enough food to provide every person with 2,700+ calories per day, but there are still 1 billion people starving in the world today. Instead of repealing subsides and tariffs, the G8's laughable solution is to provide $20 billion for farmers in developing nations to compete against $300 billion for farmers in developed nations.

As water scarcity becomes a reality, the US, in 2002, finally recognized the importance of incorporating water security agreements in international policy discussion. On the other hand, Israel, a country in a region lacking an abundance of fresh water, has included water policy in its agreements since its existence. Since 70% of the earth's fresh water is locked away in glaciers and ice caps, only 1% of earth's fresh water is usable by humans. Both a growing population increasing the demand for fresh water and global climate change are exacerbating the problem of water scarcity. In the US, a prolonged drought in 2007 brought Atlanta, Georgia to within 90 days of running out of water. In addition to agriculture's contribution to food scarcity, US agriculture is also responsible for 80% of all fresh water used. While Australia experiences the worst drought since the dust bowl, the Western US is finding itself the victim of a similar drought and a lack of viable solutions. Aside from the woes in developing nations, some 1.2 billion people in developing nations drink unclean water every day. Some solutions presented to developing nations have included ideas for consuming brackish water safely: donating filtered straws, planting moringa trees that have seeds capable of filtering harmful bacteria and solid contaminants, and distributing potable water generators. On a wider scale, people have looked at reusing household wastewater and reducing the cost of industrial-scale desalination efforts.

In addition to the oceanic destruction endemic to climate change, the oceans have been overfished to the point that only 10% of oceanic big fish remain. The population problem is being magnified as shells and skeletal structures of marine life begin to disintegrate because the ocean absorbs more CO2 and acidifies. At the predicted 2050 pH levels, shells of pteropods dissolve after only two days. By the end of the century, we could see the extinction of all the world's coral reefs. Coral reefs contain 25% of the world's marine life, and, historically, extinction of coral reefs has accompanied all of the earth's mass extinctions. Research has shown that marine biodiversity loss impairs the ocean's ability to provide food, maintain water quality, and recover from perturbations. Once again, several years after ocean acidification was observed, US governmental agencies finally decided to assess its risks and seek solutions in 2009.

The last of the effects mentioned above is the 400 gigatons of methane and 1.5 trillion tons of carbon in the permafrost that are being released at an exponential rate. I personally find this scenario to be the most realistic and disconcerting impact of global climate change, as it is currently in a positive feedback loop causing ever-larger releases of methane. The positive feedback loop is happening because pockets of methane gas are being released across the melting Arctic ocean, which in turn causes the ice to melt even faster and more methane to be released as temperatures increase. Additionally, as temperatures increase bacteria begin to eat the frozen organic matter hidden beneath the melting permafrost and release methane as a byproduct. The methane released from the permafrost is also a cause of ocean acidification, and similar releases have been cited as a factor in biogeochemical changes in the ocean and atmosphere that is a common explanation for major marine extinctions. As usual, the Obama administration, instead of being proactive to stem the GHGs release, has caved to conservatives (what the Obama administration would refer to as a bipartisan decision) and allowed offshore drilling in Alaska. This drilling would require going through layers of the permafrost that have acted as a lid for methane pockets. Currently, governments are working to determine the viability of methane extraction from the permafrost. However, a challenge facing harvesting is that the permafrost stretches over 5 million square miles, which seems to indicate the GHGs will probably be released before they can be contained.

In the end it seems that without a major shift towards sustainability the effects we experience from climate change are going to become more severe. We need to be more proactive in every step to reducing greenhouse gas emissions or suffer consequences ranging from massive floods to mass extinctions. Hopefully this gives everyone some food for thought and provides some good reasons that climate change needs to be confronted immediately.


PS - I'm not sure if I'm going to make the next post something outside the environment, as all this reading has piqued my interest in the short-term. Thanks for reading! Subscribe to this blog or friend it or whatever happens on blogger.


Gil B. said...

Very informative, Mikey! I'm thankful that you have compiled so much information and analyses into one location. Keep it up. Each of your posts is well-thought out and well-documented, which is a rarity in the blogosphere. I'll spread the good word!

theklalou said...

Brilliantly put together-- not a surprise coming from you of course. Been reading lately about food politics esp. in relation to climate concerns. There is a lot of weird destructive shit going on right now.