The Cassandra Syndrome: Prediction, Uncertainty, and Fear of (Climate) Change, Part Ten

The final installment of a ten part series which considers the warnings of climate scientists in the context of historical revolutionary scientific theories that met strong resistance from guardians of the status quo…

by: Arthur Hoyle

Read Part One Here! Read Part Two Here! Read Part Three Here! Read Part Four Here! Read Part Five Here! Read Part Six Here! Read Part Seven Here! Read Part Eight here! Read Part Nine here!

Part Ten — What We Can Do – Mitigation and Adaptation

There are two orders of response to climate change, one being mitigation, the other adaptation. Both can be pursued simultaneously. Mitigation seeks to limit the extent of climate change, adaptation prepares for its impacts. Mitigation measures can be scaled to targets for stabilization of CO2 concentrations and global temperature, which are directly related. Lower emission rates mean a slower rate of temperature increase. Adaptation entails changes to our physical infrastructure and living patterns that accommodate the consequences of climate change, such as building sea walls to counter sea level rise. It is urgent that we undertake mitigation measures immediately in order to prevent human-induced global warming from reaching the level of “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate. The longer we delay mitigation, the shorter becomes the time window for adaptation, and the fewer our options.

To stabilize CO2 concentrations and global temperature at tolerable levels, we must make immediate cuts in greenhouse gas emissions. At current emission rates, CO2 concentrations will reach 450 ppm by 2030. Reversing this upward trend will require large-scale changes in our energy systems and land use practices. Fossil fuel use in all our economic sectors must rapidly be phased out, and replaced by other sources of energy, including nuclear energy and renewables (solar, wind, wave). During the transition, emissions can also be reduced by improved energy efficiency and conservation.

Tropical deforestation, which releases huge amounts of carbon and destroys a source of carbon storage, must be halted. To hold the global temperature increase to 2° C or less by 2050, emissions must fall by 70% of their 2010 levels, and be at or near zero by 2100, according to model projections. These are daunting objectives.

Mitigation efforts must be undertaken on a cooperative, global level. More advanced countries, such as the US and Canada, must transfer their technologies to developing countries, and aid them in slowing population growth, a major driver of climate change. Eighty percent of the world’s people live in developing countries that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Consumption levels, a key factor in energy use, must also be reduced, especially in the advanced countries, whose 20% of the world’s population consumes 80% of its resources.

Mitigating climate change carries economic costs. Estimates vary widely according to the extent of the mitigation scenarios that are implemented, and are expressed as losses in global consumption. The scenario that brings CO2 concentrations to 450 ppm by 2050 will reduce global consumption by 1.7% in 2030, 3.4% in 2050, and 4.8% in 2100. The dollar estimate of the cost of decarbonizing the energy system is $US 44 trillion. This would be offset by savings of $US 115 trillion in fuel costs.

The risks of inaction on climate change are considerable. The level of risk increases with global temperature. The risks include:

  • Risk of death, injury, ill-health, or disrupted livelihoods in low-lying coastal zones and small island developing states and other small islands, due to storm surges, coastal flooding, and sea level rise.
  • Risk of severe ill-health and disrupted livelihoods for large urban populations due to inland flooding in some regions.
  • Systemic risks due to extreme weather events leading to breakdown of infrastructure networks and critical services such as electricity, water supply, and health and emergency services.
  • Risk of mortality and morbidity during periods of extreme heat, particularly for vulnerable urban populations and those working outdoors in urban or rural areas.
  • Risk of food insecurity and the breakdown of food systems linked to warming, drought, flooding, and precipitation variability and extremes, particularly for poorer populations in urban and rural settings.
  • Risk of loss of rural livelihoods and income due to insufficient access to drinking and irrigation water and reduced agricultural productivity, particularly for farmers and pastoralists with minimal capital in semi-arid regions.
  • Risk of loss of marine and coastal ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for coastal livelihoods, especially for fishing communities in the tropics and the Arctic.
  • Risk of loss of terrestrial and inland water ecosystems, biodiversity, and the ecosystem goods, functions, and services they provide for livelihoods.

The least developed countries are most vulnerable to these risks because they have limited ability to cope. (IPCC, Climate Change 2014, Summary for Policymakers, p. 13)The magnitude and breadth of these risks has become a matter of widespread public knowledge through media reports of impacts that have occurred. These reports have reduced the number of people in the US who doubt that climate change is happening. But this increase in public awareness and concern has not led to political action to accelerate mitigation steps. In fact, under our present Republican administration, the opposite is happening. Consequently, the emissions rate is increasing. Political upheavals in Europe, South America, Africa, and the Middle East are generating both migrations of people and nationalistic resistance to the migrants, signs that climate change is disrupting society on a global scale.

Even though many of the risks cited above have already been incurred, there is still time for us to take adaptive as well as mitigating steps. The steps taken will vary according to local needs, but will fall under the following broad headings (IPCC, Climate Change 2104, Summary for Policymakers, p. 28):

  • Human development (education, health, housing)
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Livelihood security (especially for indigenous people)
  • Disaster risk management (remember Hurricane Katrina?)
  • Ecosystem management
  • Land use planning (agriculture and forestry practices, urban development)
  • Structure and physical modifications (sea walls, water storage, road and infrastructure improvements, technology innovations)
  • Institutional changes (laws, policies, financial systems)

The urgency of the climate change threat projected by models has already been felt through impacts that have actually occurred. Some of the most commonly experienced of these impacts are (IPCC, Climate Change 2014, Summary for Policymakers, pp. 30-32):

  • Decreasing Arctic sea ice cover
  • Retreat of glaciers
  • Decreases in forests
  • Range shifts of plants and animals
  • Death of coral reefs
  • Increased coastal erosion
  • Reduced fisheries production
  • Degradation of indigenous livelihoods
  • Increased wildfires
  • Increased flooding & drought intensification
  • Thawing of permafrost
  • Stagnation and decline in wheat yields

Stabilizing the climate and adapting to its change will require a transformation of people’s beliefs, values, world-views, and aspirations. It calls for a consciousness shift comparable to what humans underwent in the transition from magical to rational thinking during the ancient world, or from the geocentric to the heliocentric model of the universe. We can no longer think of ourselves as the lords of creation, and of the planet as a resource to be endlessly exploited to satisfy our need for “progress.” We must become Gaia’s partner, not her adversary.

Climate change presents us with an enormous challenge. But it also gives us an enormous opportunity to correct many of the imbalances in the global community, to improve international relations, and to advance the technological underpinnings of society.

Let’s get on with it.

 

Appendix: What You Can Do

Climate change is a global challenge that affects every living person. Just by breathing we are emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. This may seem insignificant, but there are 7.7 billion human beings on Earth. Add in livestock, pets, and wild animals, and the CO2 count becomes significant—about half of total emissions, according to James Lovelock. The point is not to stop breathing, but to be aware that we are in this together. There are several actions we can all take to help meet the challenge of global warming.

Stay informed. Climate scientists are continually publishing the results of studies in scientific journals, and the important findings are often summarized in mainstream media. The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times frequently cover climate science. If you do not subscribe to these newspapers, you can still read the articles online. Climate science findings are updated on major government and other institutional websites. In addition to the IPCC (www.ipcc.ch), there is NASA (www.nasa.gov), NOAA (www.noaa.gov), The Global Carbon Project (www.globalcarbonproject.org), and The U.S. Global Change Research Program, which publishes the National Climate Assessment (www.globalchange.gov). The Heat is Online (www.heatisonline.org) is a private website maintained by the environmental journalist Ross Gelbspan.

Inform Others. Use social media to share links with Friends on Facebook and Followers on Twitter.

Write to your local, state, and federal representatives urging them to make climate change a priority policy issue.

Vote for candidates who accept the findings of climate science. Dump the deniers.

Be energy efficient. Lower thermostat in winter, raise in summer. Turn off lights. Observe speed limits when driving. Require gardeners to use electric, not gas-powered, leafblowers. Install solar panels on your home. Don’t eat beef.

Further Reading. There are a number of recently issued books on climate change and its challenges:

Preparing for Climate Change by Stephen H. Schneider and Michael Mastrandrea 

Economic Risks of Climate Change: An American Prospectus by Trevor House 

Storming the Wall: Climate Change, Migration, and Homeland Security by Todd Miller 

Greening the Global Economy by Robert Pollin 

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells 

 

Arthur Hoyle is the author of The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur, published in March 2014 by Skyhorse/Arcade. He has also published essays in the Huffington Post and the zine Empty Mirror. His second non-fiction book, Mavericks, Mystics, and Misfits: Americans Against the Grain, will be published later this year through Sunbury Press.

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