I've been reading George Monbiot's _Heat_ and Joseph Romm's _Hell and High Water_, as well as the excerpts that are drizzling out of the new IPCC climate change report. It is depressing stuff, because we so very far away from doing the work necessary to arrest climate change.
I talked to my mother in law about this issue recently, and she asked me why it was that she (and most people - I am not picking on my MIL who is generally a very smart and well informed woman) had never heard the consequences of climate change laid out as bluntly as I was doing. She said that clearly there must be some scientists who disagree with me, because otherwise we'd all know.
Well, part of the reason we don't know is that groups funded by the good folks at Exxon and Phillip Morris and others are working very hard to give the impression that there is a lack of scientific consensus on global warming - which is difficult, because the consensus is at least as solid as the one on whether smoking causes lung cancer. There are excellent documentations of this in a Mother Jones article that came out in 2006 and in Monbiot's book - I encourage people to read about the huge sums of money going out to mislead us. My personal favorite is the website "junkscience.com" which is funded by Exxon, phillip morris and fox news, and which took it upon themselves to debunk my "Ethics of Biofuels" article - I can't say that I've ever been prouder of an honor, that these assholes thought I was worth lying about. The government's duplicity on climate change is currently under investigation, and if they have not been shredded, I think we'll see some very interesting documents about the ways the White House pressured scientists to mislead people.
But there are a couple of other reasons why the information hasn't been laid out as bluntly as it could be. The first is that if we were to acknowledge what was forthcoming, we would have to do something real about it, and the changes that are fundamentally necessary are painful ones. No politician wants to be the one to tell people that we have to produce 80-90% fewer emissions. And the second reason is that WE DON'T CHOOSE TO KNOW. This last one is really important. There are many people who read the Very Important Paper and its articles on climate change, have seen Al Gore's movie (which, admittedly, does not emphasize the harshest outcomes, but still could easily lead one to do some personal research), and simply don't want to think hard about it. They don't want to register that the consequences of their inaction are part of the problem. Most of us are perfectly willing to devote hours to researching what movie to see, what restaurant to try, what the spring colors will be and who the new contestants on American Idol will be, but they have put much less mental energy into thinking about climate change than about any of the above. And if that continues to be true, the consequences will be disaster. We both have to take an unflinching look at the problem, and also at our own complicity. And since no politician with enough courage to say what is necessary exists, we who will have to live through this must call now for change - we must say "we are willing to endure great difficulty to preserve something for the future."
With the goal of having this happen, I've synthesized information for both sources to give a sense of what the next century will look like through the eyes of four people - my sons. My oldest child was born in 2000, my youngest in 2005. We are a long lived folk, and if they are fortunate, they might well live to see 2100. A child born in 1900 who died in 2000 might have lived through scores of wondrous things - beginning without electric lights or running water, riding in horse-pulled buggies, and ending driving a car, using a computer and living in a world where almost anything seems possible. For my children, born right around the turn of the 21st century, the experience, if we do not arrest climate change, will be very nearly the reverse of that of the child born in 1900. That is, in every way my children's lives will be poorer, sadder, less promising and more dangerous as they approach 2100. This is the exact opposition of what parents want for their children. And yet, that is the world we are bestowing upon them.
I do not miss the irony that my children, because of their number and the culture they are living in are contributing to the problem - despite the fact that we consume significantly less than the average family, my children contribute much more to global warming than almost any children in the world. In October of 1999, when the six billionth person on earth was born, she was declared to be a little girl from India. I was pregnant with Eli then, and it is worth noting that that little girl's future is endangered in part by the ordinary luxuries of my children's lives. We should not forget her presence as we go through this century - in fact, it is very important that we not. Wealthy nations are literally killing poor people by the millions by our choices, and climate change is poised to accelerate this - it may well be that we are killing other people's children by the billions by the middle of the century, all so we can have our cars and our computers. We need to start calculating the cost to other people of our actions.
I would also remind readers that this assumes that the *only* crisis that faces us is climate change, which is almost certainly not the case. I will discuss how things like over fishing, peak oil, peak natural gas and agricultural depletion complicate this picture in a second part to this essay, coming up when I get around to it. But for today, let us just pretend that climate change is the only thing that matters, and that we can vault ahead a few years, to 2025.
Eli will be 25 years old, and the young woman from India will be 26. Now both Romm and Monbiot, and most climate change science I have read agrees on one thing - that the climate change we anticipate up to 2025 is already pre-ordained. There is little or no chance that we can avoid this much disaster. We've already done the deed, and we must live with the consequences. It is possible we could make things worse than this, if we work hard enough, but whether or not we change our lives, we are committed to this level of transformation. It may be that we are even further committed that that - a 2 degree change in world temperatures is considered to be a point at which things begin to take on a life of their own. Soils are less able to absorb carbon at high temperatures. Permafrost in the northern hemisphere begins to melt and emit carbon and methane. The Antarctic ice sheet begins to be seriously affected. The rainforest begins to die and our ability to capture carbon is significantly reduced. Polar Bears are probably toast. And the Potsdam Institute has argued that there is at least 30% chance that we have *ALREADY* exceeded this limit, according to Monbiot. But I will choose to stay within optimistic limits, and assume that if we work hard and fast, we can prevent the worst of things.
When Eli is 25, the world will be considerably different than the one I was born into, particularly for coastal residents. I grew up very near the ocean, and the ocean shaped my and my thinking. My friend Laura Yim, from Hawaii, once argued that people who live near water really do think differently. And I think there's some truth there, although I can't quantify it. But in 2025, coastal areas will be much more dangerous places than the ones we live in presently. We'll most likely be having hurricane seasons like the one in 2005 on a regular basis. Virtually all of Eli's beloved grandparents live near the coast, and all will be in their 70s and 80s in 2025. It is extremely likely that none of them will be able to age in place in their homes, because the hurricanes will be too frequent and elderly people are often unable to do what is necessary to escape them. By 2020, no matter what we do, world sea levels will have risen significantly, and the Greenland ice sheet will probably have melted - whether we want it or not, we can no longer avoid that disaster. There are currently 75 million people in danger from storm surges - that number is predicted to rise steadily over the next decades to 200 million. Imagine an evacuation and dispersal and rebuilding project on the scale of New Orleans first every five years, then every 3, and finally, the abandonment of the most dangerous places, no matter how much we value them.
In addition, rising sea levels will mean that countries like Bangladesh that are below sea level will begin to be reclaimed steadily by the sea. 1/3 of Bangladesh will probably be underwater by 2025 Millions of people will be refugees from the sea, including, most likely, our own parents. But our parents will have the luxury of escaping to family - relocating millions of desperately poor people displaced by sea level rises will far more horrible. Monbiot observes,
“...the connection between cause and effect seems so improbable. By turning on the lights, filling the kettle, taking the children to school, driving to the shops, we are condemning people to death. We never choose to do this. We do not see ourselves as killers. We perform these acts without passion or intent” (Monbiot, 22)
One of the consequences of our actions is that 2025, each of us in the first world who hangs on to our luxuries and priveleges will be, documentably, killing people by our actions on regular basis. We do this now to a degree, but the level of our homicides will rise demonstrably. I don’t know if Eli, who is autistic, will be able to understand that he is part of a people who every year will, by their choices and without passion, kill more people than Hitler. What kind of person will that make us? How will we view ourselves/ How will we live with ourselves? What kind of children will that create, when we have become unconscious monsters?
As sea levels rise, salt water will contaminate many of the coastal cities of the world's drinking water. Mumbai, Bangkok, Lima, Tokyo, Miami - all of them depend on groundwater sources that are not so very much above sea level. It may well be by 2025 that some of those cities are rendered uninhabitable, and the populations too turned into refugees. Certainly, island nations like Tuvalu and native peoples in Alaska will have lost their homes entirely. Try, for a moment, to identify. Imagine you live in a place where your home, and your family's home, where the graveyards of your deceased family members and your whole world and community are. Now imagine that because we can't stop burning fossil fuels far away, that whole world is going to be destroyed. Is it hard to imagine? Well, wait a few years and you won't have to if you live in an American coastal city.
Some 10% of the animal species in the world will be extinct. Eli has trouble with language - but he knows Zebra, Rhinoceros, Tree Frog, Polar Bear, Walrus. There is an excellent change that 2025, some of those animals will no longer live in the world with us. They will be gone forever, as mythical as the dinosaurs that so fascinate my children.
We can expect more heat waves, and more drought over the next few decades. In the southwest, according to Elizabeth Kolbert, who derives the figures from NASA, the probability of severe summer drought every summer in the southwest approaches 100% in climate models. The Midwest is nearly 50%. Much of Australia is 75%. We can anticipate that the heat waves will kill more people - yet another reason our now-elderly parents will probably not be able to stay in their own homes, because elderly people, including millions of baby boomers, will be terrifically vulnerable to heat death.
By 2030, we can expect China to have had grain yields fall by 30%. The same is true in Europe and the US - and since in 2007 we are already eating our grain reserves, we can expect hunger to start affecting people all over the world, including people in the US.
Drought in many of the world's bread baskets make famine a virtual certainty in some places. Ethiopia is already experiencing famine caused in part by climate change induced drought. A child Eli's age in Ethiopia will go hungry much of the time. I do not know about Eli. The little girl in India will almost certainly experience food shortages, water shortages, disease from water contamination, and massive heat waves. There is a not-insignificant chance that that little girl may not be alive in 2025 because of our actions in the west.
Whether or not we have famine and drought, by 2025, the world will be under considerable economic stress. Several estimates suggest that we may have to devote up to 30% of the *world's* wealth to remediate the effects of climate change. That means billions and billions of dollars that could have done other things will never be used for bringing safe water to that child in India, or improving access to AIDS treatments in Africa. And it will almost certainly strain the economy of the US, and such strains are never good for disabled people. By 2025, Eli will have aged out of the school services offered to children, and because he is autistic may (or may not) still be unable to live independently. We can expect to see the costs of dealing with global warming take priority over the needs of the most vulnerable people in the US. So my husband and I anticipate that fewer resources will be available for our son, and that we will probably have to both care for displaced parents and also for our disabled child. We adore him, and we do not particularly regard this as burdensome, but we are also very fortunate. For millions of parents who have more disabled children, climate change will almost certainly do them direct, specific harm.
The rest of this is a little more speculative, but not very. It is possible that we will succeed in stopping climate change, but as I noted earlier, there is a 3 in 10 chance that it is already too late - that we're already committed to our 2050 future. And a recent report in Science http://climateprogress.org/ demonstrates that we may have significantly underestimated the rate at which sea levels rise. We are already nearly 1/2 way there 2 degree warming - we have only a decade, at most, to reduce our emissions down by 17 times the amount we were prepared to reduce them under the Kyoto treaty.
By 2050, the Arctic ice will be gone, and the permafrost will be mostly melted. The world's temperatures will have risen significantly. Simon will be in his late 40s, possibly a father himself, and trying to envision the world his children will grow up in, while struggling (we hope not too much), to care for his aging parents who will be in their 70s and 80s. Simon at five is fascinated by geography, so it is disturbing to know that much of the world that he lives in will be different. Much of Micronesia, for example, will be gone entirely. Major cities that may be abandoned by this point because of repeated flooding and lack of fresh water include Miami, New Orleans, Shanghai, Manila, Jakarta, Bangkok, Kolkata, Mumbai, Karachi, Lagos, Buenos Aires and Lima. The actual shape of the world will be different, as chunks of our land become sea again.
Simon loves rainforests. He's fascinated by the animals that live in them, and the environment itself. By 2050, enormous parts of the worlds' rainforests will become savannah, as the heat and increasing drought turn them into grasslands. Thousands of species that live only in rainforests may well die. Simon knows all their names now - Tapir, Quetzal, Gorilla, Capybara... I wonder, when they aren't there anymore, will he still know their names? The loss of the rainforests will accelerate global warming, and displace millions of indigenous people. It will be the end of medicines and plants that can live only in that environment. Up to 1/3 of the planet's total biodiversity will be gone.
Almost 2/3 of the world's population relies on rice, which likes warmth and humidity, but not too much. Rice cannot flower (and thus set the seed we eat) at above 35 degrees Celsius. Rice yields fall by 15 percent with every degree of warming according to the International Rice Research Institute. By 2050, with between 3 and 4 degrees of warming, rice yields may well have fallen by 1/2, putting more than half the world’s population of people at risk of hunger and starvation.
Our own food depends on adequate water and reasonable temperatures, both of which are likely to be in short supply. A recent analysis of the potential consequences of global warming for California suggests that by mid-century, much of California will be experiencing severe water famine. Simon has a cousin, Jake, in LA. Will Jake have anything to drink? Will he, like children in India, walk each day to fill his bucket from an contaminated well, or wait for the water trucks to arrive in the hot sun? The same report argued that California's agriculture will be largely dead by then. Will Californians be the new Okies, abandoning their state? California has done more than almost any state in the nation to minimize emissions, but it has not been enough.
Much of the western half of the US will no longer be able to produce food - so the east will have to take up the slack. Will there be enough to around for Simon and his family? Or will everyone sit, watching the harvests and praying? Wars are often fought over scarce resources - water has already fueled wars. Will Simon watch his children march away to fight over food or water somewhere? Where will I pray for my grandchildren to come home from?
The young woman born just before the turn of the millennium in India might even be a grandmother by now, if she still lives, despite the floods and the water shortages, the hunger and heat waves. She and Simon will be thinking about the future. What will they see. Will they have much hope? Certainly, they will not be able to dream, as parents do, that their children’s future will be better than their own lives.
In 2075, Isaiah will be 72 years old, and he will certainly be elderly in a world much less friendly to seniors than the one his grandparents aged into. Food shortages, if we do not stop climate change, are likely to be widespread. By 2075, tropical diseases may make it to our area. Malaria was once endemic as far north as Connecticut - it will be back. Millions of children worldwide die from malaria every year - there is a chance that one of my great-grandchildren will be among them.
Isaiah loves to visit his grandparents in Boston and New York City. By 2075, both cities may well have to be abandoned. The odds are that Isaiah will never take his children on a ride on the swan boats, or to the museum of natural history if we don't stop climate change. The history of those places, and a million places we value around the world will probably be gone. There may be no British Museum, no Sydney Opera House any longer. My great-grandchildren will learn about the places that many of the most important events of their history took place - but they will never see them, and those places will be very different than they are today.
Isaiah may tell his grandchildren fairy tales about creatures that once were - snow leopards and polar bears, walruses and penguins. They will most likely be only stories. And too, he will tell them the fairy tales of what it was like to never be hungry, or too hot, sick from tropical diseases or to have economic security. His grandchildren will dream of snow - even in upstate NY. The costs of dealing with climate change now begin to exceed entire GNPs. Nations go bankrupt just trying to feed and house their people - the estimated costs of facing climate change now permanently curtail the economy, meaning that millions of people struggle to get by. Famine is widespread all over the world.
Much of the ocean is now too acidic and too depleted to support life. Back when Simon was in his 40s, most harvestable fish in the world had already been eaten. Now the very capacity of the ocean to produce life of any kind is being eroded. The coral reefs are gone.
And Isaiah has grown up and into old age in a world where literally billions of people have died because of the actions of human beings who did not care enough to stop it. How will that change him? What kind of person will he be, knowing that he is the product (and the victim) of a society full of people who knew that we were killing children in Ethiopia and Bangladesh, and knew that we were killing our own grandchildren, and still didn't stop. I would hope that my children would love and remember me at the end of my life, and after my death. I wonder if we can hope for that, given the world we are bestowing upon them. Will they understand that we didn't really mean it? I don't think I would.
At the end of this century, in 2100, Asher, my baby who has just taken his first steps, will be 95 years old. G-d willing , he will still be around to remember the world he was born into. By this point, sea levels may have risen enough to inundate every nation up to 30 miles from the coast. Much of his past and his family's past will have been given back to the seas. The world's temperature may have risen as little as 6 or as much as 11 degrees. If it is the latter, there is a good chance that the question Asher will face at the end of his life is the question of whether anyone will be alive by the end of the next century. The world will be as warm as it was at the time of the Permian extinction, when much of the planet's life suddenly died off.
The climate of upstate NY will probably be similar to the climate of Georgia, and may be as warm as south Florida, but as dry as Israel. The glorious green lushness of the place I live may well be gone, and Asher and his family will attempt to feed themselves from a place utterly different than the one he was born into. Much of the earth will be desert. There will certainly be fewer people and less wealth.
His world will bear less resemblance to the one we live in that any of us can imagine. Who knows what the biggest losses will be, what my sons will remember and mourn. Or perhaps they will not remember - the last time temperatures rose so much virtually all of the four footed animals on earth died. Perhaps there will be no one left to remember. I do not know. But we must work under the assumption that the worst case scenario is possible, and that whatever we must do to avoid this is worth the short-term consequences.
The price may be high. We may have to give up our air conditioners, our 70 degree winter homes, our vacations, our private cars, some of our wealth and a good deal of our comfort. But so what? Isn't it worth it?
I will discuss solutions and the impact of things like peak oil in my sequel, forthcoming. In the meantime, the best thing that anyone can do is cut radically back on your emissions, consumption, driving, and other carbon behavior, and then *TELL PEOPLE* - tell your government, tell your friends, tell your neighbors. Explain why, and you would choose, voluntarily, to have less so that others can live.