Cascading Climate Change Events Could Resemble “A Terror Movie” By 2100

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Warmer average global temperatures are producing stronger storms with higher winds and more rain, droughts, wildfires, rising ocean levels, scarcity of clean water, flooding, and heat waves. But we ain’t seen nothin’ yet, warns a study published November 19 in the journal Nature Climate Change entitled “Broad threat to humanity from cumulative climate hazards intensified by greenhouse gas emissions.” The authors suggest that by 2100, many parts of the world will be dealing with a combination of all those climate change related issues simultaneously, according to the New York Times.

global warming

An Interdisciplinary Approach

What sets this report apart from other similar studies is the interdisciplinary approach taken by lead author Camilo Mora of the University of Hawaii at Manoa and 22 colleagues. Together, they reviewed 3,000 scientific studies covering all aspects of climate change and its affects on the Earth. In most cases, those studies focused on one element of the problem, like ocean acidification or desertification. By reviewing a wide range of available research, the authors were able to identify the interrelated affects of many climate change factors.

Co-author Kerry Emanuel of MIT has this to say about the interdisciplinary approach. “There’s more than one kind of risk out there. Nations, societies in general, have to deal with multiple hazards, and it’s important to put the whole picture together.” The abstract of the report reads as follows:

“The ongoing emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) is triggering changes in many climate hazards that can impact humanity. We found traceable evidence for 467 pathways by which human health, water, food, economy, infrastructure and security have been recently impacted by climate hazards such as warming, heatwaves, precipitation, drought, floods, fires, storms, sea-level rise and changes in natural land cover and ocean chemistry.

“By 2100, the world’s population will be exposed concurrently to the equivalent of the largest magnitude in one of these hazards if emisions are aggressively reduced, or three if they are not, with some tropical coastal areas facing up to six simultaneous hazards. These findings highlight the fact that GHG emissions pose a broad threat to humanity by intensifying multiple hazards to which humanity is vulnerable.” 

Like A Terror Movie That Is Real

Some parts of the world may not need to wait 80 years to experience the confluence of multiple challenges from a warming planet. Florida right now is dealing with extreme drought, record high temperatures and wildfires. On top of all that, parts of the state’s Panhandle were devastated when Hurricane Michael — a powerful category 4 storm — came ashore in October. Score four simultaneous climate change impacts for Florida this year alone.

In California, the situation is similar. The state is in an extended drought exacerbated by record high temperatures and a spate of incredibly destructive forest fires, the most recent of which killed more than 70 people trapped by the ferocity of the inferno.

Dr. Mora recognizes that people tend to dismiss threats that are perceived to be far in the future. “We as humans don’t feel the pain of people who are far away or far into the future. We normally care about people who are close to us or that are impacting us, or things that will happen tomorrow.” He says people are prone to telling themselves, “We can deal with these things later; we have more pressing problems now.” But, he adds, this research “documented how bad this already is.” Mora says the prospect of dealing with up to 6 climate related issues at once in coming years is “like a terror movie that is real.”

How climate change affects people depends largely on socio-economic status, Mora says. “The largest losses of human life during extreme climatic events occurred in developing nations, whereas developed nations commonly face a high economic burden of damages and requirements for adaptation.” In other words, people in industrialized countries see harm from climate change mostly in economic terms. Citizens of developing countries pay for climate change with their lives.

The people at Esri have created an interactive map to illustrate the points made in the study. Viewers can manipulate the map by date and location to see the likelihood of multiple climate change stress factors occurring anywhere in the world for the rest of this century. The map illustrates the threats that may occur if no action on emissions is taken versus some action.

Michael Mann Comments On The Study

Michael Mann, the noted climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, says the new research adds to the urgency for immediate, dramatic action to slow the pace of global warming.  He says it shows “the costs of inaction greatly outweigh the costs of taking action.” He was not involved with the research or the writing of the report.

Earlier this year, Professor Mann published a paper focusing on how changes to the jet stream as the Earth grows warmer are contributing to a range of extreme events from heat waves in North America, Europe, and Asia to wildfires in California and flooding in Japan. He says the study by Dr. Mora and  his colleagues fits well with his own research and “is, if anything, overly conservative” in  that it may underestimate the threats and costs associated with anthropomorphic climate change.

IPCC 6 And You

There has been no lack of warnings recently about the dangers the Earth faces from higher average temperatures. The latest IPCC 6 climate report says humanity has only about 10 years to take dramatic action to curb carbon emissions. Another recent report says if we keep doing what we have been doing, average global temperatures will likely rise by as much as 9 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century.

What will it take to get nations and the business community to take the threat of climate change seriously? Sadly, for many the idea of spending money to address the problem is just too painful to contemplate when there are lavish executive compensation plans to fund and shareholder value to be created. But as Michael Mann suggests, as expensive as addressing climate change may be, not addressing it will be infinitely more costly.

Humanity being unable to see much beyond the end of next week, the only thing that might save us is the economic imperative that underlies virtually all human endeavor. The amount of renewable energy is increasing dramatically around the world not because utility companies have suddenly decided to polish their green credentials but because wind and solar cost less money than conventional methods of generating electricity. Manufacturers large and small are bringing fleets of electric delivery trucks to market not because they worry about rising ocean levels but because they cost less to own and operate than conventional vehicles.

The immutable laws of economics — rooted as they are in avarice and acquisitive behavior — have gotten us into this mess. All of human commerce today is predicated on the energy provided by fossil fuels. Only those same laws of economics can save us. If it is cheaper to preserve the environment than destroy it, that is what people will do. We can only hope a reordering of economic priorities takes place before the oceans close over the isle of Manhattan and other coastal cities.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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