Now that the Earth Day hoopla is behind us, it’s time to get back to reality. Actions have consequences and the actions of humans that pollute the atmosphere with carbon dioxide and methane emissions are having consequences far beyond what anyone thought possible.
The Earth’s Axis Is Shifting
In 2002, the first GRACE satellite — a joint endeavor of NASA an the German Aerospace Center — began measuring the Earth’s gravitational field. In 2018, GRACE-FO was launched to continue the research. Now a team of researchers at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing and the Technical University of Denmark have used the data provided by the GRACE satellites to study how the outflow of water from melting polar ice caps is altering the distribution on the Earth’s mass and leading to a shift in its axis. Here is the plain language summary from their report, which was published recently in the journal Geophysical Research Letters:
“The Earth’s pole, the point where the Earth’s rotational axis intersects its crust in the Northern Hemisphere, drifted in a new eastward direction in the 1990s, as observed by space geodetic observations. Generally, polar motion is caused by changes in the hydrosphere, atmosphere, oceans, or solid Earth. However, short‐term observational records of key information in the hydrosphere (i.e., changes in terrestrial water storage) limit a better understanding of new polar drift in the 1990s.
“This study introduces a novel approach to quantify the contribution from changes in terrestrial water storage by comparing its drift path under two different scenarios. One scenario assumes that the terrestrial water storage change throughout the entire study period (1981–2020) is similar to that observed recently (2002–2020). The second scenario assumes that it changed from observed glacier ice melting.
“Only the latter scenario, along with the atmosphere, oceans, and solid Earth, agrees with the polar motion during the period of 1981–2020. The accelerated terrestrial water storage decline resulting from glacial ice melting is thus the main driver of the rapid polar drift toward the east after the 1990s. This new finding indicates that a close relationship existed between polar motion and climate change in the past.”
Going Back In Time
The significance of the new study is that it looks back in time to measure changes in polar orientation that predate the first GRACE satellite. According to The Guardian, the scientists found the direction of polar drift shifted from southward to eastward in 1995 and that the average speed of drift from 1995 to 2020 was 17 times faster than from 1981 to 1995. Since 1980, the position of the poles has moved about 4 meters in distance. “The accelerated decline [in water stored on land] resulting from glacial ice melting is the main driver of the rapid polar drift after the 1990s,” the scientists say.
The research shows that glacial losses accounted for most of the shift, but it is likely that the pumping up of groundwater also contributed to the movements. Groundwater is stored under land, but once pumped up for drinking or agriculture, most eventually flows to sea, redistributing its weight around the world. In the past 50 years, humanity has removed 18 trillion tons of water from deep underground reservoirs without replacing it.
Vincent Humphrey, at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, who was not involved in the new research, tells The Guardian it shows how human activities have redistributed huge amounts of water around the planet. “It tells you how strong this mass change is — it’s so big that it can change the axis of the Earth.” The changes are not large enough to be noticed without precise scientific measurement, but can alter the Earth’s rotation by a few milliseconds.
Conventional wisdom holds there is nothing humans can do that will affect something so enormous as the Earth. This research proves that conventional wisdom is wrong. Jonathan Overpeck, of the University of Arizona adds that changes to the Earth’s axis highlight “how real and profoundly large an impact humans are having on the planet.”
Gambling, Insurance Companies, And Climate Change
The insurance industry is a lot like the gambling industry. It defines a risk — death, ill health, a hurricane ripping off your roof — and then bets it can collect more in premiums and earn more through investments than it will pay out in claims. We seldom think of it, but insurance companies provide the lubrication that keeps the wheels of commerce turning. Investors are hesitant to loan money to corporations unless there is insurance coverage in place to cover most or all potential losses.
People think that governments determine where we live and work but they are wrong. Insurance companies do. And as the pace of climate change accelerates, insurance companies will make the ultimate decisions about what residential, commercial, and infrastructure projects get built.
Most of us assume that places like Miami, which is experiencing floods on a more regular basis, will survive by building new protective barriers. If you visit Miami today, you will see construction cranes dotting the skyline as more and more multi-billion dollar buildings are constructed. Because of COVID, more companies are turning their eyes toward Florida and away from New York City as the place they want their headquarters. But as soon as the insurance industry decides its risks are too great in Florida and stops selling insurance there, the whole economic engine of the Sunshine State will come to a screeching halt.
Bookies will often lay off part of their exposure in big sporting contests onto other bookies. The trick is to spread the risk over the largest possible pool of bettors. Insurance companies do the same thing. They take your money, then use a portion of it to purchase re-insurance from other companies. If the primary company has an unusually large loss, it can look to the re-insurer to cover some of it.
The largest re-insurer in the world is Swiss Re. In a report released last week, Swiss Re warned that climate change will lead to a 10% reduction in economic activity worldwide, with the hardest hit countries being the ones least able to afford the impact of rising seas, hotter temperatures, and stronger storms. A 10% reduction may not sound like a big deal to you, but Swiss Re calculates it will amount to $23 trillion a year.
“Climate risk is a systemic risk and can only be addressed globally. We still have an opportunity to correct course now and construct a world that will be greener, more sustainable, and more resilient. For hazards where confidence of a direct link with global warming is medium/high, such as heat waves, wildfires, droughts and torrential rainfall, we are adjusting our pricing model,” says Jérôme Haegeli, Swiss Re’s group chief economist. “Our analysis shows the potential costs that economies could face should governments fail to act more decisively on climate,” adds Patrick Saner, the head of global macroeconomic forecasts for Swiss Re.
Doing Something Rather Than Nothing
According to the New York Times, the Swiss Re report says if countries succeed at holding average global temperature increases to less than 2º C above pre-industrial levels, economic losses by mid-century would be marginal at around 5% smaller than would otherwise be the case. But current emission levels are far from those targets. Global temperatures are likely to increase as much 2.6º C by 2050 based on current trajectories, the Swiss Re report warns.
If that happens, the economy of the United States would be as much as 7% smaller than in a world without climate change. Other wealthy Western nations, including Canada, Britain and France, could lose between 6% and 10% of their potential economic output. For poorer nations, which tend to be more exposed to warmer temperatures but have less ability to adapt their infrastructure and economies in response, the consequences would be far more dire.
Even if the increase in global temperature is held to 2º C, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand would each see economic growth 20% below what they could otherwise expect by 2050, Swiss Re estimates. At 2.6º C, each country would have one third less wealth than would otherwise be the case.
That’s not the worst case scenario. Swiss Re modeling suggests the economic impact of a 3.2º C increase by 2050, which it described as the “severe case” for temperature gain would lead to a reduction in wealth in Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand of almost 50% compared to a world with no climate change. The economy of Indonesia would be 40% smaller. India’s would be 35% smaller.
Donald Griffin, a vice president at the American Property Casualty Insurance Association, tells the New York Times that if climate change continues unabated, the cost of insurance will become too high in at-risk areas. “We can’t just continue to rebuild in the same way. It’s going to make the product less affordable.”
Swiss Re says, ”The impacts of climate change can be lessened if decisive action is taken to meet the targets set out in the Paris Agreement. This will require more than what is pledged today, with both the public and private sectors working together to accelerate the transition to net zero.”
Last week, President Biden held a virtual summit with leaders of 40 nations during which many made flowery promises to do more to cut carbon pollution…soon. On Thursday, Jair Bolsonaro, the lunatic running Brazil, promised the world he would double his country’s environmental enforcement budget — much of which goes to slow efforts to cut down the Brazilian rain forest. On Friday, he slashed that budget by 24%, according to The Guardian. So much for taking bold and decisive action.
Here’s a parable some of you may find distasteful, and I apologize in advance if it offends anyone’s tender feelings. The parts of the body are having a debate about which one is most important. The brain, lungs, stomach, and various extremities all argue their case. Then the sphincter says it is the most important because if it doesn’t do its job, the body dies. There’s a lesson there for us all. If we don’t contain our waste products, we’re all going to die. Our grandchildren and great grandchildren and their children will never be born.
We simply cannot continue to pollute our earthly home without dire consequences. The death certificate for the human race will state: “Cause of death — carbon dioxide and methane poisoning.” We think it can’t happen to us, but it’s already begun. If we continue to kick the can down the road, someday it will go over a cliff and drag us all down with it. Once we see the cliff, it will be too late to take evasive action, and all because we think we should be allowed to pollute all we want without consequences. Homo sapiens sapiens, indeed.