Drought, flood, fire — these are the extreme weather events we fear, as our human capacity to fight them is so limited. In the last 5 years alone, extreme heat waves, floods, droughts, and wildfires have cost significant financial and personal harm as the population and economies expand and the planet rapidly warms.
But early warning systems can anticipate these disasters. If constituents like cleantech entrepreneurs and others have a data-driven climate change toolkit that demonstrates the influence of climate change on real-world weather and climate extremes, we can learn a lot about our planet — and possibly save it. We can cut away inefficiency, develop new green technologies, and build a more sustainable future .
The need for this effort is profound, as the author of a new book argues.
Told in first person narrator, Drought, Flood, Fire: How Climate Change Contributes to Catastrophes, by Chris Funk, is a readable climate science data collection. At the US Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), Funk works every day on predicting and monitoring climate hazards. Funk diagnoses the factors driving extreme events in order to improve the capacity to monitor and predict them, pointing out that the impacts of climate change are arising through the “potentially explosive interaction” of weather shocks, exposure, and vulnerability.
Right now we appear to be headed for a 3 degree C. of warming or more, Funk points out, and this level “would almost certainly have catastrophic and potentially irreversible impacts on our planet’s life support system.”
The Data Behind Climate Change & Catastrophe
Outside our windows sunlight streams down; climate scientists study where that energy goes, what it does, and how it moves through the Earth system. The sun supplies a constant source of high-quality energy, and this energy supports and maintains gradients of many kinds:
- temperature and pressure gradients that drive our atmospheric winds and ocean currents
- chemical gradients that help support the evolving complexity of life
While the perils of natural disasters are not new to humankind, it’s important to remember that life on Earth has only been possible due to a series of delicate balances that arise at all scales of the universe. Funk describes how the Earth occupies a “fortuitous middle ground in the atmospheric arena,” with just the right kind of atmosphere to protect us from the worst impacts of high-energy radiation and enough of a greenhouse gas effect to bring us up to a comfortable average temperature.
Admitting that “I’m fantastically and fatalistically addicted to data,” Funk uses this fascination to demonstrate that warming won’t just manifest as a smooth, low-frequency increase in ocean and atmospheric temperatures. Instead, the author outlines how we’ll see the results of more intense weather and climate extremes — stronger heat waves, droughts, and floods, as well as more intense climate anomalies like El Niños and La Niñas. In fact, the relative contributions to annual emissions have changed dramatically. Between 2000 and 2019, global carbon emissions increased by 50%. Funk says “we are literally stepped on the gas pedal (or coal pedal, actually).”
Understanding how humans can so radically alter the atmosphere so quickly begins with understanding that the atmosphere is extremely thin, says Funk, as well as to differentiate between the atmosphere’s volume and its mass. When we recognize the Earth’s delicate balance, we can see why dumping 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere is, according to Funk, “like 5 people chain-smoking in a small car with the windows rolled up. This is not going to end well, and it is not going well now.” These extremes feed conflict and substantially reduce worker productivity.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report examines the factors contributing to the rapid acceleration of emissions over the last decade, citing 3 primary lines of evidence.
- Greenhouse gas impacts originate from the basic physics of radiative transfer.
- We are experiencing a huge disruption in our climate, and this disruption will manifest itself in the 21st century just as population growth and increasing demands for water, food, and resources place unprecedented strains on our Earth’s ecosystems.
- Agreement between climate model predictions and observed changes is very close, so, if we continue to emit greenhouse gases at an accelerating rate, then 21st century global warming will be “dramatic, dangerous, and disruptive.”
Funk calls upon 3 separate but convergent sources of observational evidence: terrestrial air temperature records, observations of sea surface temperatures, and observations of global sea levels. There is solid observational and model-based evidence supporting the link between a warming atmosphere and more extreme precipitation extremes — such as strong and very rainy hurricanes and cyclones — and clear evidence that these extremes are having deadly and costly impacts today.
Funk says that modest and aggressive reductions in emissions will limit increases in these human catastrophes and attendant human suffering. Including many personal stories about drought, flood, and fire that demonstrate the impact of climate change on humans, sidebars that examine topics in specific detail, images of extreme weather impacts, and graphics that capture evidence-based conclusions, the book offers much evidence that our increased wealth, combined with our increased population, has led to massive increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
Yet Funk concludes the book by arguing that, just as humanity has tackled famine and infant mortality, “so, too, fighting climate change is very much in reach. We can be both wealthy and wise,” the author offers, by investing in highly efficient, high-tech, highly renewable energy. Associated investments in education, infrastructure, and worker education create a sustainable, lucrative, and equitable economy in which many people have good paying jobs.
Funk points to some of the suggestions contained within the IPCC Impacts of Global warming of +1.5C report as mechanisms to “seriously tackle climate change.”
- Reducing carbon and methane emissions by 45% by 2030, reaching zero emissions by 2050
- Switching very rapidly to renewable energy sources
- Rapidly improving the efficiency with which we use energy
- Stopping the burning of coal
- Switching to biofuels
- Planting billions of trees to absorb more CO2
- Increasing investments in low-carbon energy sources and increased energy efficiency
- Taking an “all of the above” approach — simultaneously pursuing reductions in emissions, increases in efficiencies, and increases in terrestrial carbon uptake
The last paragraph of the book contains a reminder that the stories about drought, flood, and fire we tell each other matter and can coalesce into positive change.
“We need to act coherently and quickly to avoid rapid warming. We need to see and understand climate change as something that is hurting people and our planet now. We have been blessed with a miraculous planet, and the opportunity to live through an exciting and momentous time, filled with increasing prosperity and innovation. We can wear the White Hat. Compassion and logic demand that we do so. The great spiritual leaders taught us that ‘peace is a verb,’ telling us stories that eventually led to unprecedented peace and prosperity. We need to make peace with our planet. Climate change is hurting people and our planet; we need to act to prevent that, and we can afford to do so.”