Most People Have Already Felt The Effects Of Climate Change

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New research published in the journal Nature Climate Change suggests that 85% of all human beings have already felt the impact of climate change, whether because of floods, droughts, forest fires, extreme heat, or even unusual cold spells. The scientists used machine learning to review over 100,000 studies of events that could be linked to global warming and paired the analysis with a well established data set of temperature and precipitation shifts caused by fossil fuel use and other sources of carbon emissions.

These combined findings — which focused on events such as crop failures, floods, and heat waves — allowed scientists to make a solid link between escalating extremes and human activities. They concluded that global warming has affected 80% of the world’s land area, and 85% of all humans live in those areas.

“We have a huge evidence base now that documents how climate change is affecting our societies and our ecosystems,” lead author Max Callaghan, a researcher at the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change in Germany, tells the Washington Post. The study provides hard numbers to back up the lived experiences of people from New York City to South Sudan. “Climate change,” Callaghan says, “is visible and noticeable almost everywhere in the world.”

The report says, “Using Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers (BERT), a state of the art deep-learning language representation model, we develop a machine learning pipeline to identify, locate, and classify studies on observed climate impacts at a scale beyond that which is possible manually. We combine this spatially resolved data set with an approach to attributing observed trends in surface temperature and precipitation at the grid-cell level (5° × 5° and 2.5° × 2.5° cells, respectively) to human influence on the climate. In doing so, we establish a new paradigm for assessing the impacts of climate change across human and natural systems.”

The Politics Of Nope

With COP26 looming, the pressure on nations to raise their game when it comes to limiting climate emissions is intensifying, yet governments still embrace fossil fuel interests, and why not? Most of the energy needed to keep the global economy comes from extracting coal, oil, and unnatural gas. Most Americans are happy just so long as they can afford to fill the tanks for their every larger vehicles. Mess with that and you are messing with powerful forces, as France found out last year when it tried raising the taxes on gasoline and diesel.

A September study in Nature found that 60 percent of Earth’s oil and fossil methane gas and 90 percent of coal must remain in the ground for the world to have a chance of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) — a threshold that scientists say would spare humanity the most disastrous climate impacts.

The American Petroleum Institute couldn’t care less. This week, spokesperson Megan Bloomgren said curbing the country’s energy options would harm the economy and national security. “American energy is produced under some of the highest environmental standards in the world,” she said. That is clearly 100%, Grade A horse puckey. Ask anyone who lives next to a fracking operation or read the reports about methane leaks over the Permian Basin. Pledging to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without cutting back on fossil fuel extraction, activists say, is like a person promising to lose weight while continuing to consume french fries and doughnuts.

The findings come amid a major push to get countries to commit to more ambitious climate goals ahead of a United Nations summit in Glasgow, Scotland, next month. Research shows that existing pledges will put the planet on track to heat up about 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century — a level of warming that would lead to drastic food and water shortages, deadly weather disasters, and catastrophic ecosystem collapse.

Some of the world’s top emitters, including China and India, have yet to formally commit to a new 2030 emissions reduction target. Activists worry that an emerging energy crisis, which has raised prices and triggered blackouts, could imperil efforts to get developing economies to phase out polluting fuels. Despite a pledge to halve emissions by the end of the decade, congressional Democrats are struggling to pass a pair of bills that would provide hundreds of billions of dollars for renewable energy, electric vehicles, and programs that would help communities adapt to a changing climate.

The new research in Nature adds to a growing body of evidence that climate change is already disrupting human life on a global scale. Scientists are increasingly able to attribute events like heat waves and hurricanes to human actions. In August, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change devoted an entire chapter to the extreme weather consequences of a warming world.

Climate Change? What Climate Change?

The human toll of these events has become impossible to ignore. This summer, hundreds of people in the Pacific Northwest died after unprecedented heat baked the usually temperate region. More than 1 million people in Madagascar are at risk of starvation as a historic drought morphs into a climate-induced famine. Catastrophic flooding caused New Yorkers to drown in their own homes, while flash flooding has inundated refugee camps in South Sudan.

In a letter released Monday, some 450 organizations representing 45 million health-care workers called attention to the way rising temperatures have increased the risk of many health issues, including breathing problems, mental illness, and insect-borne diseases. One of the papers analyzed for the Nature study, for example, found that deaths from heart disease had risen in areas experiencing hotter conditions. “The climate crisis is the single biggest health threat facing humanity,” the health organizations’ letter said.

The researchers found there is disturbing gap between climate studies that focus on wealthy countries as opposed to those that examine what’s happening in poorer nations, something they refer to as an “attribution gap.”

In many of the places that stand to suffer most from climate change, Callaghan and his colleagues found a deficit of research on what temperature and precipitation shifts could mean for people’s daily lives. The researchers identified fewer than 10,000 studies looking at climate change’s effect on Africa, and about half as many focused on South America. By contrast, roughly 30,000 published papers examined climate impacts in North America.

In poorer countries, the researchers say, roughly a quarter of people live in areas where there have been few impact studies, despite strong evidence that they are experiencing changes in temperature and precipitation patterns. In wealthier countries, that figure stands at only 3 percent. “It indicates that we’re not studying enough,” Callaghan says, “not that there isn’t anything happening.”

Other researchers claim the problem is exacerbated by a lack of capacity and funding for research in poor countries, as well as researchers’ tendency to reflect the priorities of wealthy nations. But the “attribution gap” makes machine learning analyses like Callaghan’s all the more valuable because they help identify climate impacts even in places where there are not enough scientists studying them.

What If We Don’t Act?

Climate Central has put together an interesting video that uses data from Google Maps to visualize the impact of rising ocean levels will have on some well known cities and points of interest depending on whether we are successful at keeping average global temperatures where they are now and where they are likely to be if we allow them to rise by 3 degrees C. The target set by the Paris climate accords is 1.5 degrees C, but many scientists thinks our failure to respond appropriately to the climate emergency will see temperatures rise by about 2.7 degrees C.

If you prefer to experiment with interactive online photos, many of the images in the video are available online on the Climate Central website.

Will COP26 mark a turning point when the world community finally takes global warming seriously? We can often get clues about the future from examining the past. If so, the odds are against much happening in Glasgow other than a lot of press releases, pontificating, and promises while we go right on polluting ourselves into extinction.

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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." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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