I’m not a climatologist. Neither is anyone that’s warned me about the evils of climate change lately. Like everything else these days, at best we get our information from the news — in other words, a 24-hour 7-day nonstop entertainment program designed to sell advertising and drown out the competition. At worst, we get our news from Facebook memes, Trump’s or AOC’s latest Tweet, or internet rumormongers.
So it’s not surprising that the American public is, for the most part, sadly misinformed about this and, for that matter, every other major issue that impacts our lives.
Because of that, I want to take a few minutes to acquaint you with some things that we know — know absolutely, for certain, as fact. I know them because I’ve sought out scientists and asked them, and because I’ve gone out of my way to read actual scientific papers and honest-to-God books rather than just whatever the news has thrown at me. The raw facts are out there, waiting for anyone willing to take the effort to look for them.
If you haven’t done any of this, you can read on from here and maybe learn something. If at the end you find you disagree with me, you have that right — but in that case, don’t expect me to respect your opinion. In all honesty, if you can’t be bothered to do a certain minimum of homework, you’re better off just believing me and getting on with those parts of your life that, until now, you’ve been thinking were more important. (On the other hand, if you’re an actual climate scientist — don’t hate me for oversimplifying. But do feel free to critique.)
The news is out to sell advertising and politicians are after your votes, but I don’t have a hidden agenda. So trust me, and read, and learn.
Climate Is Not Weather
This really bugs me. Every third news story these days is about how climate change is responsible for the cold winter, the bad hurricane season, the civil war in Syria, and migration numbers on the US-Mexico border. The truth is, each of these can be tied to weather, but none is climate. Here’s the thing: If it’s one winter or one season or five, that’s weather. If it’s a thirty year pattern, that’s considered a good minimum qualification for climate. Climates are big both in time and area.
Yes, the civil war in Syria was exacerbated by a five year famine. And that was, in part, caused by unusual dry winds extending past the normal season for several years running. Could that have something to do with a global average temperature spike of about half a degree Celsius during that time? …well, that didn’t help, but it’s a stretch to say the one caused the other. It’s probably more to the point to observe that conflict in the area prevented farmers from being able to irrigate when the weather went insane.
So no, the hurricanes and the flooding and the plague and the migrants and everything else isn’t climate change. Probably. We won’t actually know for sure for thirty years, by which time it’s going to be pretty late if we were going to try to fix things. So let’s take a deeper look, because it could end up being pretty important.
What Is A Climate?
Right. Before we get too deep into this — and, let’s face it, we’re really only scratching the surface here — we need some definitions. Which is a bit awkward, since a lot of the scientific literature uses terms that are relative only to each other and not to any particular standard. This isn’t because scientists disagree; it’s because everything about climate is interconnected, and their approach makes sense from that perspective. From our point of view, though, it can be confusing.
When the media says things like “the Climate”, usually they’re just spouting inanities — for example: “The climate is changing, and you can’t deny it.” That may be true in a sense, but it’s at the same time too big and too small to be meaningful. If you’re looking for a term that covers the area of the entire globe, you can say “the global climate”, but you should be warned: It’s tough to say anything meaningful using terms that big.
Most of the time when we’re talking climate, we’re talking regions, and usually fairly small ones. California, for instance, is far too large to fall under a single climate classification; it ranges from subarctic to arid desert, though much of it is Mediterranean. Generally, regional climate is created by geographic conditions; the dry deserts of southeastern California are on the far side of mountain ranges too vast to permit most storm systems to pass. Areas that are generally downwind of deserts tend to be drier; downwind of oceans or large lakes, it’s often quite damp. You get the idea.
So when someone brings up “the Climate” and says that it’s changing, what they probably mean to say is better expressed thus: “The statistical aggregate of the world’s combined climate regions is trending in a single direction.”
While I can understand why CNN dumbs this way down, that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
The Climate Is Changing
Oh, all right; fair is fair: The statistical aggregate of the world’s combined climate regions is trending in a single direction. To be specific, it’s getting significantly warmer in a lot of places around the world, and almost nowhere is noticeably cooler — particularly over the past couple of decades.
This isn’t entirely unprecedented. If you’ve read history at all, you’ll have noticed that, once upon a time, the world was very different from what it is today. For one thing, you know that ice-covered massive subcontinent northeast of Canada? Vikings lived in Greenland and named it “Greenland” because it was so green, and this was during recorded history — about a thousand years ago, give or take. Today, it’s not known so much for its lush greenery as it is for its glaciers.
When Washington crossed the Delaware, it was full of big chunks of ice. These days, it’s too chilly to swim at Christmas, but there’s no floes. And then there was the year 1816, known by survivors as “Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death”; presumed to have been brought about by a series of volcanic eruptions, the summer featured monthly frosts. These and other events have been tied in part to the “Little Ice Age”, which was just then ending.
A few hundred years back, explorers kept getting their sailing ships stuck in the ice on their quest for the Northwest Passage, a rumored ice-free navigation channel north of Canada. The reason for this was that there was never a clear channel; it’s pretty cold year-round up there. Except for the past couple of years, mind; it’s been mostly ice-free during high summer for the first time in centuries. (Editor’s Note: There was also a warm period in 1930-40, but pack ice remained solid.)
So climate does change, and it can do so either gradually or very quickly indeed. In point of fact, it’s more correct to say that most of what climate does is change. It’s not particularly stable, not over the course of centuries. And when it does change, it can have a huge impact on humanity. (If you don’t believe me, just go ask those Vikings in Greenland. What — can’t find any? Hmmm…)
Two things that are unusual about the present global trend: It’s global, which is strange but not unknown; and it’s moving very fast (as climate change goes), which is rather alarming. You might have noticed people getting alarmed here and there; some of them are pretty smart.
Climate Can Change Because Of Mankind
I’m not going to start off talking about CO2 levels in the atmosphere, the Earth’s albedo, and thermal retention. That’s all large-scale, and while we can grasp it in theory, it doesn’t mean much on a personal level. It’s difficult to grasp, thus hard to accept — though I assure you the math does work out, at least in theory.
Don’t mistake me: I’m not discounting science. There’s a lot of very smart people doing a ton of work on this subject, and they’re worth listening to. But science is one thing; understanding can be something else entirely, especially for those of us who aren’t scientists. Fortunately for our purposes, we can stick with things that are both easy to understand and well-documented; that ought to be plenty.
A little while ago, I mentioned the arid desert in southeastern California. There’s desert there in part because the mountains block storms from passing through. (Some of the gamers among you are ahead of me; I can tell.) Now, imagine blasting the tops off all those mountains for a hundred miles, and letting some of the seasonal rains in. Picture what that might do to the desert.
Remember: This is not something that’s beyond our technology; in fact, we’ve been doing projects on this scale since Boulder Dam, the transcontinental railroad, and the Panama Canal. We can go back further in time; the Romans irrigated thousands of square miles of what is now the Sahara Desert and cleared, paved, and farmed most of Italy. If you don’t think that changed the local weather patterns, you’re not paying much attention.
The history of England provides us with another example, one that’s very well documented. At the height of the Industrial Revolution, so much cheap coal was being burned in the midlands and especially around London that both local and regional weather patterns shifted dramatically. Rains became more frequent; winters were worse — and the resulting fogs and smogs became legendary for both thickness and duration. As civilization industrialized and the cities grew, the air got progressively worse. Many fled the country for their health; Robert Louis Stevenson is one of the better known expatriates.
It’s important to grasp that the impact wasn’t restricted to the cities; the history of the Peppered Moth clearly demonstrates that the effects of coal soot were widespread, and meteorological logs of the time also bear it out. That people died en masse from the effects of the poisonous smogs is equally well-documented; they generated thermal inversions over London, trapping the toxic vapors for days on end. Hundreds suffocated in Edwardian times until gas became more popular, and then again just after the Second World War, when coal was plentiful but other sources of heat were rationed. Eventually, after the Great Smog (1952-3) event killed thousands, steps were taken to restrict coal burning in England — but it took more than a decade to be even largely effective.
Again, lest you think this either local or unique, there have been many other similar recurring events, all well-documented, in medium and large cities around the world. The most recent was also the most widespread, in China in 2013. This last led directly to a major effort by the Chinese government to clean up their industrial machine.
These are compelling instances of manmade climate change, but for something truly convincing, I suggest a close look at the recent history of California. This epicenter of vocal environmentalism is also the prime example of how not to sustainably use land — particularly the Lake Tulare region, about which whole books could be written. If you thought my mountaintop example was extreme, just keep reading.
Lake Tulare used to be vast, with thousands of square miles of tributaries, supported by both seasonal rains (the only reliable water one sees in southern California) and a very few standing waterways. In the ranching days, earthen dikes were built to support cattle and horses and the seasonal water was retained and used throughout the year. But when vegetable growers moved in after the Civil War, bit by bit the lake and its tributaries were drained and diverted for irrigation purposes. The lake is now dry farmland. And, as a direct result of the massive water diversion both for agriculture and to supply the unsustainably huge population of Los Angeles, southern California is now in a near-continuous state of wildfire drought which alternates on rare occasions with catastrophic flooding.
There are dozens of examples of manmade change to local climates in this country alone. The horrific mismanagement of both the California redwoods and Yellowstone caused massive regional impact. The Dust Bowl was the result of five years of drought piled on top of decades of bad farming practice. There’s a hundred square miles of dead seawater at the mouth of the Mississippi due to agricultural as well as industrial runoff. And of course there’s the unprecedented multi-year algae events in Florida. All of these were caused by human activity; all are well-documented; all caused long-term shifts in weather patterns.
This is not weather. This is climate. And people changed it.
The Global Climate Aggregate
Local and regional climates change on their own. More often, they change because of something that happened upwind, or because the winds themselves shifted. I’ve just given half a dozen convincing examples of ways in which human activity has caused disruption and damage, and there’s more where those came from; you’ll notice I haven’t once mentioned rainforests, for instance.
And yet there are those who will remain skeptical; each of these examples is local or at the most regional, after all, and the earth and its oceans and atmosphere are very very big. Some will point out that each time Mt. Etna or one of its volcanic brothers belches, millions of tons of soot and ash are released into the atmosphere. Then too, we’re burning less coal than we were during the Industrial Revolution, and the globe didn’t warm up then, did it? Wasn’t this “Little Ice Age” caused by the Samalas eruption or something — meaning we should be cooling rather than warming?
Each of these objections has some merit, and some of them appear fairly compelling. And, while I’m very well-read on this subject and I’m pretty smart, I’m no climatologist; I can barely grasp the math that went into some of the climate models I’ve been reading. But I can sketch in some of the broad strokes.
First, the global climate isn’t simple; neither is it a single thing, but an aggregate made up of many dozens of local and regional climates. Each impacts the others, and as humanity spreads and human activity increases, there can be few left unchanged. These changes may well be small, but their existence is undeniable.
With respect to volcanoes: Yes, they add tons of ash and gas and soot to the atmosphere; it’s constant, and over time it filters back out. But when more is added, the impact becomes larger — and the forests that do the filtering never increase, particularly as agriculture, cities, and pavement continue to grow. (Editor’s Note: There was a brief period when forest fire prevention increased tree cover, particularly in North America, but that time is long past.)
Finally, about the phrase “global warming”: You may notice I’m not relying on it. From what I’ve observed and read, the consensus on the present trend is one of warming, but that may just be a temporary spike. There’s a lot of smart people who are quite certain it’s not temporary, but I can’t really speak for them; for all I know, we’re apt to see another ice age in a few years. Thing is, I’m not sure that’s any better than warming would be.
The only thing I can tell you for absolute certain here is that human activity will absolutely have a measurable impact on every regional climate on Earth. Think about the things I’ve told you and I believe you’ll have to agree.
Speculation: On Consequences
Not long ago, a brilliant journalist named Earl Swift wrote a book about the way climate change is going to impact Tangier Island. (Buy a copy; it’s absolutely excellent.) If you’ve never heard of this place, just think of it as the source of about half the crab to come out of Chesapeake Bay. And, after hundreds of years of human habitation, it’s sinking into the sea.
Swift goes into all the factors that could be causing the island to shrink, from erosion to subsidence, but he focuses on sea level rise. Personally, I think he’s wrong to do so; tectonic plate movements as a result of receding glaciers in the far north are, to my mind, by far the biggest culprits — and they result from climate change. Which is why I’m mentioning the book here, in case you’d wondered.
It’s not a positive thing that the Northwest Passage has opened up. Unimaginable amounts of ice have melted and the oceans have risen a bit, but one of the many things that follows receding glaciers is massive earthquakes. I’m not talking any measly 5.8 event like the one that cracked the Washington Monument a few years back; no, I’m referring to the big smashers that raised the Rockies. Bear in mind: I’m not saying this will happen tomorrow or even this century, but it’s definitely one of those things that takes place when glaciers recede. That much ice is heavy, and removing it will cause the underlying plate to move likewise.
A lot of press has been given to the phenomenon of sea level rise, and it’s worth mentioning again. An inch or two of extra ocean may not seem like a lot, but appearances are deceiving: much of the southeast United States could easily turn from swampy forest into uninhabitable tidal marsh with a couple of inches more seawater. But it’s not the everyday average level that’s the real trouble.
By the time Hurricane Sandy hit New York in 2012, its power was mostly spent. Even so, much of lower Manhattan was flooded with both seawater and about a hundred million gallons of raw sewage. Had the storm been a tiny bit stronger — and it might well have been — damage in the Commercial District alone would have been incalculable. Increase the sea level by two inches and most of New York City would have been rendered uninhabitable. As it was, the storm did upwards of $40 billion in damage.
If the mean ocean level rises even a couple of inches, over time the barrier islands running from Cape Fear south along the Atlantic coast will be wiped away. Much of Florida will suffer massive storm damage. New Orleans and Houston will sink beneath the waves, but that’s nothing new; they’ve each been doing that for centuries, and yet we keep building there in the tidal swamp — in Houston, they build in the storm drains and on top of the dikes.
Trouble is, when it floods, someone has to pay for it — and if it all goes at once… well, a tenth of our population lives in New York City alone. It’ll be like the Zombie Apocalypse without the zombies. Seriously: Food distribution breaks down; there’s no fresh water; hordes of city folk flee to the countryside — and the economy takes a massive hit, as ten trillion dollars worth of valuable real estate turns to river mud.
I want to be clear: This is just the stuff we are absolutely certain about. We don’t know that it will happen, much less exactly when, but we are completely certain that it can happen at any moment, and as the global mean temperature increases, so to do the odds.
You’ll notice that I’m not bringing up subjects like the demise of the coral reefs, the impact on biodiversity as millions of species of beetle go extinct, or anything else that isn’t going to immediately change your way of life. If Tangier Island sinks, the price of crab doubles; if Manhattan washes away, we’re talking an economic crash that’ll make 9/11 seem like a walk in the park.
The Good News
These things aren’t inevitable. Both Tangier Island and Manhattan can be protected by raising massive seawalls; the cost will be vast, but nowhere near that of leaving them to the mercy of the elements. Trouble is, we need to have begun construction ten years ago; tomorrow could well be too late. And remember: It’s not just those two spots, but vulnerable cities all along both coasts — and that’s just in this country. Most big cities in the world are at river mouths along the coast, or sitting astride tidal rivers further up. All else aside, building that many seawalls is gonna take a lot of rock, which nobody has started quarrying.
On the other hand, despite the doom and gloom, we’re actually well on track to reducing the impact of manmade climate change. The IPCC reports are freely available on their website, and I’d encourage you to take the time to study them. If you lack the time or inclination, however, let me instead refer you to this one paper from 2011, based on the model using modern mitigation technology. (This is the best and most likely of four models, ranging from best to worst.) If even this is too much — and I can certainly understand not wanting to read it; it’s quite technical — I’ll summarize: We’re looking at a viable path forward that leads to a plateau in human impact on the climate, and eventually to a decline. Further, this predates the Chinese efforts that followed the 2013 smog events. Bottom line: Things are very probably looking up for the world, if only we behave sensibly.
Bear in mind, these papers all date from before Donald Trump abandoned the Paris Climate Accord. On the other hand, many of the states have left the regulations unchanged, technology continues to advance in abatement and solar power (thank Elon Musk and Tesla), and the United States is hardly the only — or the worst — polluter in existence. In the short term, the impact from this and other Trump decisions may be severe, but over decades the global climate effects are likely to be minor.
The Bottom Line
In the short term, we’re likely to see some unpleasantness from the present climate shifts. Melting permafrost, receding icepack and glaciers, sea current and jet stream movements — all of these things are inevitable, and they will have cascading impacts going forward. Tornadoes will hit in strange places and out of season; massive storms will appear from nowhere; arctic cold will swing about wildly. There will almost certainly be a few small, local, or regional calamities that will be exacerbated by increased global mean temperature.
On the other hand, there’s cause for cautious optimism going forward. Aside from a few dogmatic deniers, most of the world’s decision makers understand that, generally, excessive pollution is a bad thing. There exist global climate conferences and commissions, some of the best minds in the world are working on this, and there’s genuine international cooperation aimed at reducing emissions — all of which is excellent news. We’re gradually transitioning away from coal and fossil fuels, and abatement methods continually improve as research continues.
We’ll probably lose Tangier Island, and the price of crab will double. A few other bad things will happen, but we can hope that there won’t be many. And, if we work together on some simple and effective fixes — seawalls and the like — we can make it so the coming troubles aren’t so bad.
Nevertheless, climate change is real, and humans can cause it. Don’t waste time denying this; you just make yourself look dumb. In general, don’t believe every story you read in the paper or every meme on Facebook; think before you reTweet. But this I’ll say again, because it’s Gospel truth: Climate change is real, and humans can cause it.