Thursday, July 28, 2011

Wake-up call #5: Climate change

So far in this series about our planet's big problems, I have looked at the end of the Oil Age, the looming shortage of fresh water, the gap between rich and poor, and the millstone of debt that is dragging down nations, provinces, states, and cities.

The final problem, climate change, is perhaps the most dangerous, and the most intractable, of all.

This blue marble that supports almost 7 billion souls is a complex system that has demonstrated great recuperative powers over the centuries. It will likely survive for eons to come, although possibly without us.

The scary stories are coming thick and fast now.
July 14: Geophysicists predict a perpetual, never-ending, drought for the entire U.S. southwest by mid-century, caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

July 20: This year is headed for a record melt of Arctic sea ice. In the first half of July, an area roughly the size of Pennsylvania melted into the sea every 24 hours.

July 25: Warming in the Arctic is causing the release of toxic chemicals long trapped in the region's snow, ice, ocean and soil, according to a new study.
While average sea levels could rise as much as 2 metres in this century, even a more plausible 0.8 metres will threaten many coastal cities and low countries. The degree of change will vary from region to region.

If this were a disaster movie, we could settle in with a bag of popcorn to enjoy the thrills, but this is reality. Yet we seem unable to mobilize ourselves to deal with it. In fact, climate change seems to have become yesterday's issue, after a brief turn in the spotlight of public attention.

Meanwhile, scientists are pointing out that the greenhouse gases we have already put into the atmosphere have already committed us to a significant amount of global warming and sea level rise. A Canadian computer modelling study this year reaffirmed that global warming will happen, no matter what.

So the emphasis now must be on mitigating the effects by reducing emissions of greenhouse gases and adapting to the inevitable higher temperatures and sea levels.

But what will it take to get us pushing our political leaders, our neighbours, ourselves to take action?

Famine in Africa and drowning polar bear cubs will not do it. The wake-up call must significantly threaten our way of life in North America and Europe, and it must do so with immediacy --- a clear and present danger.

Countries will need to get on a war footing, which means giving the assault on climate change the highest priority, and then attack it on all fronts --- legislative, social, scientific, and industrial.

It will be expensive. Oops, the treasuries are empty. We are already in hock up to our eyeballs. Oh, boy.

What can we expect?
• Greater temperature extremes.

• Depletion of the ozone layer that protects us from the sun's ultra-violet rays.

• Significantly more rainfall and snowfall in some areas, and long droughts in others.

• More intense, more frequent, and more unpredictable, weather events --- blizzards, hurricanes, tornadoes, electrical storms, flooding, droughts.

• More smog days in urban areas.

• Melting glaciers and polar ice, higher sea levels.

• Famine in the developing world.

• Possibly much worse if thermohaline circulation , the planet's ocean current temperature regulation system, shuts down.

What will be needed?

We shouldn't be surprised by:
• Increased need to protect skin and eyes from stronger UV rays.

• Declining interest in golf and other outdoor, summer sports.

• Tolls and permits that discourage driving of automobiles in urban areas.

• Stringent emission standards for all vehicles, and the demise of large cars with big engines.

• Encouragement/incentives for telecommuting.

• Incentives encouraging reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by both industries and homes.

• Restrictions and prohibitions on barbequing and outdoor fires.

• Engineering of crops that can withstand drought.

• Severe water restrictions, and emphasis on capture of rainwater for domestic use.

• Retrofitting homes and industrial buildings to conserve energy.

• Tree planting and roof gardens.

• Reflective cool roof projects.

• Replacement of old infrastructure that was not designed for energy efficiency or to withstand changing climate conditions.

• Increased reliance on renewable energy sources for generation of electricity. Expect to see lots of wind farms and solar panels.

• Development of new alert and response systems for climate and health threats, including infectious, waterborne, and tropical diseases.

• Building dams to contain glacial lakes created by retreating glaciers.

• Tethering icebergs to prevent them drifting into warmer waters and melting.

• International efforts to mitigate severe food and water shortages in developing countries.

• Giant flood barriers to protect major cities from exceptionally high tides and storm surges moving up rivers from the sea.

• Huge, almost fanciful, geo-engineering projects designed to combat or counteract the effects of global warming. Such (unproven) proposals include ocean fertilization to remove CO2 from the atmosphere; injection of sulfate particles or sulfide gases into the stratosphere; storage of CO2 in depleted gas reservoirs and other geological formations; space mirrors; reflective clouds; and so on.

• Much more that has yet to be conceived, in response to changes we can not yet imagine.

A hopeful thought:

Might this be the survival threat that prompts the nations of the world to work together?

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Doug. Scary,though. Unfortunately it will probably be at the 11th minute of the 11th hour before we see any international coöperation.