Cloudy With a Chance of Chaos

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Cloudy With a Chance of Chaos

by Eugene Linden

January 17, 2006 (Fortune Magazine) - Climate change may bring more violent weather swings -- and sooner than experts had thought.

A disturbing consensus is emerging among the scientists who study global warming: Climate change may bring more violent swings than they ever thought, and it may set in sooner. Lately John Browne, the CEO of BP, has been jolting audiences with a list of proposed solutions that hint at the vastness of the challenge. It aims at stabilizing the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere at about double the pre-industrial level while continuing economic growth. To do that, carbon emissions would have to be reduced ultimately by 7 gigatons a year. A gigaton, or a billion tons, is even bigger than it sounds. Eliminating just one, argues Browne, would mean building 700 nuclear stations to replace fossil fueled power plants, or increasing the use of solar power by a factor of 700, or stopping all deforestation and doubling present efforts at reforestation. Achieve all three of these, and pull off 4 more equally large-scale reallocations of capital and infrastructure, and the world would probably stabilize its carbon emissions.

There's just one catch: Even change on this vast scale might not stop global warming.

What if the secret behind civilization is that we've had really good weather? Humankind has prospered and multiplied during one of the most benign climate eras in the history of the planet. And the past 2 centuries -- which witnessed the great expansion of the Industrial Revolution, a 6-fold increase in human population, the triumph of the consumer society, and the rise of the integrated global economy -- have been particularly stable. One would have to go back 115,000 years to find a time as tranquil and warm as the present.

Even so, during the relative calm of recorded history, climate has periodically turned angry. While this moodiness is but a shadow of the cataclysmic weather violence of the Ice Ages, it has been sufficient to shake or destroy civilizations. A sudden cooling and drying 8,200 years ago set back the development of the first cities in the Fertile Crescent. Some 4,000 years ago, decades of drought accompanied by howling winds scoured the Mesopotamian plain of the Akkadians, the most powerful civilization of the region. The Mayans never recovered from intense drought in the first decade of the 10th century A.D. Were it not for the Little Ice Age that thwarted the expansion of Viking civilization just 6 centuries ago, Europeans living in Canada and the U.S. might be speaking Norse rather than English.

Now climate is changing again. Most scientists recognized the reality of global warming more than a decade ago; most also agree that humans play a role in the changes. The consensus on climate change has solidified to rival the medical consensus on the dangers of smoking--but in the matter of climate, public perception has yet to catch up. Like the tourists on Phuket beaches who stood and gazed at an oncoming tsunami because it was outside their experience, society is reacting to the coming wave of climate change without urgency. People still believe that the science is controversial and the threat of climate change far off in the future; and while a few businesses, notably major insurers, have begun to adapt, governments are responding only slowly, as the lack of progress at this fall's international forum in Montreal showed.

The wave is coming, though. The last decades of the 20th century saw an unmistakable and extraordinary warming. During this same period, we suffered by some measures the strongest El Niño in 130,000 years and a swarm of statistically extraordinary droughts, floods, and other weather extremes. In 2005 precedents continued to fall, as wave after wave of tropical Atlantic storms continued right through the end of the year. The hot ocean waters that helped nurture storms in 2005 may also play a role in an intense drought in the Amazon rain forest, normally one of the wettest places on earth.

These and other weather surprises make scientists uneasy because they resonate with a new understanding of how climate changes. Just 40 years ago the consensus was that climate shifted from warm to cold and vice versa, smoothly and over many centuries. Since the early 1990s, however, scientists have been coming to see climate change as less like a dial and more like an on-off switch. The transition from, say, warm to cold is far more abrupt--taking decades, not centuries--and far more chaotic than previously supposed (though still not as fast as in The Day After Tomorrow, the 2004 disaster flick in which a new Ice Age arrived in a matter of days). Scientists now compare such transitions to the flickering of a flame or a fluorescent bulb--where the "flickers" may be quite violent, marked by fluctuations in temperatures of more than 18°F in just a few years, as well as extreme variation in wind speeds and precipitation.

The Earth's heat distribution system has already begun shifting massively, in response to rising levels of greenhouse gases. Precipitation patterns, the change of seasons, storm intensity, sea ice, glaciers, temperatures on the tundras--all are in flux. As scientists nervously monitor sea and air currents for signs of major shifts, many believe that today's proliferation of weather extremes may be the prelude to another epochal transition--a possibility first flagged by the great oceanographer Wallace Broecker in the journal Science in 1997.

How bad could it get? Imagine Europe suffering floods and heat waves on a vastly greater scale than those endured in 2002 and 2003, while northern regions experience intermittent deep freezes as atmospheric and ocean circulations struggle to find new equilibrium. At the same time, droughts and floods not seen since ancient times would afflict some of the most densely populated regions on earth. The probability of drought in the American breadbasket would rise, and along with it the possibility that the U.S. grain surplus--which accounts for the dominant share of world grain exports--would disappear.

A flickering climate wouldn't just clobber countries with the wealth and technological resources to try to cope. It would affect every part of the planet, and in so doing reduce the resiliency of the global community. With every nation dealing with local emergencies, it would be more difficult to mobilize resources to aid victims in other areas, and there would be fewer resources to mobilize.

Municipalities around the world would struggle under the burden of greatly increased demands on funds to maintain and repair basic infrastructure. Forget about safety nets--FEMA and its ilk would be bankrupt. In the world's tightly coupled markets, financial tsunamis would surge through the system, leaving banks and corporations insolvent. Financial panics, largely absent for more than 70 years, would return with a vengeance.

Here at home, a flickering climate would impose an enormous tax on every individual and business. Property values in most places would plummet as buyers disappeared and costs of insurance and maintenance soared. The upper-middle-class American family, today so well protected against external shocks, would find its layers of insulation gradually stripped away as fuel, food, jobs, and social order became less certain. Katrina's aftermath exposed how quickly extreme weather can reduce an orderly society to dysfunction.

Some of the calamities that may happen--droughts that last more than a century, an advance of arctic zones southward, incessant and epic storms--simply overwhelm the imagination, when we try to envision them in a world of 6 billion people depending on an exquisitely balanced food system. Earlier civilizations destroyed by climate did not have modern technologies or markets as a bulwark against nature's stresses. But changing climate won't challenge only markets and economies; it will stress the environment too, and by decimating ecosystems, we have undermined crucial buffers against weather extremes.

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