In my previous article, I talked about the need to think broadly across space and time in order to comprehend climate change.
Before I continue with my second principle for thinking about climate change, it is important to make something clear. As I hope will become apparent throughout my articles, the severity of the challenge we are facing is far beyond what any individual can do acting alone. These articles do not intend to shame anyone. If you have to drive a truck for work every day, it’s not going to help anyone if you quit your job in order to keep emissions down. If any of us is guilty, we’re all guilty, and in that case, blaming doesn’t do anyone any good (though attempts to shut down discussion on the topic, or mislead with bad science are reprehensible). What’s required is collaborative efforts to force larger governments to make the deeper changes that are needed. I will discuss this in more detail in future articles.
For now, on with the second principle: Climate science is not uncertain.
Let me clarify. There are a lot of things scientists don’t understand about the climate. They don’t know, for example, when the Arctic sea ice will disappear during the summer melt, which will have huge impacts on the climate. There are too many contingencies involved in such an event for it to ever be predictable with any certainty.
It is difficult is to predict where and when individual events will happen; even exactly what a season will look like, “Will next years winter in Wawa be warmer or colder than this one?”. That is what we call weather, and the weather forecast becomes much less accurate as you get to five to seven days out (and if you’re in Wawa right next to the inland sea, weather forecasts can be even less certain, as we all know).
What is very well understood is the basic physical mechanisms involved in climate. Climate can be thought of as the pattern of weather systems that emerge as heat attempts to equalize itself across the globe. It has been known since the 1850s that carbon dioxide (CO2), which is emitted from the burning of carbon-based fuels such as coal and oil, acts as a greenhouse gas, trapping heat within the atmosphere. We know that if the earth had no greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, the whole planet would be covered in ice.
It was as far back as 1896 that the first scientific prediction was made that if we continued to use carbon-based fuels, we would eventually emit enough CO2 to warm the atmosphere. The prediction was made by a Swedish scientist named Svante Arrhenius, who later won the Nobel Prize for his work in chemistry.
60 years after Arrhenius’prediction, in 1957, Hans Suess (a physical chemist and nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project), and U.S. geologist and oceanographer Roger Revelle concluded in an article that“human beings are now carrying out a large-scale geophysical experiment of a kind that could not have happened in the past nor be reproduced in the future, ”brought about by the amount of CO2 being added to the atmosphere ().
A decade later in 1968, a study paid for by the American Petroleum Institute and conducted by the Stanford Research Institute concluded that the burning of fossil fuels would bring “significant temperature changes” by the year 2000 and ultimately “serious worldwide environmental changes.”
As the 1968 paper indicates, the general consequences of this warming are also well understood. For example, we have long known that sea levels would rise as the earth warms, causing not only significant property damage but the mass migration of people. We have also long known that warm water evaporates more quickly than cool water, and that a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. This is why sweat lodges and saunas work.
So while we do not know where a specific event will happen, it was entirely predictable that hurricanes would become more powerful and begin to carry more moisture, creating more significant rainfall events, and causing extreme amounts of devastation from flooding. This is exactly what has happened, for example in Houston when Hurricane Harvey arrived in 2017.
Moreover, it has long been expected that significant rainfall events would become more frequent. This is why I was so confident in stating in my letter “people are pissed,” which was published in the Wawa-News this winter, that we should pay attention to the recent floods in Houghton, Michigan. I had no idea it would flood in Ontario this spring, but it is very well understood that significant precipitation events are becoming more frequent.
To make what happened in Ontario this spring more concrete, here is Bracebridge Mayor Graydon Smith speaking on their flood event: “This is something way outside the normal margins. Unfortunately, we thought 2013 was a hundred-year event, and here we are six years later.” And then, a few days later, as things got even worse: “It’s safe to say what we are dealing with right now is a historical event…. Putting it in the context of 2013, this is now its own animal,” he said.
The only thing that is surprising, is that the changes are occurring faster than many governments have expected. We are now too late to avoid very dangerous levels of warming, and we are far down the path to unavoidable catastrophic warming, which may sound alarmist, but will become more clear in my next article.
Returning to our first principle, if we consider the record flooding that occurred a bit farther from home, in the U.S. midwest, we can begin to see how it’s not just what happens here that matters. The result of the extreme flooding there has been that farmers are very far behind on their spring planting. It wouldn’t take many such springs before all of us would be noticing the consequences.
To put this another way, we’re not concerned with increasing temperatures because we might burn to death. Certainly not in Wawa (though other parts of the world will become uninhabitable, leading to mass migrations). We do need to be aware of the way that a thousand small disruptions have a cumulative effect, and this includes things happening seemingly far from home.
“But Leo,” you might say, “life seems to be going on pretty well, and pretty much as normal. Why such urgency?”
That leads us to the third principle which I will cover in the next article: understanding why climate change is so dangerous requires thinking in terms of delayed consequences.