Scorching heat, swarming insects, floods, blizzards, hurricanes, drought, fever. These could be coming soon to a neighborhood near you!
Scientists warn that extreme weather events are likely to become common, and that ecosystems face permanent change. As animals migrate northward, creatures that have never approached your part of the world may soon be dwelling in your backyard, as with the beetle infestations that have hit previously untouched parts of Canada.
Temperature changes have all kinds of consequences, some predictable, many unpredictable, altering this complex sphere of climatic and biological systems upon which we all depend for our comfort, our food, our every breath.
Recent heat waves in Europe, flooding in London, drought in the Midwest, and fierce hurricanes may or may not be signs of climate change. Weather is notoriously unpredictable; here in Maryland the recent warm winter was followed by unexpected snowstorms, while this summer has been filled with flash storms while farmers face drought.
Am I projecting my own fears? Does all of this seem appear to be effects of climate change only because I am expecting such effects? I cannot know for certain, since looking at a single or a couple of events over a brief period of time meaning little when predicting broader change.
What is certain is that scientists who have been studying climate change for decades from a variety of perspectives tell us it is happening and that it will be bad. Indeed, the weather on any given day can no longer be called completely “normal,” that is unaffected by human intervention.
The hurricanes that lashed Florida and Louisiana in 2005, for instance, would almost certainly have occurred had the industrial revolution and the subsequent 150 years of increasing greenhouse gas emissions never happened. Yet, without the warmed-up ocean currents to stir them up, they would probably not have been as bad [mongabay, pew], while coastal erosion and wetland destruction further enhanced their impact.
Altered weather, and consequent changes to the fabric of natural life, are becoming commonplace. A search through Environmental News Network stories from a single month, July, reveals the following headlines, all from respected news sources such as Reuters and the Associated Press:
Some people can live with the death of such exotic species as polar bears, penguins, and sea turtles. Some claim that they will enjoy basking in the warmer weather. Some believe that global warming will have both losers and winners. But humans cannot be long-term winners; in the long run only such creatures as cockroaches will come out ahead, as competition from more complex and vulnerable species diminishes.
Apocalyptic scenes of destruction are not new in the human imagination, nor from the mouths, pens, or typewriters of environmentalists. Thomas Malthus and, hundreds of years later, Paul Ehrlich, foresaw a future of mass starvation as the human population, growing exponentially, overshot its ability to produce food.
The dust bowl of 1920s gave a glimpse of an America with ravaged land turned to desert. Rachel Carson saw an America drenched in pesticides and other chemicals, with massive die-offs of birds, fish, and other species, a barren, denuded landscape. In all cases, technological advances and better management, in combination with political and social mobilization, averted the predicted catastrophe.
Yet never before have so many scientists from so many nations presented such an array of dire predictions. The danger is deeper and more widespread than before, and takes a longer-term commitment to avert. Europe seems most aware, as quotes from the above articles emphasize: “Water shortages in the Mediterranean, flash floods along the Rhine and summers so hot that nuclear power stations can’t cool down.
This is what Europe can expect as its climate warms over the next decades”. According to British Finance Minister Alistair Darling, “Climate change is not a passing trend. It is a reality we must factor into everything we do”.
The U.S., whose mammoth energy consumption contributes the most of any country to climate change (although China is a close second), is very late in awakening to the danger. We need fast and drastic action to simultaneously fight a complex network of harsh effects.
Simultaneously, we must attack a cause that seems to have become integral to every aspect of our way of life—massive reliance on fossil fuels. As in past crises, fabulous new technologies are arriving to help us, yet they will do little without a full mobilization, social and political as well as scientific. It remains to be seen whether we will be able to counter this latest, and greatest, environmental threat. The prognosis does not look good.