Two weeks ago, I gave a keynote presentation about anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD) at a large sustainability conference in Chico, California. During the question-and-answer session following my talk, a student asked me what I thought the world would look like by 2050. His question stopped me in my tracks. I had to pause and take a deep breath, to prepare myself emotionally for what I had to tell him.
Here is the gist of what I said: Based on years of research for my forthcoming book, The End of Ice, along with my work compiling these monthly climate disruption dispatches for four years now, I know that by 2050, we will be inhabiting a dramatically different planet. I believe we will already have tens — if not hundreds — of millions of climate refugees from sea-level rise and conflicts born of lack of food and water. What we currently call extreme weather events (massive floods, droughts, hurricanes) will have long since become the norm. In the US, growing food in the Midwest and the central valley of California will be extremely difficult, if not largely impossible, due to shifting weather patterns of rainfall and drought. Some swaths of the world, including the Gulf states in the Middle East and parts of the US Southwest, will be largely uninhabitable due to simply being too hot. Greenland and the Antarctic will both be experiencing dramatically advanced melting, and most of the glaciers in the contiguous 48 US states will have long since ceased to exist. And given that we are officially already amidst the Sixth Mass Extinction Event of the planet, which humans triggered, the biological annihilation that comes with this is happening apace.
This portrait might seem far-fetched to some. But to understand that this is our future, all we need to do is look at what is already happening around the planet.
In early March, Arctic sea ice hit record lows for that time of year. Along with stunningly warm temperatures for the region (which scientists called “crazy, crazy stuff”), researchers there are continuing to scratch their heads about the dramatic ACD-fueled changes besetting the Arctic.
The biosphere is convulsing.
Unchecked ACD — which appears likely to continue, since governments (particularly that of the United States) are not preparing to undertake the kinds of drastic mitigation measures that might have any impact — will dramatically degrade global fish catch over the coming centuries, and may well reduce total oceanic plant life for a millennium, according to a recent study. The study also noted that these changes cannot be reversed until the climate cools.
The amount of warming humans have already caused on Earth is, according to a recent study, likely already enough to melt more than one-third of all the world’s glaciers outside of Antarctica and Greenland, regardless of ongoing efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions. The study analyzed the lag between global temperature increases and the retreat of glaciers and found a relatively slow response of glaciers to planetary warming. Researchers noted that it will take until 2100, at least, to see any benefits from serious mitigation efforts over the next decades — assuming those efforts actually happen. One of the scientists involved in the study told Carbon Brief that this glacier loss is already “baked in” to the system and has been overlooked, which essentially means “we really are on course to obliterate many of these mountain landscapes.”
Meanwhile, a recently published World Wildlife Fund report has predicted catastrophic losses in the world’s forests: As much as 60 percent of the plants and half of all the animals are predicted to disappear by 2100. if temperatures rise by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (1.5°C). The scientific consensus states that a 1.5°C rise is a given; in fact, some prominent scientists believe an increase of 3.2°C by 2100 is most likely, given current national commitments. If emissions remain unchanged, which is the current actual trajectory, a 4.5°C rise is the forecast. It is worth noting that oil giants BP and Shell are planning on 5°C of planetary warming by 2050.
Taking all this information in is necessary if we are to see the world clearly and live our lives accordingly.
The World Bank recently warned that if dramatic intervention doesn’t occur on the ACD front, 140 million people across three regions (sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, Latin America) of the Earth will become refugees between now and 2050.
An example of one of the factors driving such mass movement of people can be found in California, where a recent report citing nearly 90 different studies found that warming temperatures could alter where key crops grow across that state. Bearing in mind that California produces roughly two-thirds of all the produce in the US, the report notes that ACD could decrease the yield of some of the crops grown in California by as much as 40 percent by 2050.
In Vermont, warming temperatures, particularly during the winter, are causing extreme weather events and unpredictable rainfall, which experts recently warned was making forests across that state particularly vulnerable to ACD. Boreal forests and moose populations will be the hardest hit, warned the study.
The world’s northernmost regions have not escaped extreme weather. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, known as the Doomsday Vault, was created to protect the world’s seeds in the event of cataclysmic ACD impacts or nuclear war, whichever comes first. Disturbingly, it is now in need of an upgrade, thanks to ACD. Norway, which built and maintains the vault, is having to invest $13 million to upgrade the vault to make room for more seeds and make it more resilient, given a recent flooding event there. Last year, flooding at the entrance of the vault prompted the Norwegian government to begin looking into the upgrade, which is now going to move forward.
Bad news also abounds for Earth’s animal species. A recently published study in the journal Nature Climate Change showed that Antarctica’s king penguins could be extinct by 2100, due primarily to ACD impacts and overfishing.
In Florida, research revealed recently that nearly all the sea turtles being born there are female, due to higher temperatures. Obviously, if this trend continues, which it almost assuredly will, there will be no more sea turtles in Florida.
Meanwhile over in Europe, the authors of a recent report out of France’s National Museum of Natural History and the National Centre for Scientific Research showed a “catastrophic” decline in France’s bird populations. The trend signals the possibility of Europe’s farmland turning into desert, a situation that would ultimately threaten all human beings. The scientists warned of a wider crisis of biodiversity — or lack thereof — across that continent, with ACD impacts and pesticides to blame. This comes on the heels of concerning news of a 76 percent decline in the abundance of flying insects in Germany over the last 27 years.
As is often the case in the spring, the watery realms of the planet are where the ACD impacts are most evident.
Widespread ongoing winter drought across the US, from Kansas, Oklahoma and Missouri to the Dakotas, Texas and California, have many farmers worried about this year being a repeat of 2012, the worst drought in the US since the Dust Bowl. At present, the winter drought is worse than it was in 2012.
The problem extends beyond those states. In Colorado, at the time of this writing, snow would need to fall at 200 percent of the state’s average through the end of April for its snowpack to catch up to normal. Water managers there are keeping a leery eye on reservoirs as summer looms on the horizon.
Colorado is not an anomaly. Snowpack across the Western US has been dramatically lower than it was a century ago. A recent study showed the average snowpack in the west has dropped by nearly one-third since 1915. That is equivalent to the decrease we’d see from permanently draining Nevada’s Lake Mead, the single largest man-made reservoir in the US.
Changing weather patterns and warmer year-round temperatures have scientists in Western Canada — a place you wouldn’t think needs to worry about water issues — worried about running out of water in the future. For example, in 2017 there was a record amount of snowfall in one region, but even all that snow was still not enough to prevent a drought on the southern part of the prairies below it. The changing climate there also means the snowpack is melting faster and earlier than usual, which means that water is moving through river basins faster and leaving them dry before the end of summer.
On the other side of the world, New Zealand is experiencing similar concerns. Its alps have become incredibly barren, as a recent aerial survey shows how the loss of snow there is now being called “extreme.”
A recently released UN report on the state of the world’s water warned that more than 5 billion people could suffer water shortages by 2050 due largely to ACD and increasing demand.
Furthermore, extreme weather events like major floods and extreme rainfall events have surged more than 50 percent this decade alone, and are now happening four times more often than they were in just 1980, according to a recent paper.
Meanwhile, seas continue to rise. A recent NOAA report warned that sea level rise will rapidly worsen flooding that is already happening in coastal communities around the US. The report warned that some cities will see flooding on a daily basis by 2100.
Adding to this, another recent study showed that lakes on the Greenland Ice Sheet are now forming further inland, meaning they are now potentially threatening to speed up ice flow once they drain to the glacial floor.
In Antarctica the news is no better. The absence of sea ice near that continent over the past six weeks (as of the time of this writing) has deeply concerned scientists conducting research there.
In addition to paying attention to large, continental changes, it’s important to take note of ACD-driven shifts on the level of microorganisms. A recent report showed that excessive rates of carbon dioxide (CO2) affect the health of critical microorganisms in the oceans, which could potentially undermine the base of vital marine food chains. This is happening largely due to ocean acidification, a result of ACD.
Given the low snowpack levels across much of the Western US, this summer is already expected to be another above-average wildfire season for much of that part of the country. Since snowpack functions as a water source through much of the summer, when warmer temperatures cause it to melt off faster than normal, drier conditions ensue.
Meanwhile in Australia, more than 70 homes and buildings have been destroyed in a fast-moving bushfire in New South Wales, while separate fires destroyed 18 properties in Victoria. Local authorities there described the fires as the worst of Australia’s summer season thus far.
As is always the case with extreme weather events, none of these fires can be solely attributed to ACD. However, climate disruption’s impacts are a key contributing factor to how often they occur, as well as to their intensity.
In Australia, a new study reveals that the country’s record-setting 2012 heat wave was responsible for the destruction of roughly 1,000 square kilometers of seagrass meadows. which had acted as a repository for CO2. When the meadows were destroyed, the disaster released as much as 9 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Meanwhile, nearby New Zealand experienced its hottest summer on record last year. It definitively broke with normal temperatures, clocking in at a shocking 2.1°C above the past 35-year average temperature.
Back in the US, USGS data has revealed how spring has arrived much earlier than normal for much of the country, a clear indicator of how ACD is continuing to shift overall climate patterns.
In the Arctic, in fact, spring is beginning an average of 16 days earlier now than it did just one decade ago. A study in the journal Scientific Reports noted an increase in the number of warm temperature records in the spring, along with changes to the timing of bird migrations, flowers blooming and other seasonal indicators.
What makes this even more disconcerting is the fact that scientists have found a direct and strong link between warmer Arctic temperatures and abnormally high snowfall amounts and frigid temperatures further south of that region. So, for example, the severe weather that has been impacting the northeastern US this spring, is linked directly to the ACD-related warm wave happening across the Arctic region.
Lastly in this section, but perhaps most importantly, thawing Arctic permafrost is now likely to release more methane than previously expected. Methane is a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, as it is 100 times stronger over a 10-year time scale. The new study found that waterlogged wetland soils will produce considerably more methane than previously predicted.
Denial and Reality
There is never a dull moment in the Trump administration’s land of ACD-denial.
A recent and excellent article published at The Conversation outlined the four primary methods used by this administration to deny or hide the reality of ACD. These methods are, according to the article: making documents more difficult to find on government websites, burying web pages, altering language, and silencing the science. Truthout’s Mike Ludwig also detailed how ACD, as a threat to the US, has literally “gone missing” under Trump.
Meanwhile, the cabinet continues to be filled with ACD deniers. One of the more recent additions has been hardline climate denier Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State, who along with having longstanding close ties to the Koch brothers, in 2013 said during a C-SPAN interview: “There are scientists who think lots of different things about climate change. There’s some who think we’re warming, there’s some who think that the last 16 years have shown a pretty stable climate environment.”
A Trump administration official even went so far recently as to say that USGS scientists went “outside their wheelhouse” by writing that ACD has “dramatically reduced” glaciers in Montana. One of the scientists who bore this attack responded, “This is what we do…. It is our wheelhouse.”
Trump administration US Energy Secretary, Rick Perry, who thinks wearing thick-framed glasses makes him appear more intelligent, recently said that international efforts to reduce fossil fuel use were “immoral.”
Meanwhile, EPA head Scott Pruitt, already an avid ACD denier, recently disputed evolution.
On the reality front, thousands of scientists from the 22 Commonwealth countries have urged that stronger government action on ACD needs to be taken if there is hope to keep planetary warming lower than 2°C.
Underscoring that urgency, global demand for energy increased by 2.1 percent in 2017 — more than twice the previous year’s rate, according to the International Energy Agency. According to the same agency, energy-related CO2 emissions also increased by 1.4 percent during 2017, reaching a historic high of 32.5 gigatons.
Despite glaring warning signs from around the planet, governments around the world are not taking dramatic measures to mitigate ACD impacts. In fact, the US government continues to refuse to even acknowledge that those impacts exist. The world’s most powerful forces are taking a business-as-usual approach, as we are hurtled deeper into the Sixth Mass Extinction event.