News came out about a week ago that, in seven years, summer temperatures around the globe will range from unseasonable to unbearable.
No surprise there: when did the poor not get the short end of the stick? But the use of the word “unprecedented” is surprising, calling to mind something closer to conspiracy theory than science.
Subsequent text, however, removes all doubt and delivers the killing blow. Using cells on a grid to map their results, achieved by studying climate records dating from as far back as 1860, researchers expect global temperatures to surpass historical levels for at least three successive years starting in 2012; for 11 successive years after 2023; and for all the years after 2036 – again in sequential fashion.
For those of us who listen to the words not spoken, and look for the clues not immediately visible, the prediction sounds a death knell for Planet Earth if attitudes and indifference to climate warming persist.
This nonchalant scenario is called “business as usual”. In other words, if people, companies and nations continue to do as they have done, in largely blissful ignorance of the consequences, the results are highly likely to be catastrophic – just as drivers who don’t realize that combustion-engine vehicles require regular infusions of motor oil and water wonder why they are broken down on the side of the road 100 miles from nowhere.
How much can we gain from what the paper calls an “emissions stabilization scenario”? A meager 22 years, write these researchers, though they admit that they are unable to pinpoint the precise time at which conditions will “shift wholly outside the range of historical precedents”.
Why am I summarizing the paper, called The projected timing of climate departure from recent variability? Why don’t I just let people read it? Because many of them – some of them the very individuals with the power to make change but no time to read – won’t. And those news sources which grab headlines for shock value will muddy the issue beyond comprehension.
As a result, the message (like that of the Prophet Isaiah, preaching in the desert) will be lost, or so garbled that people will expect life-giving rivers to spring up where other rivers have failed. In fact, there are no Greek-inspired deus ex machinas in mankind’s future; no little men behind the screen; no gods and no aliens poised to save us from ourselves. There is only us, and it is time to realize that what is happening in the Tigris and Euphrates river basin in the Middle East is happening to some extent everywhere.
These two rivers, which form between them an area known as the Fertile Crescent – the cradle of modern agriculture – have, in six short years, from 2003 to 2009, lost 144 cubic kilometers (34.55 cubic miles) of fresh water, or as much as is contained in the Dead Sea.
As a singular occurrence this wouldn’t be so disturbing, had not an equally recent report from the Asian Water Development Outlook 2013 announced that 80 percent of Asia’s rivers are in terrible shape, shrunken from evaporation and overuse, the balance of the water of little or no benefit to humans (or animals as a result of pollution and mismanagement. This, in an area that relies on its rivers not only for potable water but for whatever agriculture is possible.
Need more convincing? Consider this: by some scientific analyses, both the Aral Sea and the Colorado River Delta would be classified as “collapsed ecosystems”. The Aral Sea, once the globe’s fourth largest lake, shrank by 70 percent and split in half before being “rescued”. Prior to recent rain storms, the Colorado River was unable to meet water allocations under the Colorado River Compact. The Southwestern U.S. dodged a bullet on that one, but drought will come around again as the globe warms, and next time water users may not be so lucky.
As study authors note, giving end points or dates for the beginning of radically different climates does not presuppose that climate change isn’t already underway. Additionally, researchers conclude that – of all climate variables – air temperature was the first that would experience changes outside historical patterns (and it has). Other variables, from evaporation and transpiration (by plants) to precipitation and the ocean’s surface acidity, would pass their historical records later than air temperature, with a single exception. Ocean pH, when calculated alongside sea surface temperatures, showed this variability already outside its average high by 2008.
Most people, unless they fish for a living or are otherwise preternaturally aware of ocean conditions on an ongoing basis, don’t see ocean warming and acidification as a concern in their everyday life. Even avid fish lovers ascribe the failure of fish stocks as primarily a case of overfishing.
For these people – city dwellers, busy with their city lives and several steps removed from the natural world – the temperature and disposition of oceans, even the ones out their back door, are a matter of moderate indifference. This indifference will rapidly fade when cities begin to heat up under the scenario outlined above, starting with Kingston, Jamaica and trending rapidly to Phoenix and Honolulu in 2043. In the interim, crowded cities close to the equator, like Singapore, Nairobi, Cairo and Hong Kong, will literally be baking their inhabitants in their own juices. The worldwide food failure in 2008 will be nothing in comparison to the failure of water supplies in this century’s fourth decade – and that is only 30 years away.
Eventually, notes the Associated Press reporter Seth Borenstein (in a summing-up almost too succinct for comfort), the chilliest year in a particular location will still be hotter than the hottest year in its historical record.
Authors hope their reprise will spur governments to do something before it’s too late. Chris Field, a climate scientist with the prestigious Carnegie Institution, says “Carpe diem”. That is, 2013 is a threshold into a hot, new world from which one never goes back.”
After reading the paper, it seems inappropriate to call Donner a doomsayer.