Humans are the only animal that can create scenarios and make plans based upon those scenarios. Recently a group of us sat down for what we call a “chat and chew” over coffee. One was a fruit farmer. Another was retired after 25 years in TV broadcasting. I’m an environmental scientist. We came up with this possible future. Read it and see what you think.
The premise: Global warming causes climate change. Climate change can cause crop failures and unpredictable water supplies. When people don’t have food and water they tend to get rowdy.
The problem of global warming will not magically stop at the turn of the century. Even if all emissions ceased today, we are more likely than not to see warming continue at a gradually slowing rate for centuries to come. Carbon dioxide is only one of several greenhouse gases (GHGs) in our atmosphere. It isn’t even the most potent. The problem is that CO2 remains a long time. The CO2 emissions we put out today will take hundreds of years to dissipate. Models must have a time framework to chart change. The IPCC and others have used 2100 as a frame of reference and target for establishing policy.
To understand the future, we need to look back a bit and understand how the growth of prosperity and industrialization along with population have already changed the atmosphere.
Industrial Development Has Increased Global Warming
We have warmed just under 1℃ (1.5℉) since transitioning from burning wood and peat to fossil fuels. Two-thirds of that warming has taken place since 1970. The economies of developed nations have followed an economic model of ever-increasing consumption and profit as the sole index of growth. So long as planetary resources and new undeveloped frontiers were plentiful, this model provided prosperity beyond anything in human history. Economic empires and fossil fuels gave industry resources and vast amounts of easily accessible and inexpensive energy. That era is ending. Just as the first industrial revolution moved us from peat and wood to fossil fuel, new sustainable energy sources compel us to reevaluate our future in a new energy revolution.
The Second World War was won more by out-producing the Axis powers than superior military prowess. Returning soldiers would provide a highly motivated labor force to a hungry industry. The GI Bill would provide millions of veterans with the education to find work as new technology created new opportunities. The government made it possible to start new businesses and buy homes at low interest. By 1950, a great acceleration was in full swing.
Industrial development and consumption brought wealth beyond the wildest dreams of our forebears. It also brought us to global warming and a changing climate. Our global civilization is increasingly threatened by the very economic model that brought prosperity and hopes of prosperity we see today.
Increased Global Warming Will Destabilize the Economy
There are nearly 7.5 billion of us. We expect to see nine billion by 2050 and three or four billion more by 2100. Who knows what the population will be by 2200? Consumption is not growing gradually but exponentially. The economic appetite of wealthy nations for resources and energy is now beyond what the planet can sustain. Developing nations increasingly view rich nations as a major obstacle to their own growth.
Carbon emissions aside, consider the growth and energy consumption of the past 40 years. It is likely that we will need more energy in the next 40 years than we have used in the last 200 years. Even if we found new oil reserves as great as the energy burned since the second world war, we would be running low again by mid-century. Emissions from burning fossil fuels are irrefutably warming the planet outside our comfort zone. With that prospect, procrastination in transitioning to modern sustainable energy just seems foolish.
Carbon dioxide is a primary reason why our atmosphere is warm enough to support human life; that science is solid. The science behind anthropogenic CO2 raising atmospheric temperatures above the Holocene norms is also solid.
Developed nations are responsible for the majority of GHGs already in the atmosphere. Developing nations will be the greatest emitters of GHGs in the future. Global warming results from the aggregate affect of all GHGs so we’re all responsible for what the future brings.
Increased Global Warming Will Eliminate Food Security
Global warming causes the climate to change. More heat and increasing moisture from evaporation alters circulation patterns in the atmosphere. Dry areas tend to become drier and wet areas tend to become wetter. The predictability of wet or dry periods also changes. It becomes more difficult to decide when to plant or even what to plant when the growing season is no longer dependable. The biological cycles of plants and animals are altered. Moisture is more likely to come in torrential downpours or not at all. You can’t feed billions of new mouths if you can’t grow food.
To wealthy nations, things seem okay. Our media still focuses on social issues and prosperity rather than resource depletion, famine and crop failures. Conflicts are often described in ideological or political terms. There is little analysis of the connection between climate change, crop failures and social instability. Our recent strife in the Middle East is a good example where failed states and food and water shortages have resulted in conflict and massive migration.
Recently former U.S. Pacific Commander, Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, III, USN (Ret) wrote, “As we seek to rebalance and reinvigorate our historic alliances, build new strategic and economic partnerships, and effectively posture our military in the Asia-Pacific for the 21st century, we must address the potentially catastrophic security implications of climate change in the Asia-Pacific and their likely impact on U.S. interests in the region.”
Similar scenarios are anticipated around the world as developing nations and already failed states struggle with diminishing resources or resources that are becoming too costly in a competitive free market. Wealthy nations must look well ahead. We can provide aid now or suffer far greater costs as developing states consume more fossil fuels, produce more warming and destabilize the climate even more.
Increased Global Warming Will Accelerate Military Conflict
The poor no longer live in ignorance of wealthy life styles. Wealthy nations are increasingly looked upon as pirates who plunder resources of poorer nations. We have already learned that desperate people are easily persuaded to zealous and even suicidal actions. The impressionable can be swayed to view their death as a noble sacrifice against those who threaten their lands, families and culture. As we look beyond this century, we must consider the consequences of inaction.
A long and expensive war resulted from the suicides of 19 young men on September 11, 2001. We may wish to believe that they were simple hooligans seeking notoriety. It is more likely that they believed in what they were doing strongly enough to dedicate their lives. Their leader told us why they attacked America and the western economic system.
Following 9/11, Osama Ben Laden wrote a letter to America: “You steal our wealth and oil at paltry prices because of you international influence and military threats. This theft is indeed the biggest theft ever witnessed by mankind in the history of the world.”
We may view this as rationalizing a terrorist act, but it would be foolhardy not to believe that those who flew the planes believed it.
As the climate changes and food and water shortages become more widespread, we will see more desperate people. Wealthy nations will continue to pay for food and resources simply because they can. The separation between the haves and have nots will grow.
Arab Spring and the failed states of Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, North and South Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Pakistan, NigeriaIraq and Afghanistan have resulted in hundreds of thousands migrating to western Europe. Imagine wealthy nations becoming armed camps while angry and starving mobs storm their gates. Immigration becomes invasion. A quick review of U.S. Presidential campaign rhetoric supports this possibility.
In 2010, the world price of wheat and rice exploded because of failed crops from heat and floods. Would it have been better to help nations in the Arabian peninsula then or face security threats today?
We Need Climate Action Now
Global warming and the resulting unpredictability of a changing climate will certainly lead to more failed states and more threats to security. If wealthy nations don’t lead now, it is easily predictable that developing nations and failed states will blame them. Desperate people are willing to take desperate measures, as we have seen.
Carbon emissions must be addressed now or we face centuries of conflict, distrust and reprisal. Future emissions are going to come from developing nations. We can guide them with aid and sustainable technology. This will make the world more secure and expand trade in a global economy of one planet and one people.
The success of COP21 in Paris becomes even more significant when we look at Global Warming and the future security of the world. Isn’t it better and wiser to seek that future than the armed and gated borders path we are presently taking?