Prof. Hans-Peter Plag, PhD
Climate Change and Sea Level Rise Initiative
Old Dominion University
In my last column, I quoted a question posed to me by a young student: “What would you like to tell your twenty year old self?” she asked after having listened to my lecture on the challenge of climate change. I have been thinking about this question since then.
At the 14th National Conference and Global Forum on Science Policy and the Environment,1 held on January 28-30, 2014, in Washington, D. C., I had the pleasure to listen to Richard Alley’s opening keynote,2 delivered in the inspiring and entertaining way he always talks about probably the most threatening challenge to humanity since the eruption of super-volcano Toba in what is now Indonesia about 75,000 years ago, or the “Black Death” in Europe in 1348-50: climate change. He talked about the effort we make to prevent—and to be prepared for, if we cannot prevent—the low- probability, high-impact event of a car accident: seat belts, a frame that protects the passengers, air bags in all possible places, intelligent brakes, stabilizing systems, and, most recently, anti- collision systems and cars that can anticipate accidents that are about to happen and take over to protect the failing driver.
Alley asked why we are not willing to make the same effort to reduce the risk associated with climate change. Listening to him, I realized that the comparison of car accidents and climate does not capture the full picture, because it does not consider the probability of a person being killed by car accidents or impacts resulting from climate change. In considering these probabilities, we may find the answer to the student’s question: Taking a risk-based approach, we can ask the question of what will be the most likely cause of premature death for someone who is twenty today?
Let me look at the role climate change may play. We are fairly certain that climate change will continue to happen. Todd Sanford and colleagues concluded that no matter what we do, we are committed to an increase of 2 degrees C by 2100.3 Even this moderate increase will have severe implications and very likely will cause more premature deaths than the roughly 1.5 million people who die every year globally in car accidents. Already today, we see a rapidly increasing potential for local climate events having global consequences, including the triggering of social unrest,4 and the aggregation of extreme weather-related events in the last few years has been attributed to climate change.
Looking at more severe scenarios of 3-4 degrees C by 2100, we can expect that the number of premature deaths caused by these scenarios will exceed any of the human-caused atrocities we know of, and it will be comparable to a major asteroid hitting our planet or an extreme volcanic eruption taking place. 75,000 years ago, Toba killed about 60% of the global population. James Lovelock estimates that by 2050 the planet’s carrying capacity will be down to 1 billion people, 5 which would lead to some 80% of the global population experiencing a premature death.
Let’s be very conservative and assume that there is a 10% risk of a 4 degree C increase by 2100 (remember, the IPCC considers anything between 1-4 degrees C as likely) and let’s further assume that for this trajectory, by 2050, 2 billion people will die prematurely because of climate change impacts, mainly extreme food scarcity. For any person living in 2050, this is equivalent to a 2-3% chance of a premature death because of climate change impacts. This is a very conservative estimate, but still much higher than any other single cause of premature death. Of course, the risk is not distributed evenly over the globe, and people living in the poorer part of the world have a much higher chance to die prematurely… What does this tell us about the environmental justice of climate change?
In a recent report, the National Research Council (NRC) looked at the probabilities of rapid climate change impacts,6 and they could not rule out that climate change could be much more abrupt than the IPCC assessment reports seem to suggest. The climate history documented in a broad geological archive provides ample evidence of rapid and large changes in past climates, which happened whenever a tipping point was crossed. The current changes have the potential to push the climate system again across tipping points with unpredictably large impacts. The NRC sees the necessity of implementing “Abrupt Climate Change Early Warning Systems” (ACEWS) that could alert us into action at the onset of such rapid changes.
Unfortunately, climate variability might push us over such tipping points without any sufficient warning time.7 But even if we have sufficient warning time, how would we react to such early warnings? Studies using agent-based models seem to suggest that as we are getting closer to tipping points, we are able to do what is necessary and possible to stay away from those boundaries.8
Humanity could, of course, take a very different trajectory based on dysfunctional behavior exhibited many times in the past: Some of the developed coun- tries could make the decision that not all can make it and invest in weapons to make sure that it is the decision makers who survive. During the Spanish Flu, some countries closed down their borders and threatened to shoot anybody trying to cross the border. This option is of course open to us to avoid those running out of water or living in areas with unbearable heat waves from entering the regions that are more moderate in climate and blessed with water—regions that Lovelock identifies as the lifeboats for humanity.
What would I want to tell my twenty year old self? That the most likely single cause of premature death for my younger self is one or another impact of climate change. That if you worry about anything at all and want to do something to reduce your worries, you should focus on what causes climate change and do everything you can to mitigate climate change and to prepare for what cannot be mitigated.
I also would want to tell my twenty year old self that we as a species have to make a deci- sion on the future we want for humanity: The one of “Independence Day,” where a united humanity follows a president who states, “We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight! We’re going to live on! We’re going to survive!” or the hopeless, depressing emptiness of “The Road,” based on Cormac McCarthy emotion- ally shattering tale of a post-apocalyptic world with no hope left for the survivors. A clerk in a bookstore described this book to me as the most elegant way to make yourself deeply depressed.
People like Naomi Oreske, who have been arguing for an evidence-based approach to a better future for a long time, increasingly see the end of Western civilization.9 I would want to shout to my younger self that you are living at the begin- ning of a period that will turn out to be a crossroad for our civilization and that what you do, what your neighbor does, what your group does, matters: you are determining civilization’s future, which will be somewhere between the hopes of “Independence Day” and the devastation of “The Road.” Nothing less! Your choice.
Take responsibility. That is what I want to tell my twenty year old self—and also my much older self.
2 Alley, R., 2014: Keynote address, NCSE’s 14th National Conference and Global Forum on Science, Policy and the Environment, “Building Climate Solutions,” Arlington, Va., January 28-20, 2014.
3 Sanford, T, Frumhoff, P. C., Luers, A. and Gulledge, J., 2014. “The climate policy narrative for a dangerously warming world.” Nature Climate Change, 4, 164-166.
4 Werrell, C. E., Femia, F. (eds), 2013. “The Arab Spring and Climate Change – A Climate and Security Correlations Series.” Center for Amercian Progress, Washington, D.C.
5 Lovelock, J., 2009. The Vanishing Face of Gaia. Basic Books, New York.
6 See http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=18373.
7 Lenton, T. M., 2014. “Tipping climate cooperation.” Nature Climate Change, 4, 14-15.
8 Barrett, S., Dannenberg, A., 2014. “Sensitivity of collective action to uncer- tainty about climate tipping points.” Nature Climate Change, 4, 36-39.
9 Oreskes, N. and Conway, E. M., 2014. “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future;” Columbia University Press.