By Bill Britton
Bill Britton is a freelance writer and formerly an editor for John Hopkins University Press, ABI Research, and Elsevier Science. He is a frequent contributor to Vero Communiqué.
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This article reprises what climate scientists and the science community believe: If humanity does not take immediate action to address climate change, specifically, global heating, Earth and its many life forms will face a bleak future in a matter of a few decades. Devout religious individuals might claim that a god will make things better and will not desert humanity. Others will claim that technology is the answer to this existential threat, which is immediate and closing fast. The latter claim might have some validity, depending on the decisions made by the World’s leadership.
For most of its history, humanity has avoided or escaped threats to its continuance as a species–that is, up until now. Today, there exist emerging threats that have a very real prospect of reducing world population to a fraction of its present numbers or even wiping it out within a few generations. For some, the first threat that might come to mind is a collision with an asteroid or an invasion by aliens (Hollywood disaster films?). Examine the array of magazines while checking out at the grocers and you will see vivid examples of such threats. While possible, they are highly unlikely.
There are home-grown threats, however, mainly global heating (no longer “global warming”) and its knock-on effects: continental flooding, sea level rise, ocean acidification, wildfires, desertification, starvation, natural resources loss, water scarcity. These threats are immediate and, in the case of global heating, are rapidly approaching a tipping point leading to runaway heating. But underlying all these issues is the population problem: too many people chasing limited resources.
Global Surface Temperature Increases
The record is undeniable: fossil fuel combustion (coal, natural gas, oil) is the primary cause of global heating. Other causes have been put forth, including the Milankovitch cycles, which consist of variations in the shape of Earth’s orbit around the Sun and its spin axis angle of procession and tilt, which combine their effects and alter the global climate. There is an indication that these cycles might have some effect on global heating, but not on the scale that the data reveal.
The scientific consensus is that global heating increased with the advent of the Industrial Age when steam engines replaced water wheels to power textile machinery. Dirty coal became the primary energy source for these machines and others, which acted to replace hands-on, manual production.
Carbon Dioxide (CO2)
Carbon Dioxide Rise
Fossil fuels are found in the Earth’s crust and one, bituminous coal, can be found close to the surface. A byproduct of combustion is carbon dioxide (CO2), which accumulates in the atmosphere. The ultraviolet spectrum of solar radiation passes through the atmosphere and is re-radiated in the infrared, which CO2 traps and thus heats the atmosphere.
Before humans started large-scale burning of coal, oil, and gas in the mid-1800s, the CO2 level had been steady at about 280 ppm (parts per million) for many millennia. Since then, the concentration has increased in lockstep with fossil fuel combustion, at a rate of about +2.1 ppm per year. The concentration of heat-trapping CO2 gas in the atmosphere has passed the 418 parts per million (ppm) level for the first time in at least 14-million years, scientists report (Mauna Loa Observatory). The steady increase means more heat is trapped near the surface of the Earth in the 7- to 10-mile-thick troposphere where weather occurs.
“Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change over the next 25 years and complements necessary efforts to reduce carbon dioxide. The benefits to society, economies, and the environment are numerous and far outweigh the cost” (Global Methane Assessment).
Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas which remains in the atmosphere for about a decade—a much shorter lifetime than carbon dioxide. Approximately 40 percent of methane is emitted into the atmosphere by natural sources (wetlands, termites), and about 60 percent comes from human sources (transportation, cattle, rice agriculture, fossil fuel exploitation, landfills, biomass burning).
Methane is the second most abundant human-sourced greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide (CO2), accounting for about 20 percent of global emissions. Methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere.
The Knock-On Effects of Global Heating
A Word about Tipping Points
Tipping points are the threshold that is crossed when changes add up and cause larger changes in the global climate. A recent study conveys a dire warning for the future: multiple tipping points could be triggered if global warming exceeds the critical threshold of 1.5°C (Science).
Major tipping points include the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, large-scale loss of tropical coral reefs, and an abrupt thawing of very large regions of permafrost” (Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter).
The study found that humanity is already at risk of passing known tipping points at current levels of global warming. As the world inches closer to warming above 1.5°C (2.7°F) from pre-industrial levels, multiple tipping points could be breached. The risk of setting off more tipping points will continue to increase with each 0.1°C (0.18°F) of warming, according to the research.
In a scenario where the world doesn’t rapidly work to lower emissions, and we reach about 2.6°C of warming, other tipping points occur, including the collapse of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, also known as the Atlantic Ocean conveyor belt. This circulation regulates weather patterns in the Northern Hemisphere, and if it collapses, precipitation patterns around the world will change. Agrarian communities around the world that rely on predictable rain patterns to plant crops will struggle under this scenario. The collapse of the “belt” would also cause even more extreme weather to occur in Europe.
Another major tipping point is the collapse of the Amazon Rainforest, which was once a carbon sink and home to a large range of endangered species but may now be a carbon emitter.
“The world is heading towards 2-3°C [3.6-5.4°F] of global warming,” said study co-author Johan Rockström. “This sets Earth on course to cross multiple dangerous tipping points that will be disastrous for people across the world,” he added. “To maintain liveable conditions on Earth, protect people from rising extremes, and enable stable societies, we must do everything possible to prevent crossing tipping points. Every tenth of a degree counts.”
U.S. Flood Risks
More than 1.8 billion people worldwide are at risk of severe floods, new research shows (Nature Communications). The study found that 90 percent of people at risk of severe flooding live in poor countries, not rich ones. More than 780 million flood-exposed people live on less than $5.50 per day.
Bangladesh is a prime example, where recent flooding has displaced over 4 million people. At the same time, neighboring Pakistan is one-third under water. In the U.S., rainstorms have generally become more intense with the obvious result of rapid rises in rivers and streams or “flashfloods.” Such was the case with the September 2022 floods in California.
Several elements contribute to flood development: precipitation, snowmelt, topography, and the degree of soil saturation. The most vulnerable are those coastal regions that are impacted by both heavier precipitation and sea level rise.
Sea Level Rise
Global Sea Level Rise
Besides flooding caused by continental rainstorms, news reports serve up almost daily accounts of flooding caused by rising sea levels. Plus, ocean volume expansion due to water temperature increases accounts for about one-third of sea rise. If the current rate of increase continues, sea levels will be 4 feet higher by 2050, 7 feet higher by 2100, and 13 feet by 2150. Up to 267 million people who currently live on land that is less than two meters (approximately 6.6 feet) above sea level, could be displaced. By 2100, the number at risk could climb to more than 4 million.
In Florida, both Miami and Jacksonville are budgeting funds to build seawalls to buttress their downtowns against flooding. Similar efforts are being undertaken in other seacoast towns, but to build a miles long seawall would be prohibitively expensive and impractical. Try to envision a 6- to 12-foot seawall around Manhattan.
Flooding by global temperature rise in Florida, black being the least (1°C rise); light blue the extreme (4°C rise).
Carbon dioxide, which occurs naturally in the atmosphere, dissolves into seawater. Water and carbon dioxide combine to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), a weak acid that breaks (or “dissociates”) into hydrogen ions (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3-).
Because of human-driven increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is more CO2 dissolving into the ocean. The ocean’s average pH is now around 8.1, which is basic (or alkaline), but as the ocean continues to absorb more CO2, the pH decreases and the ocean becomes more acidic (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration or NOAA). As the oceans become more acidic, shellfish especially are affected by their inability to precipitate calcium carbonate for shell construction.
By 2100, the shellfish industry could suffer losses of more than $1 trillion per year. CO2 has a similar effect on coral and results in coral bleaching and the concomitant loss of habitat for fish “nurseries” and for other creatures at the bottom of the food chain.
Besides flooding, sea-level rise, and ocean acidification, wildfires are making wide areas throughout the world unlivable for many species of flora and fauna. Dry lightning and human carelessness (and intentionality) are the main culprits. Both are exacerbated by long-term drought conditions in areas that formerly would experience drought only periodically. More than 50 million acres have burned in the U.S. from 2015 to 2017.
Under normal conditions, wildfires can be beneficial to grasslands and forests. But a hotter, dryer climate makes it more difficult for ecosystems to recover. Plus, the greater intensity of wildfires and their ability to spread more quickly means that the damage to topsoil is greater and the total damage more widespread.
Large areas of the American West have, historically, suffered from a lack of rainfall, making them only marginally suited for agriculture and rangeland. In the 1930s, the prairies of America and Canada were wracked by an extended drought, which resulted in the Dust Bowl. In addition, farmers failed to apply dryland farming methods, which worsened the effects.
Much of the area has come to rely on irrigation to supplement the lack of adequate rainfall. The vast Ogallala Aquifer has been tapped since World War II to offset this deficit. This aquifer system supplies irrigation water as well as drinking water to 82 percent of the 2.3 million people living there. The demand for water far outstrips its rate of replenishment, and at current rates, the aquifer will run dry in 20 years.
A New World
Natural Resources Depletion
Resource depletion is the consumption of a resource faster than it can be replenished. Natural resources are commonly divided between renewable resources and non-renewable resources. In agriculture, the primary inputs are nitrates and phosphates. Nitrates are mainly derived from natural gas, and phosphates from ancient phosphate rock. Both are essential fertilizer components, and both are finite quantities that may last up to 400 years for phosphate; nitrate availability depends on the life expectancy of reserves. Projections vary, so it is uncertain when both will be exhausted.
Our most significant non-renewable geo-resource is productive land and fertile soil. Each year, an estimated 24 billion tons of fertile soil are lost due to erosion. That’s 3.4 tons lost every year for every person on the planet (Global Agriculture). Sadly, some of the most productive farmland is lost to buildings, roadways, and parking lots.
Using forest carbon sinks to justify carbon dioxide emissions from fossil sources will increase concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, making it impossible to meet the global goal of keeping international temperature rises to well below 2°C.
Despite the clear difference between fossil and forest carbon, United Nations climate negotiators often suggest that planting trees or reducing deforestation is equivalent to reducing emissions from burning fossil fuels. Until this myth is finally dismissed, schemes to reduce emissions from deforestation and forest degradation have the potential to do more harm than good (FERN).
A study published in the journal Science predicts that if business as usual emissions policies do not change and human caused climate change continues on its current trajectory, one in six species on Earth could face extinction. Scientists have estimated that over 8.7 million different species inhabit the Earth, which means almost 1.5 million species are at risk of extinction.
Only 40 years ago, The End of History, a book by American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, argued that with the ascendancy of Western liberal democracy and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, humanity had reached “not just…the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
How naive. Western liberal democracy has been eroded to the point that, even in the U.S., democracy is imperiled. The next two elections will determine whether we continue on as a government of the People or an autocracy of the privileged. The historical balancing act of these two impulses, moderation and compromise, is under assault throughout the world.
As suggested in the opening, population is the underlying problem facing the world. The latest projections by the United Nations suggest that the global population could grow from 8 billion in 2022 to around 8.5 billion in 2030, 9.7 billion in 2050. and 10.4 billion in 2100. The 1.2 billion people who go to bed hungry in 2022 (the “food insecure”) will surely grow to about 2 billion by 2100 and could be far worse as the food base shrinks relative to population growth.
The human carrying capacity of Earth has always been debatable. In the 1800s, Thomas Malthus put forth a theory that population growth will always tend to outrun the food supply and that betterment of humankind is impossible without strict limits on reproduction. Because of advances in food production (the so-called Green Revolution), doomsayers like Malthus have been proven wrong, until now.
The one factor that has changed the equation is global heating. The effect on food production and calories per person has been dramatic. The reality is that we live in a world of finite resources and increasingly severe environmental challenges. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, the world will need to produce 50 percent more food by 2050 to feed a projected population of 9.7 billion people.
World agriculture faces a serious decline within this century due to global heating unless emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are substantially reduced. Developing countries will suffer much steeper declines than high-income countries, according to a study by the Center for Global Development and the Peterson Institute.
Developing countries, many of which have average temperatures that are already near or above crop tolerance levels, are predicted to suffer an average 10 to 25 percent decline in agricultural productivity by the 2080s, assuming a so-called “business as usual” scenario in which greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase.
On average, each person requires 2100 calories per day, the subsistence level needed to be considered “food secure” (USDA). The war in Ukraine is playing havoc with that minimum with distribution breakdowns and civil conflict.
Thoughts to Ponder
The once mighty Colorado River
- The population of the U.S. is projected to increase by nearly 130 million people by the year 2050 for a total of 462 million.
- Forty percent of births are unintended.
- Americans eat 815 billion calories of food each day; that’s roughly 200 billion more than needed and enough to feed 80 million people.
- Americans throw out 200,000 tons of edible food daily.
- The average American generates 52 tons of garbage by age 75.
- The average individual daily consumption of water in the U.S. is 159 gallons, while more than half the world’s population lives on 25 gallons.
- Fifty percent of U.S. wetlands, 90% of the northwestern old-growth forests, and 99% of the tall-grass prairie have been destroyed in the last 200 years.
- Eighty percent of U.S. corn grown and 95% of the oats are fed to livestock.
- Fifty-six percent of available U.S. farmland is used for beef production.
- Every day an estimated nine square miles of rural land in the U.S. are lost to development.
- There are more shopping malls in the U.S. than high schools.
Inflation Reduction Act
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) will move the U.S. towards the forefront of the clean energy economy, experts predict, helping it compete with China in the manufacturing and installation of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and emerging zero-carbon technology. This could mitigate total CO2 emissions by the U.S. However, there is no evidence that the world total of annual CO2 emissions will decrease anytime soon. In essence, it is virtually guaranteed that global temperatures will increase by +2°C and sea levels will rise on average a foot within a decade, and there is a good chance that they will rise by 7 to 12 feet or more by 2100.
The World is facing a catastrophe unless there is a concerted effort by all stakeholders to reduce their carbon output. Those same stakeholders should ask themselves: How are we to feed and shelter more than one million migrants? Or find them meaningful employment? Or provide them with minimal healthcare? No one, even the 1 percent, will be secure in such an environment. Society could indeed become a modern version of Aldous Huxley’s dystopian Brave New World.