This week the sane among us will scoff at those hoarding candles and food for another apocalypse that fails to materialize. We’ll laugh at the accounts of people readying their bunkers and at store shelves being wiped clean. We know that the world will not come to a cataclysmic end on December 21.
Here’s what we’re not so good at understanding: We are part of a slowly enfolding tragedy in which the end of the world as we know it may be getting closer and closer. It won’t happen on any particular day that we can pinpoint and there won’t be a giant explosion or a big flood that will wipe everything away. There will be many floods and fires over many years. One species, one crop dying off after another.
This may seem like a bad disaster flick straight out of Hollywood, but unfortunately, all of us have already been cast in this drama and it’s called Climate Change. The prognosis for heading off this catastrophe is not great ... but it’s also not impossible. We don’t need fear-mongering, but we do need a kick in the pants. And that’s a gross understatement. We need decisive action on a scale that we’ve yet to see materialize. There are great things being done and wise words being written. Osha Gray Davidson has detailed Germany’s rise as an renewable energy giant, and says that we can follow in its footsteps if we want. Alex Steffen believes cities will be the key to transforming our future and has presented a path for change. Bill McKibben and 350.org have led one campaign after another to raise consciousness, fight fossil fuel giants, stop dirty energy, and ignite action. Unless more of us join in their efforts and create new ones of our own, we’ll be headed toward a disaster in which no amount of canned goods or personal bunkers will save us. Here are five scary reasons things may be about to get a whole lot worse.
1. Flesh-Eating Fungi
This would rank near the top of my list of horrors if I could have even fathomed that such a thing exists. But it does. After a powerful tornado hit Joplin, Missouri last May, 13 people were infected with Apophysomyces — five of them died. Melissa Breyer reports for Treehugger that Apophysomyces is “a common fungus that resides in soil, wood or water and generally leaves people well enough alone. But when it finds it way into the body, say, through blunt trauma or a puncture wound, say, suffered in a tornado ... it can grow quickly if the proper medical response is not immediately administered.”
Scientists say that climate change is fueling more intense and more frequent storms, and we’re seeing this play out each year to alarming proportions. And now it’s bringing a whole new level of threat with it.
“These disasters put us at risk for exposure to organisms that are around us, but don't normally cause disease," David Engelthaler of the Translational Genomics Research Institute explained to Treehugger. “There's clearly an entire world out there that we're not seeing on a regular basis. It takes a severe event like this tornado for us to come face-to-face with some of the more dangerous pathogens out there."
2. Endangered Rivers
We hear mythic (and not-so-mythic) accounts of great floods. These days we’ve come to expect them with catastrophic hurricanes and superstorms like Sandy. We’ve also been warned about sea level rise lapping at the heels of our coastal cities and vacation towns. But it’s not just excessive water that may be our undoing, but the lack of it. Two of our country’s most esteemed rivers have lost their might — and the ramifications of that are huge.
It’s December and the climate change-linked drought that plagued much of the country this summer still endures in places. The great Mississippi is muddied with low water levels. Suzanne Goldenberg reports for the Guardian, “The worst drought in half a century has brought water levels in the Mississippi close to historic lows and could shut down all shipping in a matter of weeks – unless Barack Obama takes extraordinary measures.” We’re looking at an over $4 billion impact on commerce. And the only solution at this point is shifting water from the Missouri to the Mississippi, which merely passes the problem on to Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Out West, things look dire for the Colorado River and the 40 million people who depend on it. A multi-agency study says that “if climate change cuts into river flows as expected, doing nothing to increase supply, reduce demand, or change operational procedures leads to greatly increased vulnerability to water supply shortages for Las Vegas and for the four states that comprise the upper basin — Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming,” Brett Walton writes for Circle of Blue. “If no action is taken, by 2041 there is a one in five chance each subsequent year that the upper basin states would not be able to meet their water delivery obligations to the lower basin, according to the study. And nearly every other year Lake Mead would risk dropping below the lowest current intake that siphons drinking water to Las Vegas.”
This doesn’t just mean no water for casinos, but no water for people’s homes and businesses, farmers and fishermen, recreation and ecosystems.
3. Party Time
A global party has been going on for years — it started in 1992 with the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and most notable of the get-togethers was in 1997 in Kyoto when the “protocol” for reducing greenhouse gas emissions was launched. This month nations gathered in Doha for another Conference of Parties. At each meeting, countries agree to meet up again in another year and do more agreeing about the next meeting. As far as stopping climate change, well, that’s something they can’t all agree on.
The U.S. never signed the Kyoto Protocol, and as the Economist reports, “The rich countries still signed up to Kyoto (Japan, Canada, Russia and some others have, in effect, left it) accepted ultra-modest new emissions targets for the period to 2020, which is when the new deal to be agreed in 2015 is meant to take effect.”
World leaders have hidden behind the global economic collapse as a shield — a position completely ludicrous in light of how much climate change stands to cost us.
“Achieving the stated goal of keeping climate change below 2°C by cutting carbon dioxide alone would require emissions to fall steeply for decades, starting within a couple of years. Few countries will countenance this, and since international deals are founded on national action, the 2015 agreement will not deliver what many hope for,” the Economist sums up. But the publication believes there was a bright spot, saying it was about “removing procedural obstacles” but alas, “the hard work remains to be done.”
Of course, the hard work remained to be done in 1992 as well, so what has the last 20 years of international negotiations brought us?
4. Lowballing the Numbers
Here’s why world leaders failing to muster any meaningful action on climate change is downright treasonous:
Across two decades and thousands of pages of reports, the world's most authoritative voice on climate science has consistently understated the rate and intensity of climate change and the danger those impacts represent, say a growing number of studies on the topic.
That’s Glenn Scherer writing for the Daily Climate. This “authoritative voice” is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), put together by United Nations Environment Program and the World Meteorological Organization in 1988 and comprised of the work of thousands of scientists from all over the world.
The IPCC’s assessment of what a warming world looks like is what world leaders have based their actions (or lack thereof) on at global COP meetings such as the most recent in Doha and the many previous. The IPCC has said that if we can’t stop global temperatures from climbing above 2 degrees celsius over pre-industrial levels we’re assigning ourselves to a future of catastrophic storms, droughts, floods, economic free fall, and disease.
What the IPCC predicts is really bad. The worse news, as Scherer writes, is that it is guilty of lowballing the numbers. He writes:
...climate experts warn that the IPCC's failure to adequately project the threats that rising global carbon emissions represent has serious consequences: The IPCC’s overly conservative reading of the science, they say, means governments and the public could be blindsided by the rapid onset of the flooding, extreme storms, drought, and other impacts associated with catastrophic global warming.
"We're underestimating the fact that climate change is rearing its head," said Kevin Trenberth, head of the climate analysis section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and a lead author of key sections of the 2001 and 2007 IPCC reports. "And we're underestimating the role of humans, and this means we're underestimating what it means for the future and what we should be planning for."
A comparison of past IPCC predictions against 22 years of weather data and the latest climate science find that the IPCC has consistently underplayed the intensity of global warming in each of its four major reports released since 1990.
Here are some examples: We weren’t supposed to be seeing ice-free Arctic summers until 2070, according to the IPCC, but now it looks like it will be 40 years earlier. And so far, Scherer writes, sea-levels have risen 50 percent higher than their predictions. The next assessment from the IPCC is due out shortly (and the pre-peer reviewed report has already been leaked) and it is expected to be even more conservative.
5. Human Beings
In many ways climate change gives us a chance to be superheroes — we don’t even need to don Lycra suits or capes. The collective “we” have the opportunity to save humanity (and our nonhuman neighbors) from a chain of unfolding disasters. But despite the efforts of some stellar individuals, hard-working groups and a few sane governments, we’ve utterly failed thus far. Money and politics have been our kryptonite. Climate deniers, the fossil fuel industry and complicit politicians have obstructed progress at every turn.
But in reality, we haven’t fought them hard enough. If we wanted to we could win, but we have to want to.
What will spur us to action likely won’t be dire predictions, even if the IPCC nails the frightening science in its next report. We need a deeper societal shift in which we are able to fully understand the significance of our actions and truly care about their consequences. It will take a kind of compassion for our fellow humans and fellow creatures that goes well beyond a helping hand in the aftermath of a storm. In tough economic times when people live day-to-day, we have to also think long-term — generations down the line. We are either the cause of the problem or we are the solution — there are no other options.