Climate change crisis closer than we think9 min read . Updated: 06 Mar 2019, 06:20 AM IST
Looking at a string of recent natural disasters, climate change is here. And unless we choose to halt it, it will never stop
It is almost hard to believe just how much has happened and how quickly. In the late summer of 2017, three major hurricanes arose in the Atlantic Ocean at once, proceeding at first along the same route as though they were battalions of an army on the march. Hurricane Harvey, when it struck Houston in Texas, delivered such epic rainfall it was described in some areas as a “500,000- year event"—meaning that we should expect that amount of rain to hit that area once every five hundred millennia. Sophisticated consumers of environmental news have already learned how meaningless climate change has rendered such terms, which were meant to describe storms that had a 1-in-500,000 chance of striking in any given year. But the figures do help in this way: to remind us just how far global warming has already taken us from any natural-disaster benchmark our grandparents would have recognized.
To dwell on the more common 500-year figure just for a moment, it would mean a storm that struck once during the entire history of the Roman Empire. Five hundred years ago, there were no English settlements across the Atlantic, so we are talking about a storm that should hit just once as Europeans arrived and established colonies, as colonists fought a revolution and Americans a civil war and two world wars, as their descendants established an empire of cotton on the backs of slaves, freed them, and then brutalized their descendants, industrialized and postindustrialized, triumphed in the Cold War, ushered in the “end of history", and witnessed, just a decade later, its dramatic return. One storm in all that time, is what the meteorological record has taught us to expect. Just one. Harvey was the third such flood to hit Houston since 2015. And the storm struck, in places, with an intensity that was supposed to be a thousand times rarer still.
That same season, an Atlantic hurricane hit Ireland, 45 million were flooded from their homes in South Asia, and unprecedented wildfires tilled much of California into ash. And then there was the new category of quotidian nightmare, climate change inventing the once-unimaginable category of obscure natural disasters— crises so large they would once have been inscribed in folklore for centuries today passing across our horizons ignored, overlooked, or forgotten. In 2016, a “thousand-year flood" drowned small-town Ellicott City, Maryland, to take but one example almost at random; it was followed, two years later, in the same small town, by another. One week that summer of 2018, dozens of places all over the world were hit with record heat waves, from Denver to Burlington to Ottawa; from Glasgow to Shannon to Belfast; from Tbilisi, in Georgia, and Yerevan, in Armenia, to whole swathes of southern Russia.
The previous month, the daytime temperature of one city in Oman reached above 121 degrees Fahrenheit (49.44 degrees Celsius), and did not drop below 108 (42.22) all night, and in Quebec, Canada, 54 died from the heat.
That same week, one hundred major wildfires burned in the American West, including one in California that grew 4,000 acres in one day, and another, in Colorado, that produced a volcano-like 300-foot eruption of flames, swallowing an entire subdivision and inventing a new term, “fire tsunami", along the way. On the other side of the planet, biblical rains flooded Japan, where 1.2 million were evacuated from their homes. Later that summer, Typhoon Mangkhut forced the evacuation of 2.45 million from mainland China, the same week that Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas, turning the port city of Wilmington briefly into an island and flooding large parts of the state with hog manure and coal ash. Along the way, the winds of Florence produced dozens of tornadoes across the region.
The previous month, in India, the state of Kerala was hit with its worst floods in almost a hundred years.
That October, a hurricane in the Pacific wiped Hawaii’s East Island entirely off the map. And in November, which has traditionally marked the beginning of the rainy season in California, the state was hit instead with the deadliest fire in its history—the Camp Fire, which scorched several hundred square miles outside of Chico, killing dozens and leaving many more missing in a place called, proverbially, Paradise. The devastation was so complete, you could almost forget the Woolsey Fire, closer to Los Angeles, which burned at the same time and forced the sudden evacuation of 170,000.
The day after tomorrow
It is tempting to look at these strings of disasters and think, climate change is here. And one response to seeing things long predicted actually come to pass is to feel that we have settled into a new era, with everything transformed. In fact, that is how California governor Jerry Brown described the state of things in the midst of the state’s wildfire disaster: “a new normal".
The truth is actually much scarier. That is, the end of normal; never normal again. We have already exited the state of environmental conditions that allowed the human animal to evolve in the first place, in an unsure and unplanned bet on just what that animal can endure. The climate system that raised us, and raised everything we now know as human culture and civilization, is now, like a parent, dead. And the climate system we have been observing for the last several years, the one that has battered the planet again and again, is not our bleak future in preview. It would be more precise to say that it is a product of our recent climate past, already passing behind us into a dustbin of environmental nostalgia.
There is no longer any such thing as a “natural disaster", but not only will things get worse; technically speaking, they have already gotten worse. Even if, miraculously, humans immediately ceased emitting carbon, we’d still be due for some additional warming from just the stuff we’ve put into the air already. And of course, with global emissions still increasing, we’re very far from zeroing out on carbon, and therefore very far from stalling climate change.
The devastation we are now seeing all around us is a beyond-best-case scenario for the future of warming and all the climate disasters it will bring. What that means is that we have not, at all, arrived at a new equilibrium. It is more like we’ve taken one step out on the plank off a pirate ship. Perhaps because of the exhausting false debate about whether climate change is “real", too many of us have developed a misleading impression that its effects are binary. But global warming is not “yes" or “no", nor is it “today’s weather forever" or “doomsday tomorrow". It is a function that gets worse over time as long as we continue to produce greenhouse gas. And so the experience of life in a climate transformed by human activity is not just a matter of stepping from one stable ecosystem into another, somewhat worse one, no matter how degraded or destructive the transformed climate is. The effects will grow and build as the planet continues to warm: from 1 degree to 1.5 to almost certainly 2 degrees and beyond.
Merchants of doubt
The last few years of climate disasters may look like about as much as the planet can take. In fact, we are only just entering our brave new world, one that collapses below us as soon as we set foot on it. Many of these new disasters arrived accompanied by debate about their cause—about how much of what they have done to us comes from what we have done to the planet. For those hoping to better understand precisely how a monstrous hurricane arises out of a placid ocean, these inquiries are worthwhile, but for all practical purposes the debate yields no real meaning or insight. A particular hurricane may owe 40% of its force to anthropogenic global warming, the evolving models might suggest, and a particular drought may be half again as bad as it might have been in the 17th century. But climate change is not a discrete clue we can find at the scene of a local crime—one hurricane, one heat wave, one famine, one war. Global warming isn’t a perpetrator; it’s a conspiracy. We all live within climate and within all the changes we have produced in it, which enclose us all and everything we do. If hurricanes of a certain force are now five times as likely as in the pre- Columbian Caribbean, it is parsimonious to the point of triviality to argue over whether this one or that one was “climate caused". All hurricanes now unfold in the weather systems we have wrecked on their behalf, which is why there are more of them, and why they are stronger.
The same is true for wildfires: this one or that one may be “caused" by a cookout or a downed power line, but each is burning faster, bigger, and longer because of global warming, which gives no reprieve to fire season.
Climate change isn’t something happening here or there but everywhere, and all at once. And unless we choose to halt it, it will never stop. Over the past few decades, the term “anthropocene" has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination—a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature, even echoing the biblical “dominion". But however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us.
That is what Wally Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer, means when he calls the planet an “angry beast". You could also go with “war machine". Each day we arm it more. The assaults will not be discreet. This is another climate delusion. Instead, they will produce a new kind of cascading violence, waterfalls and avalanches of devastation, the planet pummeled again and again, with increasing intensity and in ways that build on each other and undermine our ability to respond, uprooting much of the landscape we have taken for granted, for centuries, as the stable foundation on which we walk, build homes and highways, shepherd our children through schools and into adulthood under the promise of safety—and subverting the promise that the world we have engineered and built for ourselves, out of nature, will also protect us against it, rather than conspiring with disaster against its makers.
Edited excerpts from The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming by David Wallace-Wells.