David Wallace-Wells’ recent article The Unhabitable Earth in New York Magazine has been read by hundreds of thousands. “It is, I promise, worse than you think,” the first sentence reads. There is no doubt that many readers have been shocked by the avalanche of sober information that the author presents in order to make the point that it is, indeed, worse, much worse, than most of us think. In fact, without exaggeration, it is even worse than Wallace-Wells portrays the situation because – but this is inevitable when trying to achieve the impossible by capturing the main dangers of climate change in one article – some essential papers have been left unaddressed, for example the Friedrich and the Hansen papers (see here).
There are also some mistakes. For example, Wallace-Wells writes that:
“The most exciting research on the economics of warming has (…) come from Hsiang and his colleagues (…) who offer some very bleak analysis of their own: Every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2 percent of GDP (…) This is the sterling work in the field, and their median projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labor.) Tracing the shape of the probability curve is even scarier: There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100, they say, and a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline” (see here).
This is not what Hsiang, Burke and Miguel are saying (see here and here for a FAQ-list about the Nature article in question). Hsiang et al. point out that climate change will make the world economy smaller than it would be without climate change – not that it will make the world economy of the future smaller than it is now (see here).
How large will the economy be in 2100? According to the OECD, the total output of the global economy will grow at three percent for the next 50 years (see here). As Dolan explains, projecting that rate to the end of the century would make global real GDP about fourteen times higher in 2099 than in 2010. Hsiang et al. use several estimates of growth rates, including one that assumes that per capita GDP in each country will grow from 2010 to 2099 at the same rate it grew from 1980 to 2010 (see here). Their results imply an average annual growth rate of 2.35 percent, which would make per capita global GDP about eight times higher in 2099 than in 2010. As Ed Dolan explains, based on these estimates, if climate change cuts real GDP by 23 percent relative to what it otherwise would be, total output of the global economy would still be eleven times larger than it is today, using the OECD estimate for growth (see here). And, as Dolan writes, with the method used by Hsiang et al., per capita GDP in 2099, with climate change, would be more than six times higher in 2099 than in 2010 (see here).
Burke has posted online complete country-by-country growth estimates. The chart shows the ratio of estimated 2099 GDP per capita to 2010 GDP per capita for 165 countries without climate change (blue dots) and with climate change (red dots). The points are arranged along the horizontal axis according to 2010 GDP per capita, so for each country, the blue dot lies directly above or below that same country’s red dot. Climate change is on average detrimental to GDP, except for 38 of the 165 countries. The biggest “winners” are Mongolia, Finland, Iceland, and Russia. The biggest losers are countries that were hot to begin with and grew slowly in the base period, with Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates faring worst of all (see here).
Figure 1: Projected 2099 GDP per capita with and without climate change according to Burke (Source: Ed Dolan, Niskanen Center).
Not that I believe this. Look at what Ed Dolan writes:
“(I)t is hardly surprising that these models (…) see the likely future as one with both continued global warming and continued economic growth. (…) (T)here is a fundamental causal relationship between the two. The standard models are built on the premise that economic activity is the principle source of the carbon emissions that drive climate change (…). Given the structure of the models, then, if the economy were to begin shrinking rather than growing, then other things equal, climate change itself would slow” (see here).
But this is a cardinal misunderstanding: there will be no other things equal, not only because of the delay phenomenon (if we stop emitting carbon dioxide today, temperature will still rise for a long time), but also, and more importantly, because, man-made climate change (Anthropogenic Climate Disruption, ACD) compromised (and continues to compromise) the capacity of the Earth system to capture CO2, while at the same time man-made warming causes the Earth system to increasingly emit CO2 and methane (see here). This means that the “standard models” are wrong, because the premise they are built upon is wrong: “economic activity” is no longer the only important source of carbon emissions. The estimate is that about 50% of total global fossil fuel emissions over the past 100 years have been absorbed by the land and oceans. If the sinks are exhausted or overwhelmed or shallow marine sediment outgassing and permafrost melting occurs, it is possible that, in the worst case scenario, a 50% reduction in the use of fossil fuels (not that there is a realistic strategy to achieve this) would have no effect on the growth rate of atmospheric CO2 (see here). This is how serious the situation is.
To make it worse than you think it is, given the above: it is not that we are making progress. As a world, we do not. Fossil fuels accounted for 81% of the world’s energy consumption in 1987. Incredibly, thirty years and twenty one international climate change conferences later the figure is the same: 81% (see here and here for the IPCC report). And forget ‘clean coal.’ Clean coal is as feasible as it is unaffordable (see here). Certainly, some countries have made substantial progress. But as a world, the “business-as-usual” scenario is the progress. And this will not change, at least not for as long as, as Flassbeck writes, the current oil price remains lower than in 1974 – a fact that is not well-known and of which the consequences are unfathomable (see here).
The United Nations recently released a report warning us that we will likely see upward of 50 million climate refugees within the next decade. They were wrong. Today, the estimate of displaced persons because of ACD is in excess of 65 million. There is no doubt that this is only the beginning of a much bigger, almost unfathomable, change. In 2014, the IPCC suggested that up to 700 million people currently living in low-lying coastal zones – 438 million in Asia and 246 million in the least developed countries – will be directly at risk to threats of climate change in the 21th Century. According to a new study by Geisler et al. (see below), the figure could be 1.4 billion by 2060 and 2 billion by the end of the century. What are global policy-makers doing?
Logically enough, the low lying islands, coastal regions, large river deltas and underdeveloped regions are most in danger of catastrophic change. According to a report from the World Bank (2014; updated 2015), 30 percent of arable land risks disappearing in Africa and 26% in Asia by 2030 (see here). According to this report, massive floods will occur in some areas, as well as massive reductions in fish catch, there will be prolonged and severe droughts in Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia, agricultural yields and nutritional quality will drop (in combination with growing populations), there will be sea-level rise, the destruction of terrestrial and marine ecosystems, the increasing acidification of oceans, increasing under-nourishment, increases in childhood stunting. Malaria and other easily preventable or curable diseases will prove lethal for many. As Wallace-Wells reminds us, for every degree increase in temperature, the malaria parasite reproduces ten times faster (see here).
In sub-Saharan Africa more than 60 million people who are already going hungry are likely to see their situation worsen due to increasing drought, other ACD impacts and threat multipliers such as uprooted communities, ethnic and/or religious strife, semi-failed and failed states, rising fundamentalism, conflicts within and wars between states.
Problems by no means only occur in developing countries. In Europe, desertification is creeping up north year by year. Cities such as Madrid and Barcelona are suffering water shortages during summer. The drought destroys the livelihoods of rural communities, both to the south and to the north of the Pyrenees. Desertification is taking place in the south of Italy, Greece, Bulgaria and Romania. By the end of the century, two out of three people living in Europe will be affected by heat waves, coastal floods and other weather-related disasters, largely due to global warming and climate change, according to a study published in the Lancet Planetary Health. Overall, weather-related disasters are expected to cause 152,000 deaths a year in Europe between 2071 and 2100, jumping from 3.000 weather disaster-related deaths a year between 1981 and 2010 (see here). A study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences shows that four hundred cities in the U.S. are going to be swamped by rising sea levels, no matter what mitigation measures are taken to decrease carbon dioxide emissions.
No one knows how to react to the migration crises that will result from ACD. There are no plans, although it is glaringly obvious that within one generation tens of millions of people will flee their regions. That will only be the start. These people will be displaced persons in their own country or end up in refugee camps. International law does not recognize the existence of ecological refugees. It protects indigenous people, but once the ecosystem collapses, there is no protection.
This is bitterly, indeed, insanely unfair, especially since poor countries, which bear the biggest burden, contributed historically the least to climate change. The number of those impoverished, malnourished, and deprived of fundamental needs such as security, health care, and education totals in the hundreds of millions. Under current international law, climate-induced, cross-border migration triggers little, if any, protection or assistance mechanisms. The truism that ungoverned spaces attract terrorist networks does not need to be repeated.
The ‘best’ (sic) European policy-makers seem to be capable of is continuing to adhere to the Geneva Convention, while at the same time trying to differentiate between motives: political asylum seekers in; economic immigrants out. As if this makes sense, as if it is possible. This is now called the problem of ‘mixed migration’ (see the latest study from the Bertelsmann Foundation here). However, it is clear that we will not do this well: the future will see more restrictions, the further hollowing-out of the right to asylum, while voices – by far not only from the extreme Right – go up and speak louder by the day to ‘close off’ all ‘entry-points,’ such as the Mediterranean and the Balkan route (see here).
The human tragedy will get worse, much worse. According to Geisler et al. from the Department of Development Sociology at Cornell, in the year 2100, two billion people – about one-fifth of the world’s population – could become climate change refugees. Those who once lived on coastlines will face displacement and resettlement bottlenecks as they seek habitable places inland. The Earth’s population is expected to top 9 billion people by 2050 and climb to 11 billion people by 2100.
Geisler et al. write that:
“The colliding forces of human fertility, submerging coastal zones, residential retreat, and impediments to inland resettlement is a huge problem. We offer preliminary estimates of the lands unlikely to support new waves of climate refugees due to the residues of war, exhausted natural resources, declining net primary productivity, desertification, urban sprawl, land concentration, ‘paving the planet’ with roads and greenhouse gas storage zones offsetting permafrost melt” (see here and here).
Feeding that population will require more arable land as swelling oceans consume fertile coastal zones and river deltas. Clearly, those who talk about “closing off” the Mediterranean and other “entry points” or paying off despots of countries at the border of the European continent to keep immigrants out are dreaming. It will not work and it should not, because it is inhumane.
That population growth, in itself, is not the problem, can be made clear by a few simple figures. Currently, the world population is some 7 billion. Of those 7 billion, some 30% is either mal-nourished, under-nourished or lives under conditions of famine, notwithstanding the fact that, today, the world produces enough food to feed in excess of 12 billion people. It is therefore not ‘physical limits’ that are the problem, it is the political economy of the global system, or, more prosaic, the fact that agriculture is in the hands of the Nestles, the Monsanto’s and the Cargills of this world which means that everyone can eat who can pay of it, as Amartya Sen Sen explained a long time ago. Climate change affects food security on both the national aggregate and the individual level. For food security to exist, Sen’s ‘three As’ – availability, accessibility and affordability – need to be present (see here and here). Food security depends on domestic production, imports and food aid. Climate change affects all of them.
How will this work? As Wallace-Wells explains, the basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every one degree Celsius of warming, yields decline by 10 percent (see here). Some estimates run as high as 15 or even 17 percent. This means that, if average global temperature will be four degrees warmer at the end of the century – this is by no means an extravagant or unrealistic expectation any longer, the contrary is true – we may have as many as 40 percent more people to feed and 40 percent less cereal output. Proteins, Wallace-Wells writes, are still way worse, as it takes 16 calories of grain to produce one single calorie of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent her life polluting the environment by farting and belching methane and producing nitrates (see here).
Many – plant physiologists among them – point out that this sort of math is too simple, too childish even, that it is only valid for regions already at peak growing temperature, and even then. Theoretically, climate change will make growing corn in Greenland or in Northern Russia easier. I do not want to criticise Wallace-Wells and I hope his article reaches a lot more people, but his reference (to Rosamond Naylor and David Battisti) does not prove what he is saying (see here and here instead). However, as far as I can tell, what Wallace-Wells is saying is true: the tropics are already too hot to efficiently grow grain, and those places where grain is produced today are at optimal growing temperature, which means that even small warming will push them down the slope of declining productivity. To this has to be added that it is impossible to move croplands up north some hundreds of miles because the soil is unsuitable to grow these crops there (see here). It seems that it takes centuries to produce optimally fertile dirt – the couple of centimetres of top soil we depend upon for our life.
What, then, will happen? By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions – and, again, there is not one single credible sign that such reductions will become a reality – southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought. The drought will be worse than the American dust bowl, the human misery of which has been immortalised in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Countries like Iraq, Iran, Syria and Pakistan will see their agricultural production plummeting. This, in fact, will be true for all the MENA (Middle East and North African) countries. The demographic evolution in each in these countries is the mirror image of most of their European counterparts: rapid population growth. Drought will wreck – this is, make impossible – agriculture in some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, in sub-Saharan Africa, in South America, where, in some countries such as Peru and Bolivia, conditions are already critical, and China. In a future not too far away, none of these places, which today still produce much of the world’s food, will be reliable sources of anything. Add to this that climate change will decrease the growth potential of most countries on earth and that food prices will spike. These changes will likely lead, or at least contribute, to a reconfiguration of global political and economic hegemony, with all risks that this will entail.
There is, and this has been going on for years now, not one month in which I do not learn about a problem which is new to me and which turns out to be incredible serious. Often enough, it then transpires that this problem is not being addressed, that it does not find its way into the IPCC reporting or to computer modelling.
It is, for example, of course not only drought. According to a new study from MIT, climate change in Pakistan, Nepal, India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka could be so severe that temperatures and humidity may exceed the upper levels of human survivability (see here). We are talking about extreme conditions of a crescent-shaped region where 1.5 billion people live. The researchers used data on climate that identifies variations in terrain and vegetation down to 10 square miles (ca. 25 square km) and fed it into global circulation models to produce detailed computer simulations. The resulting predictions showed extremes in so-called wet-bulb temperatures in South Asia. Wet-bulb temperatures (WTs) hotter than 35 degrees Celsius make it impossible for the body to dissipate heat naturally.
Although WT temperatures today typically do not exceed ca. 31°C, they nearly reached the threshold (35°C) in the summer of 2015, when an extreme heat wave hit Iran and parts of the Persian/Arabian Gulf. Not very much of the land in and around the area of the Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula is devoted to agriculture, fewer people live in this region than in South Asia and they tend to be wealthier. But WT temperatures could pass the threshold in parts of north-eastern India and most of Bangladesh during seasonal heat waves. Eltahir’s models predicted that the second-hottest wet-bulb temperatures would occur in South Asia. These scorching conditions would occur over land, where one-fifth of the world’s population lives and where many more people are vulnerable because they are poor and work outside (see here).
As we need protein, it makes sense to look at fish. Here too, there is a plethora of problems. To name just one, according to an article in Global Change Biology, warmer waters as a result of climate change could shrink the size of fish by 20 to 30 percent (see here). William Cheung from the University of British Columbia explains the mechanism: fish, being cold blooded animals, are not able to regulate their body temperatures. When the waters they live in become warmer their metabolism accelerates and they require more oxygen to sustain their body functions. The problem is that the surface area of the gills, where oxygen is gathered, does not grow at the same rate as the rest of the body, so the fish stops growing prematurely and, with it, our food supply diminishes.
A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in US rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in hard-hit areas such as the Mississippi-Atchafalaya River Basin (up 24 percent) and the Northeast (up 28 percent). And that is not counting likely increases in nitrogen inputs from more intensive agriculture, or from increased human population (see here).
Eva Sinha (from Stanford) et al. took historical records of nitrogen runoff as a result of rainstorms over the past few decades, recorded by the US Geological Survey. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that there will be no change in the amount of nitrogen being added to the environment, they calculated how much additional nitrogen would be leached out of farm fields and washed down rivers solely because of extreme weather events and increased rainfall predicted in most climate change scenarios. As Sinha et al. write:
“Anticipated changes in future precipitation patterns alone will lead to large and robust increases in watershed-scale nitrogen fluxes by the end of the century for the business-as-usual scenario” (see here).
More on this can be read here. Nitrogen creates dead zones, for example in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Pacific and inland waterways, lakes and other freshwater bodies where toxic blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) bloom (this is also a problem in Sweden, where more rain decreases the amount of drinking water). This problem is being exacerbated by warmer temperatures and increased rainfall associated with climate change. Efforts to protect the water supply may not work in the future because climate change introduces many new uncertainties about hydrology, stratification, and nutrient dynamics (see here). One such bloom in the western end of Lake Erie forced the city of Toledo in Ohio, to cut off the water supply temporarily to 500.000 residents in 2014. The same happened in China’s Lake Taihu in 2007, leaving 2.3 million people without water (see here). In the United States, a 2015 study found evidence of blue-green algae blooms in 62 percent of the 3,100 U.S. counties surveyed and concluded that these blooms were “significantly related to the risk of non-alcoholic liver disease death” (see here).
In fact, the nitrogen problem is enormous. Atmospheric nitrogen – from intensive farming and livestock operations, power plants, road traffic, and other sources – now gets deposited everywhere, making soils more fertile. That has the paradoxical effect of reducing plant diversity by displacing native species adapted to nutrient-poor soils (this also happens in Sweden where the invasive Lupinus is displacing native plants).
According to Sinha, climate change means that it will be necessary to cut agricultural nitrogen use in the Mississippi River Valley not by 32 percent, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency now proposes, but by almost double that amount (see here), which will – perhaps – be accomplished by genetically engineered cereals and laboratory cultured meat. But the challenge will be far greater in the developing world, particularly Asia. India is especially vulnerable because it has one of the fastest-growing populations. As climate change multiplies the rate of nitrogen runoff, they may increasingly find their water undrinkable (see here).
And so on and so forth.
“The uncomfortable truth,” Istvan Meszaros argued many years ago, “is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.” What is more, those who want to stand up need to do it now. It is not only a question of cooperation. We can all very well cooperate to make our ultimate demise a reality. We need to stand up for humanity as a whole. All the rest is betrayal. In this normative position, lies the kernel of a “solution” that I will explain in Part 2.
Let’s take a break for now and read the news about Irma, the second “once in 500 years” storm in a week. It seems that two more are on their way.