Climate Change Left Its Mark on 2020, And It’s Just Getting Started
In an essay published in Medium two months ago (“Climate Change — It’s Worse Than You Think”) I noted that:
…if public policy is to address climate change with the urgency it actually demands, it is first necessary to make the case for that urgency in terms that a majority of ordinary citizens not only understand but can feel viscerally for the threat that it is.
During the Trump administration, focus was intentionally turned away from the climate change problem — withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord, rolling back fuel-efficiency standards, and so forth. Trump, a climate-change denier himself, gave comfort to millions of citizens who literally cannot imagine, and do not accept, a world in which climate change is an urgent priority.
Thankfully, our new President Biden means to take climate change seriously. Following his inauguration, Biden immediately announced that the U.S. would rejoin the Paris accord, and he took steps to reinstate stricter efficiency standards for cars and aircraft as well as buildings and appliances. He also announced additional executive orders to address climate change and move the nation toward a clean energy economy.
It’s a welcome start, but just barely. Evidence is rolling in that climate change is accelerating faster than previously predicted. Most citizens really don’t grasp the extent of the threat; a sizable minority on the political right still denies that climate change is even an issue. It is necessary, as I wrote above, to present the case in terms we cannot ignore and must address.
That challenge will remain a moving target for decades to come. For the moment, let us simply review some of the most compelling evidence we’ve seen during the past year. Such evidence will continue to mount over time to an urgent, deafening crescendo — but by then, any chance of even partial mitigation will be long gone. If we care about a livable future, we must pay attention now.
Here are some of the worrying effects of climate change that became apparent over the past year.
First of all, depending on who you ask, the year 2020 was either the hottest year on record, globally, or the second hottest, or tied with 2016 for the hottest. More to the point, it is now clear that the past seven years, including 2020, were collectively the hottest seven years ever seen on this planet since modern measurements began. Very likely, our planet has not experienced this kind of heat in at least 800,000 years, and possibly much longer than that.
Arctic sea ice reached a record low, with the prospect of further ice loss a near certainty in coming years. One sad consequence is the likely extinction of iconic arctic species such as the polar bear in the foreseeable future. More concerning, in the longer run, is the certainty of dramatic sea level rise.
When floating ice melts, as in the Arctic, it contributes little or nothing to rising seas. But when massive amounts of land-based ice melt, the gradual result can be huge amounts of sea level rise, enough to permanently flood many coastal population centers not protected by dikes and sea walls. Such ice melt is occurring now in the two places that together contain the majority of all land-based ice on earth: Greenland and Antarctica.
Greenland alone contains so much ice that, if it were all to melt, global sea levels would rise by about 23 feet. Granted, it would take quite a long time (probably centuries) to melt all that ice, but climate scientists worry that the earth could soon hit a tipping point past which the melting will occur at an accelerating pace no matter what we do.
The ice of Antarctica, were it to melt, poses an even bigger problem. About 61% of all the fresh water on earth is locked in Antarctic ice. If all that ice melted, the result would be roughly 58 meters, or 190 feet, of sea level rise, enough to flood every coastal city on Earth and wipe whole nations off the map. Human civilization as we know it probably could not survive such a catastrophe. Again, that amount of melting would take centuries at least, possibly millennia — but it is already underway. According to NASA, Antarctic ice is now melting six times faster than it was 40 years ago.
Melting ice isn’t the only driver of sea level rise. Climate change is also warming the oceans, and warmer water expands, or increases in volume. That leads to rising seas, even without ice melt.
Record Hurricane Season
Climate scientists predict that a warming earth will probably produce more and stronger hurricanes and similar storms. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season confirmed that prediction, producing 30 named tropical storms, the most ever (runner-up year 2005 saw 29). The last storm of the year was the strongest: category 5 Hurricane Iota, in mid-November, had maximum sustained winds of 160 miles per hour.
In 2020, wild fires ravaged much of the world. Fires that began in 2019 continued to burn across much of Australia during 2020, until they were finally extinguished in May. Vast tracts of Australian bush were destroyed, resulting in the death of countless animals, including endangered koala bears, and the loss of some 3,000 homes. Huge fires also burned across much of Siberia and parts of Indonesia and the Brazilian Amazon. Tragically, many fires in Brazil and Indonesia are set on purpose by humans intent on clearing land for development.
Massive wild fires, exacerbated by years of drought, also devastated much of the U.S. West Coast, as well as parts of Colorado. In northern California, the August Complex Fire resulted when 38 separate smaller fires came together in one monster conflagration that eventually consumed roughly 1 million acres, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island. The fire burned for almost two months before being finally contained in mid-November.
Meanwhile, in Colorado, three different wild fires vied for the title of the state’s biggest-ever. The Pine Gulch Fire started the competition in August, until it was surpassed by the Cameron Peak Fire a few weeks later. Also in the running was the East Troublesome Fire which started in mid-October. A fourth massive fire, the Mullen, started in neighboring Wyoming before crossing into Colorado in late September. In the end, the Pine Gulch Fire took the title as Colorado’s biggest ever, burning nearly 209,000 acres and destroying 469 structures.
The Warnings Aren’t New
Scientists have been sounding the alarm on climate change for decades. As far back as 1965, a report sent to President Lyndon Johnson warned that continued burning of fossil fuels would lead to “deleterious” effects for humans. In 1979, a Department of Energy report warned of potentially dangerous melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Finally, in the summer of 1988, NASA scientist James Hansen testified before the U.S. Senate that “the greenhouse effect has been detected and is changing our climate now.” From that moment on, “greenhouse effect” became a household term. But the rest of Hansen’s warning proved less memorable. “It’s time to stop waffling” on the need to change our behavior, he insisted; but, to a large extent, we’ve been waffling ever since.
So What Will Happen If…
In October of last year, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert described in The New Yorker magazine three possible scenarios of climate change, depending upon how humans choose to respond between now and the year 2050.
In Scenario One, humans around the world get serious and “stop waffling.” With a jump start from the reduced global emissions accompanying the Covid pandemic, humans work hard to hold emissions in check and pledge to convert away from fossil fuels to 100% renewable energy within ten years. If this were accomplished, global temperature would still rise, but would remain below the 2 degrees Celsius increase that scientists warn is the danger line for future warming. In this scenario, the world is potentially much healthier and environmentally stable by 2050. However, achieving this “Green New Deal” on a global scale presents formidable challenges and is not likely to occur.
In Scenario Two, global emissions continue to grow, driven in large part by rapid expansion in developing countries. By 2050, global temperature has increased by at least 2 degrees Celsius. Developed countries are busy building sea walls to hold back rising seas, and other walls to hold back climate refugees. In less developed nations, social conditions are deteriorating.
In Scenario Three, conditions similar to Scenario Two produce more extreme levels of social unrest, leading to widespread conflict and war. Less resilient nations are breaking down, while more fortunate nations are bracing for worse to come.
In other words, if Kolbert is correct, nothing short of worldwide emergency climate change mitigation, starting right now, would be sufficient to ward off large scale disaster. In the United States, President Biden is acting as if he understands the urgency. But countless millions of people, both here and abroad, simply do not. How we’re going to get through this mess is difficult to imagine.