Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Something Serious To Consider


As those who read this blog regularly -- both of you -- are aware, much of the content here focuses on politics and current events, with a special emphasis on the dumbassery of the trump administration and the general frustration of rational people in dealing with an ignorant, petulant, Twitter-tantrum-throwing, traffic-cone colored man-baby.

This is not one of those entries.

We are facing -- have been facing for some time now, and ignoring to our detriment -- an existential crisis. Not "existential" in the sense that it is usually used in the political sphere; in those cases commentators are referring to the "American way of life," or Second Amendment rights, or abortion, or a trade deal ... in those cases the existential part of the claim is extremely limited to a narrow slice of humanity (gun owners, small businesses, etc.). No, in this instance "existential" refers to the species of great apes known as homo sapiens -- thinking man -- and its continued existence on planet Earth.

There is a lot of debate going back and forth over whether the two degree limit set by climate scientists at the beginning of this century was accurate, or too stringent, or not stringent enough. And while these are important discussions to have, they miss the larger point that boils the entire debate down to a single, central point.

What if we're wrong?

To be more specific, each side needs to ask themselves this question and ponder the ramifications of an affirmative answer. So let's do that, and let's begin with the supporters of the concept of anthropogenic climate change, shall we?

For the moment, let's assume that all this talk of climate change really is a boondoggle, and that it's all part of some natural cycle that is going to reverse itself fairly soon, as the climate change deniers claim. Let's also assume that the use of fossil fuels does not contribute enough to the atmosphere in the form of greenhouse gases to make much of a difference, and let us further assume that we go ahead with mitigation efforts anyway. What are the likely ramifications of this?

To begin with, fossil fuel companies will be severely impacted, which could cause economic turmoil in countries for which fossil fuel production is a major component of the economy. Much of the Middle East and Northern Africa could be driven into recession as revenues from energy exports plummet, sparking even more conflict in a region that is already beset with discord. Countries like Iraq (where energy exports account for 100% of all merchandise exports), Angola (95%), Algeria (94%), Brunei Darussalam (93%) and Kuwait (89%) would all essentially cease to exist altogether, while dozens of other nations -- including places like Saudi Arabia, the Russian Federation, Bolivia, and Bahrain -- would experience negative economic impacts ranging from severe to near-catastrophic1.

We would also have to take into account the loss of wealth as these resources, and the companies that exploit them, lose value. I have not been able to find any estimates as to the estimated losses (I suspect because nobody seriously expects that addressing climate change is a boondoggle at all ... just guessing), but it is fairly safe to say that these losses could ascend into the trillions of dollars. Granted, some of this wealth would flow into the coffers of those entities attempting to address the issue, but in this scenario those gains would be relatively short-lived.

Finally there is the opportunity costs and resulting revenue that will be lost as a result of a lack of exploitation of fossil fuel resources. This could also run into the trillions of dollars.

Pretty gnarly stuff. Assuming that climate change is a hoax, it would appear that addressing it could cause some serious economic problems. So let's look at the other side of the coin.

What if the climate deniers are wrong but succeed in halting any efforts to address it? What can we expect then?

In the short term (within the next 15 years or so) we will see even more severe hurricanes, tornadoes, and other weather events. Wildfires will consume roughly 20% more land than they do today, and will occur with greater frequency. Low-lying places like Miami, Bangladesh, the Maldives, and so on will be rendered almost or completely uninhabitable, either because they will be entirely under water or due to salt water intrusion into freshwater aquifers. We will see greater instances of respiratory illness due to increased ground-level ozone. Migration and growing patterns will be altered. Food supplies will start to dwindle as a result of poleward migration of food crops to areas with poorer soil quality. There will be countless water wars waged over shrinking supplies of fresh water.

Longer term? Say, by the end of the century? Possibilities range from the relatively benign (more of the same, albeit a bit more severe) to all-out extinction of virtually all life on this planet ... it depends on a lot of factors.

Just to give some perspective, though, we have to consider planetary history. There have been five major (greater than 80% of life on the planet) extinction events in the Earth's 4.5 billion years. With the exception of the Chixclub meteorite (65 million years ago, that wiped out the dinosaurs), all events were the result of global climate change on a massive scale.

At our current rate, we will see anywhere from four to ten feet of seal level rise by the end of the century. However, that is actually the least belligerent behavior we will see from the oceans.

Increased CO2 leads to acidification of the oceans ... think of what happens to the pH level of water when it is carbonated (remember the experiment in sixth grade where you dissolved a nail in a glass of Coke?). One result of this is that, as CO2 builds up in the oceans, it creates a more conducive environment for anaerobic bacteria. These bacteria actually consume oxygen, rendering the water even more anoxic. As a result, smaller fish suffocate and die off, disrupting the food chain. One byproduct of this process is hydrogen sulfide (H2S) -- the gas that give rotten eggs (and particularly potent dad farts) their stink. The thing about hydrogen sulfide, the reason we are so attuned to it, is that, in amounts greater than the minute quantities produced by a rotten egg or a dad fart, it is deadly stuff (although, to be fair, I have been known to clear a room in milliseconds). It is so deadly that during one of the extinction events mentioned before it was responsible for wiping out 97 of all life on Earth. The ocean dead zones created by the anaerobic bacteria spread, increasing H2S production which killed everything on land, plants included.

So it boils down to two possible scenarios. On the one hand? A possibility of severe global economic strife on a level never seen before.

On the other hand? Extinction.

Quite frankly, I would rather be poor than dead. But that's just me. I gotta lie down.

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1The World Bank, The World Bank Open Data, "Fuel Exports (% of merchandise exports)," http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/TX.VAL.FUEL.ZS.UN?end=2015&start=1962&view=chart&year_high_desc=true

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