6 Horrible Things We Have to Face Because of Climate Change

Climate change is not a buzzword. It's a catastrophe, and it's here.

Photo Credit: strejman/Shutterstock.com

Global warming is here, it’s happening now, and, frankly, nothing we can do can change the fact that we are already screwed. Nero fiddles while Rome burns. At this point, we can only mitigate the damage, not prevent it. A United Nations report in 2013 noted that greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere were at a level not seen in 800,000 years. Each of the last three decades has been warmer than any decade since 1850. In the northern hemisphere, the last three decades have been warmer than it has been in the last 14 centuries. CO2 levels are 40% higher than when the Industrial Revolution began back in the 18th century. Methane levels are 150% higher. Not only are we spewing tons and tons of carbon into the air via cars, coal-generated power plants, and airplanes, but we are also wiping out rainforests, which would normally be removing the CO2 from the atmosphere. To add fat to the fire, we are replacing the rainforests with cattle farms stocked with cows farting methane (an even more potent greenhouse gas than CO2) into the air. Earth’s average temperature will rise between 2 and 11 degrees Fahrenheit. Remember, that’s an average. Imagine a cold New England winter and it is so hot elsewhere that the average world temperature still goes up! Greenhouse gases do not break down quickly. Even if we stopped pouring them into the air this very second, the damage we have done already will persist for hundreds of years. If we don’t figure it out, if we keep following the path we are on, places like Southern California will have temperatures in the 100s on a daily basis. We are not talking about some distant future. These things will happen in your child’s lifetime unless we act. Here are six real-life horrible scenarios global warming will bring:

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1. Jesus, it's hot!

Temperatures worldwide could rise 10 degrees Fahrenheit or more. If you enjoy a nice walk in Death Valley, then this super-heated world’s for you. To get a clearer picture, Climate Central, a non-profit organization in New Jersey has been compiling information in a report, “1,001 Blistering Future Summers,”and it has some eye-opening numbers. An average 78 degree Boston summer day today will be a Miami-like 89 degrees by the year 2100. Miami, in turn, will have risen to an average 94 degrees, similar to an average Harlingen, Texas summer day today. Harlingen, meanwhile, will have risen to an average of over 100 degrees. And so it goes. You can check how hot your city will be here. 

2. It's "The Grapes of Wrath" all over again.

As the Earth heats up, and weather patterns change, drought conditions plaguing the country for the past several years will become more and more commonplace. In the early 20th century, when ill-advised farming practices led to the removal of natural wind-breaks and grassland, wind erosion caused massive dust storms in the American southwest. The Dust Bowl as memorably written about by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath, and photographed by numerous photographers. Droughts today, caused by global warming, are creating similar conditions in the Great Plains. "If the drought holds on for two or three more years, as droughts have in the past, we will have Dust Bowl conditions in the farming belt," Craig Cox, an agriculture and natural resources expert with the Environmental Working Group, told Scientific American. "It could be in a sense an invisible Dust Bowl—not like the big storms before, but withered crops, dry streams and other disasters that accompanied the Dust Bowl. Wind erosion is tremendously damaging and hard to control. A lot of practices that control wind erosion require growing things, and if those weren't in place when the drought hit, it's almost impossible to put them in place now."

3. Shall we take a swim down Broadway?

Ice normally helps reflect sunlight back into space, but as the Earth warms due to increased carbon in the air, ice melts, exposing the dark groundcover underneath, the darker color absorbing sunlight instead of reflecting it, causing the Earth to heat more quickly, causing more ice to melt, in a grand feedback loop. You know how when you plop a few ice cubes into a glass of water, the level of the water in the glass rises? Well, that’s what is happening right now. As the Earth’s temperature rises, the ice in the arctic and Antarctic regions is melting. Fast. And huge chunks of ice are crashing into the oceans, glaciers are melting, and the ocean levels of the planet are, like the level in that glass of water, rising. The sea level will rise by up to one foot by 2050, and by four to six feet by 2100. Right now flooding in the largest coastal cities in the world costs us around six billion dollars a year. According to a science journal, Nature Climate Change, that cost will rise to one trillion dollars by 2050. Cities at risk of partial or total submersion read like a who’s who of the world’s great metropolises: New York, Boston, Alexandria, Bangkok, Venice, New Orleans, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Calcutta, Miami, Shanghai. We could reduce that trillion dollar amount to a more manageable 63 billion dollars a year, but only if we invest in preventative measures now—things like levees, pumps, and barriers, which would, of course, require Nero to stop fiddling….

4. Remember frogs? Wonder what happened to them.

The Earth has gone through five periods of mass species extinction in our distant past. Many scientists feel that we are now entering our sixth mass extinction. Species extinction today rivals that of the die-off of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Dozens of species are disappearing every day, and we are losing species up to 10,000 times the normal rate of extinction in the past. As temperatures change, and as we burn down forests to make way for cattle farms and developments, which further contribute to the rising temperatures, species are unable to adapt quickly enough to their loss of habitat or the change in temperature . This in turn causes slight but significant changes in food supply, migrating habits, habitat viability, etc., leading to species demise). Frogs and other amphibians are most sensitive to the changes occurring in the climate, and are disappearing at up to 45,000 times the normal historical rate. Overall, up to a third of the known species of amphibians are at risk of simply disappearing. Because amphibians are so sensitive, they are sort of the other species' canary-in-the-coal-mine, acting as a gauge of the overall health of the ecosystem, and their loss is alarming. Birds, fish, mammals, insects, plants, you name it, they are all at risk. What does that mean for you and me? Simply put, the Earth is a vast machine, and everything on Earth plays a part in keeping the machine running smoothly.  Under normal circumstances, loss of a species here and there would not affect the health of the machine, as there would be time to adapt to the loss. However, due to human-caused mass extinction at unprecedented rates, there is scant time for the Earth-machine to adapt, and a breakdown is, if not inevitable, certainly more likely. The results we might see include food shortages, water shortages, new diseases, shortages of resources (and the resulting wars). So, it's really not just the loss of a few cute frogs.

5. Remember that quaint little storm, Hurricane Sandy?

In basic terms, hurricanes are caused by water vapor forming over the oceans, combined with certain wind and atmospheric conditions. And as the Earth warms, the ocean surfaces warm, more water vapor results in more and/or stronger hurricanes. Many people think that global climate change has already started to affect the strength and number of hurricanes. While that is a debatable point, it is a near certainty that, given our current path, human-caused warming will result in hurricanes much stronger than Hurricane Sandy. Sandy was a category 3 storm. Scientists are predicting category 4 and 5 storms to be normal. A storm at that level may very well have wiped out New Orleans. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, hurricane strength will likely increase by up to 11%, on average, by 2100. Rainfall from the storms will increase by up to 20%. Damage and loss on this order of magnitude may very well make us look fondly back at Sandy, and make us wonder at our naiveté. 

6. Eat your dinner! There are people starving . . . everywhere!

In case you haven’t noticed, fruits and vegetables cost a lot more this year. Why is that, you may ask? The short answer is that California has been suffering through a major drought (possibly but not certainly caused by global warming), and since we get so many of our fruits and veggies from California, and since crop losses have risen due to the drought, food costs have gone up. This same scenario has played out all over the country, as drought has hit many of our major farm states. Now, picture a world, not so far away, in which droughts are commonplace. That is the world coming to you, courtesy of human-caused global warming. Combined with the unmanageable population growth, such conditions will affect many countries that can ill-afford to suffer more catastrophes. Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance.  The most vulnerable countries, in Africa and Asia, hard-hit by drought, economically shaky, will likely be overwhelmed by crop failures, water shortages, and resulting food shortages. Of course, weather knows no borders. Eventually, even rich nations will have to deal with scarcer food, and even more scarce water (the supply of which will be taxed as decreased rainfall and snowfall and increased need to irrigate crops result in depleted reservoirs and aquifers). Expect wars to be fought over food and water resources, widespread famine, and the diseases caused by those conditions.

Many of the above atrocious scenarios can be mitigated, but only if we as a country, and nations worldwide, agree that they are not acceptable. Back in the 1970s, the Earth’s protective ozone layer was deteriorating due to manmade causes (chlorofluorocarbons in spray products). It seemed impossible that something so innocuous as spray deodorant could cause anything so catastrophic. But scientists showed us what was happening and we came together and banned CFCs, allowing the ozone layer to recover. Science is once again showing us that we are creating an incredibly dangerous situation. How will we respond?




Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history.