January 17th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

3°C of Global Warming = SO Not the Drama

Here's a little something I found at random on the Internet. And I do mean random; I spotted it while gazing into the eye of Shub-Internet. But amid all that randomness and clutter, this graph, from the Summer 2005 issue of Pacific Ecologist, caught my eye because it's the perfect illustration for a point I've been wanting to make, but didn't have the data handy. The graph is from an editorial by New Zealand geology professor Peter Barrett, entitled "What 3 Degrees of Global Warming Really Means." It's meant as a reply to those who've seen the consensus estimate that if the Kyoto Protocol treaties fail to stem CO2 emissions, average global temperatures will go up 3°C, or about 5°F, and who are thinking, "So what?" According to him, "so what" is a rise in sea level of at least 6 meters, probably more, but absolutely no more than 70 meters. Plus changes in rainfall patterns which will wipe out a lot of current farmland and move the distribution of drinking water around. He calls this scenario, "the end of civilization as we know it by the end of this century."

Oh, please. Let's look at the data, shall we?

Here's why I think the data prove my point, not his. If you only look at his graphs B and C, the 1,000 year and 100,000 year timespans, you see that sudden sharp rise at the end (most of which is still hypothetical) and scream, "OMFG we're all gonna die!" Now take a good look at graph A. The consensus estimate says that temperature will level off still most of one degree centigrade, or about one degree Farenheit, short of where it was during the Earth's period of maximum biodiversity. The Earth's temperature still hasn't gotten back up to normal after the catastrophe at the K-T barrier. The way I look at that data, from a pure climate health standpoint, we ought to be rooting for even more global warming than we're going to get.

Which leaves the rainfall pattern changes and the sea level changes. Taken together, they mean that some time over the next 100 years, we'd have to evacuate an awful lot of coastal cities and build new housing and new jobs for those people. I fail to be impressed by this because, at least here in the US, we've been busily evacuating those cities since roughly 1946. At least half of the population of the USA lives and works in places that were empty land 50 years ago. If we need to build that much again in 100 years, somehow I don't see this as much of a challenge. On the contrary, it strikes me as more or less what we're likely to do even if we don't have to.

It also means an awful lot of farms suddenly no longer become productive, and have to be replaced over the next 100 years. Except that 100 years ago, 3/4 of this country's farmland was still the Great Grass Sea. We turned that land from unused plains into farmland in roughly 20 years, as I documented a little while ago, and into the world's most productive farmland in about 80 or 90 years. Knowing what we know now, do you honestly think that we can't do that again, in the same span of time, wherever the rainfall ends up coming down? And again, from a purely ecological point of view, that we might have to do this strikes me as the good news. As I said in the same series of essays, most of that farmland has been wrecked over the last 50 years; so little natural soil fertility is left that what we're doing is only barely one step removed from hydroponics. In the meantime, from Canada to the Ukraine, there's all this insanely fertile soil that hardly gets used, because it's just barely too cold; the growing season and the working conditions just aren't right. From a perspective of feeding the world, with a minimum of petrochemical fertilizer and a minimum of damage to the water table, I have to view the prospect of shifting the world's farm economy off of the existing over-farmed Dust Bowl in Waiting as a win/win scenario.

Note that the Age of Mammals began right at around the last time that the temperature stabilized at 3°C warmer than we are now. You and I evolved to those climate conditions, which is why from the wood burning fires of the sub-Saharan encroaching desert to the acid-rain belching coal fired plants of the American rust belt, we're wreaking yet more ecological havoc just trying to keep ourselves warm. By odd coincidence, this year has been just about as much warmer in the US as is forecast, long term, for the world. The net effect here in Missouri has been an event unprecedented in my lifetime. Laclede Gas applied to the Missouri Public Utility Commission for an emergency rate decrease, because natural gas consumption fell fast enough for conservation to make up most of the losses to stockpiles from the damage that Hurricane Katrina did to America's natural gas industry and America's primary natural gas import terminal.

So I'm sure, as many of you seem to think that a few degrees of global warming would be the figurative End of the World, that there must be something I haven't thought of, in which case, enlighten me. Or am I actually right and all the doom-sayers wrong?