Editor's note - Today marks the first of a multi-part series concerning climate change and practical steps for living greener in a warming world, by guest blogger (and friend) Dr. James Crooks. James is an environmental health researcher and statistician at National Jewish Health, a respiratory research hospital in Denver, Colorado. He researches the health effects of climate-driven extreme air pollution events. He's also interested in genomics, toxicology, and infectious diseases. Before joining the faculty of National Jewish he worked for seven years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He earned a Ph.D. in physics and a M.S. in statistics from UNC Chapel Hill. He is a husband and the father of two boys.
The wonderful, terrifying thing about living in a democratic republic is not just that we get to vote for our leaders; it is that we are responsible for each other. There is no monarch to look out for us, curry favor with, or beseech for aid. When there's a challenge it's up to us to face it. Governments may help or not, but in the end it's always up to us. So it is now with climate change, which will likely be the greatest challenge facing the human race for the next several centuries. Our ability and responsibility to confront climate change *now* have not diminished just because the incoming president denies reality. It's up to us. I've spent much of the past few years studying climate change in both my professional and personal lives, and as a result my wife and I have started reducing our own carbon footprint. We still have a ways to go to bring it down to zero, but in the process of making these changes I've learned a lot about the practicalities of various options. Some changes are easy, some not so easy; some are obvious and some are not; some are money-saving, some are cheap, and some are expensive; some are trivial and some are profoundly life-altering. So I'm writing this for those of you out there who want to make your own changes but don't know where to start. Over the next several weeks I'll be posting a series of messages describing some concrete changes you can make and how to fit them into your life. Not all of the changes I will describe are changes my family has or will likely ever put into practice, but my hope is to lay out a range of possibilities so you can decide which will work best for your family. I hope you find the messages useful. Remember, the longer we hesitate to fight climate change the worse our options will be. For the next four years we can't depend on our leaders that do what's right. We can't wait for the next president. There is no time. It's up to us.
Climate change will not come as a singular, sudden catastrophe. It will arrive in slow-motion, the long accumulation of increasingly destructive disasters.
Part 1 - Why it's important
Let’s say you understand that climate change is real, that it’s happening now, and that humans are causing it. But how worried should you be?
How worried you should be depends on the decisions we make right now. According to the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report [Link], if the human race cuts emissions drastically now we may only be facing 0.5-3.2 additional degrees fahrenheit of warming by the year 2100 compared to the year 2010, or about 1.6-4.3 degrees above the 20th century average. If we do nothing to control emissions we are facing a 7.0-11.6 degrees fahrenheit above 2010. However, even aggressive cuts will still allow sea levels to rise 1.0-2.0 feet* and ocean acidity to increase another 12%, while inaction will lead to 1.5-3.0 foot increase and a doubling of ocean acidity. [More recent research on the stability of Earth’s three major ice sheets strongly implies that sea level rise will be much faster than these 2013 IPCC estimates.]
View of Mendenhall Glacier near Juneau, Alaska
Our true future will likely fall somewhere in between these extremes, but this is still frightening prospect. Why is that? Why would 5 or 6 degrees of warming be such a problem?
To explain why, it's important to understand that we will not experience climate change as a singular, sudden catastrophe. We will experience it in slow-motion, as the long accumulation of increasingly frequent and destructive disasters, each leaving us more vulnerable to the next. And while the timeline of individual crises will be nearly impossible to predict, we understand the forces driving the crises, meaning we can make accurate predictions about them in aggregate. Higher sea levels will inundate coastal cities. Higher temperatures will mean more heat stress, drier soil, and less stable weather. Less stable weather leads to more extreme events like heat waves, flash floods, and droughts, all of which will impact food supply and vital infrastructure. Changes in precipitation will dry out areas that are now vegetated, resulting in more wildfires and dust storms and loss of farmland. Smaller snowpack and retreating glaciers means less melt water to draw upon in the summer and fall, compounding the effects of drought. Ocean acidification and ocean warming will contribute to the loss of fisheries upon which much of the human race depends for protein. Environmental stress will increase susceptibility to disease among plants, animals, and humans, while population movements and ecosystem disruptions will allow diseases to spread more easily. Many species will not be able to adapt to the changes and will go extinct, while among humans the poorest will be most vulnerable.
We’ve missed our chance to prevent climate change, but if we act now to reduce our emissions we can still prevent the pace of disasters from accelerating faster than our ability to protect ourselves. If we don’t act now it’s not hard to imagine how constant disruptions to food production, to the distribution and damage to health care and transportation infrastructure, and to governance could drive populations movements, failed states, and wars. It’s also not hard to image how repeated crises could encourage authoritarianism in those states that remain.
Coming next week - Part 2, Your Carbon Footprint