Climate Change Endangers Civilization

Civilization, as we know it, is at risk of collapse because of radical climate change. Furthermore, it is possible that radical climate change has already started an acceleration phase of disruptive activity that is more threatening to humankind than war, terrorism, and normal climate behavior such as regular hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts and other normalized weather patterns.

In today’s world, the climate change equation is different from previous circumstances, and it is possible that climate change/global warming may already be out of control. But, nobody knows this for sure. However, an astute futurist might conclude that, unless the world immediately gets off fossil fuels by switching to renewable energy sources, civilization is headed for collapse, a fracturing of societies whereby hordes of people, acting in their self-interests, comb the planet in constant opposition to other hordes of people, seeking food and water, similar to the film Mad Max (Warner Bros. 1979), which depicted a breakdown of society, and of law and order, as itinerant groups of people fight other groups over scarce natural resources. In essence, this is a scenario of wartime assemblages all across the planet fighting for survival.

Thus, the question is: What evidence is there that climate change may disrupt civilization? For answers, one can look to the oceans, to glaciers, to the ice sheets, and to erratic climatic behavior. Accordingly, The Current and Future Consequences of Global Change, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) claims: “Effects that scientists had predicted in the past would result from global climate change are now occurring: loss of sea ice, accelerated sea level rise and longer, more intense heat waves.”

A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) article, Future Climate Change, says: The impact of increasing temperature, erratic amounts of precipitation, reduced ice, rising sea level, and increased acidity of the oceans, “… these changes will impact our food supply, water resources, infrastructure, ecosystems, and even our own health.”

This statement by the EPA pretty much covers all the bases. Nothing is more precious for life than food and water. And that is precisely the point to be made even though all aspects of life are negatively influenced by radical climate change, resulting in the unfortunate circumstance that societies may break down, losing control over law and order. What else should be expected when civilization en masse is deprived of food and water? These needs are so basic to human existence that the only solution, by default, becomes either “fight or die.” This dire prediction of what could happen may, in fact, be unfolding in the near future.

For example, El Alto, Bolivia is a city of one million inhabitants. It is the sister city to La Paz, and it is located in the high Andes. According to Edson Ramirez, a glaciologist at Universidad Mayor de San Andres: Temperatures in the Andes have been rising steadily for 60 years and on track to rise another 3.5-to-4 C over the next 100 years, turning much of Bolivia into barren desert. Meanwhile, El Alto is already short of water supply for its one million inhabitants, and its electricity supply is unreliable, in large part, because of dying glaciers.

The World Bank believes climate change threatens to eliminate enough glaciers in the Andes within the next two decades to threaten the existence of 100 million people because of loss of water flow from glaciers, impacting agricultural irrigation, drinking water, and hydro electric power.

These melting glaciers are not new on the scene. They’re over 20,000 years old, but because temperatures in the high Andes have been accelerating, since 1975, the glacial melt is increasing and disappearing in a whisk of glacial time! Truly breathtaking!

Glacial Lake Outburst Floods

Meantime, the rapidity of glacial melt brings in its wake risks of glacial lake outburst floods (“GLOFs”). For example, “10 Killed, 60 Missing as Glacial Lake Burst in Nepal”, The Hindu, May 5, 2012.  Also, in central Peru in mid 2010, a huge slab of ice the size of several football fields broke off a glacier, plunging into a central Peru lake that created a tsunami-like wave 75 feet high, flooding four towns, “Disappearing Lakes”, Newsweek, January 1, 2011, and, according to a World Bank report, Peru’s glaciers are likely to completely disappear within two decades.

Furthermore, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development has identified 200 potentially dangerous glacial lakes in the Himalayan region of Nepal, China, Bhutan, India, and Pakistan. The increasing frequency of GLOFs, as measured on a graph since 1930, matches other climatic events such as CO2 levels in the atmosphere with graphs of both GLOFs and CO2 sloping upwards in steep ascent in lock-step fashion (source: Quaternary International.) Thus, not only is the water source for millions of people disappearing, but also, along the way, entire villages, towns, and cities are at risk of cascading GLOFs. It’s a double-whammy!

Glacial Disappearance and Water Table Depletion

Water, water… everywhere water… poses serious problems as glaciers melt, but what happens as glaciers increasingly disappear? According to Earth Policy Institute,

The world has never faced such a predictably massive threat to food production as that posed by the melting mountain glaciers of Asia… If the giant Gangotri Glacier that supplies 70 percent of the Ganges’ water flow during the dry season disappears, the Ganges could become a seasonal river, flowing during the rainy season but not during the summer dry season when irrigation water needs are greatest.

In China, Yao Tandong, Director, Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research, a leading Chinese glaciologist, says glaciers in western China are melting at an accelerating rate, calculating that two-thirds of the glaciers may disappear by mid century. Thus, impacting the Yellow and Yangtze rivers: “If this melting of glaciers continues… It will eventually lead to an ecological catastrophe,” according to Tandong.

Meanwhile, the water tables in both India and China are falling. For example, under the North China Plain, the country’s principal grain-producing region, aquifers are depleting at the same time as glaciers are disappearing. In India, water wells are going dry in almost every state. Consider the following: The Ganges River, which is 70% glacial-fed, is the largest source of surface water for agricultural irrigation in India; it is the leading source of water for 407 million people in the Indo-Gangetic Basin. And, more startling yet, India will add 490 million people and China will add 80 million people by 2050. How will an additional 570 million people access water and food if the glaciers continue disappearing?

Already, China, which was self-sufficient in soybean growth a decade ago, is now importing 70% of its soybean supply. Contemplate this: China and India are the world’s leading producers of both wheat and rice, which are their food staples. China’s wheat harvest is twice that of the United States. If these countries lose the “Water Tower of Asia,” civilization will be turned upside down on its head and likely evolve into masses of itinerate people fighting for survival.

Based upon studies of historic civilizations that collapsed, it was often shrinking grain harvests that were responsible. For example, the Sumerians experienced rising salt concentrations in the soil, lowering wheat and barley yields, bringing down their civilization, and the Mayans experienced massive soil erosion following deforestation that undermined their agriculture. Nothing destroys a civilization as quickly, and as surely, as failure to grow crops.

According to the Earth Policy Institute:

Ironically, the two countries that are planning to build most of the new coal-fired power plants, China and India, are precisely the ones whose food security is most massively threatened by the carbon emitted from burning coal. It is now in their interest to try and save their mountain glaciers by shifting energy investment from coal-fired power plants to energy efficiency and to wind farms, solar thermal plants, and geothermal power plants.

Ocean Acidification and Marine Life Extinction

Meanwhile, as the world’s glaciers melt, “Oceans are sucking up increased carbon emissions, raising fears acidification could lead to marine life extinctions… scientists say greenhouse gases are causing rapid changes that may irreversibly alter the composition of the Earth’s oceans,” CO2 Dangerously Acidifying World’s Oceans, Al-Jazeera, November 28, 2012.

Not only is agriculture at risk, but also at risk is more than one hundred million tonnes of fish eaten worldwide each year, and fish nutrition is especially significant for people in developing countries. And, these are the very regions that are most at risk of grain production failure.

The oceans have absorbed 30% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions since the industrial revolution. As a result, acidification is taking place, and this chemical imbalance in the oceans is threatening the life of nine million species. Too much carbon dioxide in the oceans inhibits the growth of marine animals that require calcium carbonate from the water, and it suppresses the growth of ocean reefs, the home to nine million species.

It is important to note that, according to Dr. Richard Feely and Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographers, Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Carbon Dioxide and Our Ocean Legacy, April 2006:

If the current carbon dioxide emission trends continue, computer models show that the ocean will continue to undergo acidification, to an extent and at rates that have not occurred for tens of millions of years… nearly all marine life forms that build calcium carbonate shells and skeletons studied by scientists thus far have shown deterioration due to increasing carbon dioxide levels in seawater.

“Ocean acidification today is at least 10 times faster than at any other time in history,” says Dr. Andy Ridgwell of the University of Bristol, School of Geographical Sciences.

And, according to Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Oceans:

I think if we continue on the current trajectory, we are looking at a mass extinction of marine species even if only coral reef systems go down, which it looks like they will certainly by the end of the century. That would, in my mind, constitute a mass extinction event… many of the symptoms that we are seeing of change in the oceans indicate that the effects will be much wider than coral reef existence….

The Rising Sea Level

Not only is marine life at risk because of ocean acidification, sea levels are rising at a faster rate over the past 10 years than over the past 100 years. Dr. Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, Penn State University, speaking at a symposium on the dynamics of ice, explained that the world’s glaciers are not the big threat to rising sea level. It is the massive ice sheets Greenland and Antarctica that cause greatest concern. In this regard, he discussed the melt lakes that form on Greenland’s surface during the warm months, and how, as the pressure builds, the melt lakes cascade, breaking through the ice, flowing down crevasses as rapidly as Niagara Falls, possibly all the way to bedrock 1-2 miles below surface. However, the fear that this activity may be slip-sliding the ice sheet into the ocean is not a realistic threat because the bedrock has a jagged ridge configuration, like a saw blade, that holds the ice sheet in place. Nevertheless, there is no denying Greenland’s rapid ice melt on and around the massive ice sheet.

Temperatures at Greenland are up 5 degrees F and the surface melt during the summer months, as monitored by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory/Pasadena, has been clocked at 40% of total surface melt increasing to 97% or total surface melt within four days time (National Geographic News, July 25, 2012.) This shocked the technicians and scientists who conducted the readings. They thought the data must have been corrupted, but in the final analysis, unfortunately, it was not. In a period of days, nearly the entire surface of Greenland turned to slush. By way of comparison, over the past 30 years, only one-half of Greenland’s surface thaws in July.

Additionally, as for the risk of rising sea level, Dr. Alley is concerned about Antarctica, where even though the ice sheet appears relatively stable, the western peninsula is dicey, and this is something they are monitoring.

Dr. Alley’s testimony to the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment House Committee on Science and Technology, US House of Representatives, Nov. 17, 2010, stated: “Melting of all of the world’s mountain glaciers and small ice caps might raise sea level by about 1 foot (0.3 m), but melting of the great ice sheets would raise sea level by just over 200 feet (more than 60m). We do not expect to see melting of most of that ice, but even a relatively small change in the ice sheets could matter to the world’s coasts….”

The Tipping Point

However, Dr. Alley also informed the representatives that human-caused climate change might force the Earth to cross one of its tipping points. Paleoclimatic history demonstrates that rapid and widespread changes have occurred repeatedly in the past; e.g., an ice-sheet collapse, a large change in circulation of the North Atlantic Ocean, a rapid burst of methane, or a sudden shift in rainfall patterns. Crossing the tipping point in relation to Greenland or Antarctica as a result of a failure to contain CO2 emissions may be equivalent to re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic in expectation of a sunny day.

It is a fair statement that, if humankind continues to spew carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere at ever-faster rates (similar to what is, in fact, actually happening), a tipping point is on the horizon. As a historical example of this phenomenon, Scientists at UCLA and Cambridge, in a joint research effort (2009), identified a period of time millions of years ago when CO2 in the atmosphere ran 400-to-600 parts per million (ppm) for a sustained period of time, causing temperatures to run 5-10 degrees F higher than today, the Arctic was ice-free, and both Greenland and Antarctica were largely ice-free. Sea levels were 75-100 feet higher.  As of today, CO2 in the atmosphere is at 393 ppm and on the rise!

It goes without saying that food and water are the most important ingredients to life on the planet. It is also worth emphasizing that man-made climate emissions, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), which is emitted by burning fossil fuels for energy, are a threat to civilization.

Thus, the biggest question of this 21st century is: Why do governments ignore the threat that fossil fuels pose to civilization when renewable energy sources are readily available?

Meanwhile, US politicians gloat over America achieving fossil fuel energy independence while India and China have 700+ new coal-powered plants on the drawing boards, all of which inspires an educated guess that, yes, the tipping point is on its way in a big way! And, maybe sooner than we’d like to imagine.

Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide, like Z magazine, European Project on Ocean Acidification, Ecosocialism Canada, Climate Himalaya, Counterpunch, Dissident Voice, Comite Valmy, and UK Progressive. He has been interviewed about climate change on Pacifica Radio, KPFK, FM90.7, Indymedia On Air and World View Show/UK. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.