Top Ten Dreadful Effects of Climate Change

Minus One Not Dreadful Effect

Our planet is already showing the stress of radical climate change, affecting the Earth right before our eyes. The climate is different than when we were kids, and it is changing more rapidly than ever before. Accordingly, the underlying thesis of this article is that radical climate change is/will be fait accompli with consequences so far reaching that everything we are accustomed to today will change tomorrow. The only question going forward is how the drama of this transformation impacts the planet and human lifestyle as well as its influence on the institution of capitalism.

To that end, it is doubtful today’s younger generations will recognize tomorrow’s world. Several trends that manifest the consequences of radical climate change already exist. Hence, extrapolating climate change’s impact into the future is not a guessing game. Rather, it is the intention herein to follow those discernable trends to judge what the world of tomorrow will look like.

Radical climate change is severe and unpredictable weather, intense floods, parched-land droughts, ultra-fierce tornadoes, super hurricanes, loss of the world’s glacial water towers, dying marine life, and rising seas, which over time will cascade into a fractured civilization with hordes of tribal groups roaming the planet in search of sustenance, similar to life under the emergence of Cro-Magnon 40-50,000 years ago.

The Top Ten List

Number 10: The End of Alpine Skiing

There are 2,100 ski resorts worldwide, and in the United States alone snow skiing is a $12 billion industry that employs 211,900 people. However, “Winter as we know it is on borrowed time,” according to Elizabeth Burakowski, co-author of a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council and Protect Our Winters, a climate-themed research group.1 Last winter was the fourth-warmest on record since 1896 with the third-lowest snow cover.

As a result of declining snow lines, the mayor of Biot, France made the decision, in 2012, to abandon the cable towers of the ski resort Drouzin-le-Mont, converting the ski area to low-impact alpine activities. “Medium-altitude resorts will have no future in 10-15 years because of climate change,” says local Biot official Jean-Yves Moraccchini.2

The iconic Chacaltaya Ski Lodge (Bolivia), since 1932, the world’s highest ski area at 17,785 feet, is permanently closed. The glacier is gone.

A United Nations Environment Programme predicts that more than half of the ski resorts in France, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria will be forced out of business over the next few decades as the snow line rises.

The average number of snow days over the last two decades of winters is lower than at any time since records began over 100 years ago.

Number 9: Glacial Lake Outbursts Floods Destroy Villages and Towns

The rapidity of glacial melt brings in its wake Glacial Lake Outburst Floods (“GLOFs”), which unexpectedly, and with amazing suddenness, destroy entire communities.

For example, “10 Killed, 60 missing as Glacial Lake Burst in Nepal.”3 Also, in mid 2010 in Peru a large slab of ice the size of several football fields broke off a glacier, plunging into a lake that created a tsunami-like wave 75 feet high, flooding four towns.4

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 downhill communities are at risk of destruction, without notice.

The increasing frequency of GLOFs matches CO2 levels on a graph with both events sloping upwards in lock-step fashion over the past 70 years. Thus, there is a direct correlation between increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere with the frequency of GLOFs. The result is: Not only is the water source for millions of people disappearing with the loss of glaciers; indeed, entire villages, towns and cities are at risk of cascading GLOFs. It’s a double whammy!

Number 8: Desertification of the World’s Arable Land

According to the World Meteorological Organization, carbon dioxide (CO2)-induced climate change and desertification remain inextricably linked because of feedbacks between land degradation and precipitation.

As a result of climate change’s impact on desertification, there are already regions of the world where environmental refugees are prevalent. The Asian Development Bank believes there may have been as many as 42 million environmental migrants over the past two years in Asia alone — a result of extreme weather events.5

The World Preservation Foundation claims that not only is climate change accelerating the rate at which deserts are growing, but desertification itself also contributes to climate change. When previously fertile land turns to desert, carbon stored in the drying land vegetation and soil is released into the atmosphere.

The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment reports that 20% of arid regions have already become desertified, placing 2 billion people at risk of starvation, unless they become environmental migrants.

China’s Minister of Forestry Zhao Shucong says that desertification poses “the greatest challenge of our generation… more than 400 million people are struggling to cope with water shortages, unproductive land and the breakdown of ecological systems caused by rising temperatures, overgrazing….”6

In China 1,000 square miles of arable land is turning to desertification every year. Elsewhere, regions of Africa are experiencing the same problem to an extreme degree.

Number 7: Embedded Droughts

A recent study at Rutgers University and the University of Wisconsin ties rapid Arctic climate change to high-impact, extreme weather events in the U.S. and in Europe. Rapid warming of the Arctic, which is warming two times (2xs) faster than the planet as a whole, is altering the course of the jet streams, which, in turn, ‘wavier’ with steeper troughs and higher ridges. In this manner, weather systems throughout the northern extremes progress more slowly, bringing long-duration extreme events like droughts, floods and heat waves. This trend has been distinctly noticeable in Europe and North America the past few years, and it threatens the world’s food supply.

For example, a slow-moving jet stream was behind a ‘blocking weather pattern’ with a massive dome of high pressure across the U.S. that led to the remarkable March 2012 heat wave that sent temperatures in the Midwest and Northeast soaring into the 80s, as winter turned to summer overnight. Furthermore, the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture claims the ensuing 2012 drought was the worst since the 1950s.

Embedded droughts have become worldwide events these past few years. In August 2010, Russian PM Vladimir Putin shocked the world by announcing a temporary ban on exports of grain and grain products from Russia because of the country’s worst drought in 40 years. In August 2012, Russia, once again, dramatically cut grain forecasts because of drought-stricken eastern growing regions.

Syria, a major part of the breadbasket of the Middle East, has suffered a series of serious droughts. From 2006-2011 up to 60% of Syria’s land experienced one of the worst long-term droughts and most severe set of crop failures in the history of the Fertile Crescent.

The past year India experienced its second major drought in four years. As a result, at times a billion people were without power, experiencing the largest power outage in world history as low hydropower resources and a strained power grid failed.

“From Ukraine to Yellowstone, in Pakistan and Kazakhstan, the skies have stayed clear, and the earth has been parched.”7

Number 6: Unprecedented Damage to Infrastructure

Munich Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, says climate change has contributed to a five-fold increase in weather-related disasters since 1980.

An extensive study conducted by DARA, headquartered in Madrid, Geneva, and Washington, D.C. and Climate Vulnerable Forum (a global partnership of 11 founding countries) concluded: “Climate change is already contributing to the deaths of nearly 400,000 people a year and costing the world more than $1.2 trillion, wiping 1.6% annually from global GDP.”8

The University of Alaska Anchorage and the University of Colorado at Boulder claim damage from climate change will add $3.6 to $6.1 billion to public infrastructure costs in Alaska alone over the next two decades. Thawing permafrost, flooding and coastal erosion are the culprits behind the damage to roads, ports, public buildings, and pipelines, which are especially vulnerable.

Global reinsurance firm Aon Benfield / London recently concluded the U.S. had the world’s top two costliest natural disasters in 2012. Hurricane Sandy cost $65 billion and the U.S. drought cost $35 billion. Both events are demonstrative of extreme climate change characterized by severity of weather as well as atypical weather patterns. These are not normalized weather patterns like in years past.

Number 5: The Splintering of Nation-States

The U.S. military is already aware of the impact climate change will have on the security of nations as conflicts brew over competition for water, food, and land. A National Research Council Report, “National Security Implications of Climate Change for U.S. Naval Forces,” deals with the prospect of large groups of climate refugees migrating across borders.

Bangladesh is an example of a splintering nation-state as land degradation, frequent storms, floods, and droughts have caused 12-to-17 million Bangladeshis to move to India the past few decades. The arrival of the environmental immigrants in the 1980s led to extreme acts of violence.

The United States is a great example of how climate change can impact a nation. In the 1930s in the Great Plains prolonged drought conditions and dust storms caused 2.5 million people to pull up stakes and leave. In California, the immigrants faced beatings, and police were sent to the California border to prevent their entry.

In 1969 the arrival of environmental migrants from El Salvador to Honduras led to war between the two countries.

It is estimated that, because of drought, land degradation, and water scarcity 600,000-800,000 Mexican environmental migrants move to U.S. urban centers annually.

Climate change degradation of water and food sources is almost guaranteed to intensify environmental migrations within nation-states as well as between nation-states in ever-larger numbers, e.g., where will the hundreds of millions who depend upon the Tibetan glaciers for water migrate when the glaciers melt away? Will hordes of people follow the path of early humans by crossing the Bering Strait to the United States?

Number 4: The Demise of Capitalism

Radical climate change has already demonstrated a proclivity to coalesce groups of people together in opposition to capitalistic tendencies. For example, the Ecosocialist Contingent sponsored an event that brought tens of thousands together in Washington DC to the February 2013 Forward on Climate Rally opposed to Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, the archetype symbol of climatic damage that has nearly 100% corporate sponsorship.

Journalist Naomi Klein in an interview with Bill Moyers said: “We can’t leave everything to the free market. In fact, climate change is, I would argue, the greatest free-market failure. This is what happens when you don’t regulate corporations and you allow them to treat the atmosphere as an open sewer.”9

Klein believes one of the answers to the climate change menace is community control over the problem, not central planning and not capitalism per se. For example, the two countries where wind farms have been most successful are Denmark and Germany where community movements demanded renewable energy as a community-controlled business. Thus, a sense of ownership by the people becomes a building block for success. German Community Wind Farms are collectively owned.

Tellingly, where socialistic tendencies prevail, renewable resources thrive over fossil fuels. This fact is demonstrative of the inherent failure of capitalism’s free market solutions to climatic problems. The free market has, in fact, exasperated the climate problem whereas collectivism fixes the problem.

Capitalism does not fit in a world where the most basic resources are threatened. It has largely ignored renewables because of concerns over short-term costs as compared to fossil fuels in spite of the long-term damage to the environment.

China is a prime example of capitalism gone amuck. They discovered state capitalism in the 1980s, and already China will soon account for one-half of all the coal burned on the planet and 30% of worldwide CO2 emissions. As a result, in January 2013 the citizens of Beijing wore surgeon masks on the streets and at work during the day.

Ever since China discovered the wealth effect of capitalism, worldwide CO2 emissions have been on a tear and are at 393 ppm today, the highest they’ve been in millions of years when Antarctica’s coastline turned green with stunted trees. Antarctica contains 85% of all the world’s ice, and if only a portion of it melts, New York City will be under water. This is the ultimate risk of too much CO2 spewed into the atmosphere, and unchecked capitalism in China may prove the point.

Capitalism’s penchant for profits does not fit a future that is dependent upon careful husbandry of the planet. Over time, the capitalistic model is destined to fail as the planet huffs and puffs for clean air, and similar to late 18th century France, humanity will likely overrun the ruling capitalistic order as climate change increasingly rears its ugly head.

Number 3: Marine Life Extinction

Imagine a planet without marine life.

It may be coming this century.

Ever since the industrial revolution, the oceans have absorbed 30% of global carbon dioxide. Unfortunately, excessive levels of CO2 in the oceans inhibit marine species from extracting calcium carbonate from the water. This is similar, in a twisted manner, to the suffocation experienced by people walking the streets in Beijing, but marine life cannot wear protective masks nor can they stop acidification of their environment, which is caused by excessive levels of CO2.

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

As a result, scientists are already seeing the early signs of marine life extinction. For example, scientists at Interuniversity Institute for Marine Sciences in Eliat, Israel have studied reefs along the Israeli coast of the Mediterranean Sea and found alarming evidence that the primary ‘builder’ of the reefs has recently gone extinct. The problem is acidification of the seawater.

Another example of the acidification conundrum: Pteropods are a free-swimming creature, a tiny snail with a protective shell that is directly threatened by acidification in the oceans. Pteropods are crucial to the marine food chain, eaten by animals ranging from tiny krill to giant whales and serve as an important food source for salmon, mackerel, herring, and cod. Scientists have already discovered Pteropods with weakened protective shells. The problem is: They cannot mature if their shell development is impaired by acidification in the oceans.

According to Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, OneWorld (UK) Video, August 2011: “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… up to 9 million species are associated just with coral reefs…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… rising temperatures are already changing distribution of organisms….”

One hundred million tonnes of fish are eaten worldwide each year. Directly, or indirectly, the livelihood of over 500 million people depends upon fish. What happens if coral reefs and nine million species of fish go extinct? The resulting environmental migration effect will overwhelm the planet with hordes of desperate people, and personal wealth will suddenly be worth about as much as an aristocrat’s head in France, circa 1793.

Number 2: Loss of World’s Glacial Water Towers

The water towers of the world are melting… flat-out!

America’s Columbia Glacier, which flows into Prince William Sound, Alaska, has retreated 13 miles up the fjord over the past 30 years, and its current rate of shrinkage is 50 feet per day, or 8 times faster than 30 years ago. It is a dying glacier similar to glaciers all across the planet, like the Andes’ glaciers of South America where photos taken of the glaciers in 1983 as of today show half of the glaciers are gone. The World Bank claims over 100 million people are at risk because of the melting glaciers of the Andes, losing their water, irrigation for crops, and hydropower. This is happening much faster than climatologists ever thought possible.

Furthermore, contemplate this: The Tibetan plateau’s adjoining mountain ranges, including the Himalayas, the Karakoram, Pamir, and the Qilian consist of a vast mountainous terrain known as the Third Pole, containing 100,000 square kilometers of glaciers supplying water to more than one billion people. According to an article in Nature magazine, July 2012, Yao Tandong, a glaciologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences Institute of Tibetan Research in Beijing: “The majority of the glaciers have been shrinking rapidly across the studied area in the past 30 years,” ever since China discovered state capitalism.

Furthermore, according to Cheng Haining, senior engineer at Qinghai Province’s Surveying and Mapping Bureau, seventy percent (70%) of the glaciers at the headwaters of the Lancang River (one of SE Asia’s most important rivers, known as the “Danube of the East”) have disappeared. Another study by the province shows 80 glaciers that provide water for the Yellow River (the “mother river” and the cradle of Chinese civilization) are shrinking, and the Yangtze River (responsible for 20% of China’s economy) is threatened as well. Here’s why: Meteorological stations in the area show temperatures are at 50-year highs.
What happens when the glaciers disappear? What happens to commercial traffic on the ‘Danube of the East’ when the final 30% of the headwater glaciers go away?

More importantly, the water supply for agricultural irrigation in both India (60%) and China (80%) is largely dependent upon the mountain glaciers. How will they irrigate their crops when the glaciers are gone?

The major rivers of Europe, like the Rhone River, depend upon glacial headwaters… but they are all melting away!

Number 1: Flooding of Coastal Cities and Island Nations

Biblical flooding will come to pass…

If the worst case of climate change happens, the great coastal cities of the world, like Miami, will be under water, but when it happens remains the big unknown; however, this worst case scenario also assumes the occurrence of a tipping point, which paleoclimatic history shows rapid and widespread changes have occurred repeatedly in the past. These tipping points of the climate can be triggered by an ice-sheet collapse (a distinct possibility in Antarctica), an extensive change in circulation of the North Atlantic Ocean, a rapid burst of methane (e.g. thawing Arctic permafrost), or a sudden shift in rainfall patterns. Once a tipping point commences, it is reminiscent of the Titanic’s initial collision with the iceberg; thereafter, there is no stopping the consequences.

Here is what Dr. Richard Alley, Evan Pugh Professor of Geosciences, Penn State University testified to the U.S. House of Representatives, Nov. 17, 2010: “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….”

However, Dr. Alley also cautioned the members of Congress that human-caused climate change might force the Earth to cross one of its tipping points. Then, all bets are off!

Catastrophe could occur quickly, according to Professor Stephen Pacala, Director, Princeton Environmental Institute, “There is a class of almost instantaneous climate change that I call ‘monsters behind the door.’ I call them ‘monsters’ because were they to occur today, they would be catastrophic.”11

It is a fair statement that, if humankind continues to spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere at ever-faster rates (similar to what is, in fact, actually happening), a tipping point is on the horizon. As an 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 (similar to Greenland today, where temperatures are already running 5 degrees F higher), 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, and already at its highest level in millions of years!

Solution

The solution is worldwide conversion from fossil fuels to renewables.

This massive conversion program will lead to the most powerful economic growth ever achieved, with full employment!

And, it would rescue the planet from impending violent upheaval.

  1. Joanna M. Foster, “Warming Ski Slopes, Shriveled Revenues,” New York Times, Dec. 7, 2012. []
  2. Agence France-Presse, “Climate Change may Force French Ski Resort to Shut Down,” The Raw Story, July 31, 2012. []
  3. The Hindu, May 5, 2012. []
  4. “Disappearing Lakes,” Newsweek, Jan. 1, 2011. []
  5. Tiermey Smith, “Climate Change, Desertification and Migration: Connecting the Dots,” RTCC (Responding to Climate Change), Aug. 14, 2012. []
  6. Rita Alvarez Tudela, “Fighting Desertification in China,” Aljazeera, Dec. 8, 2012. []
  7. Tim Lister, “The Driest Season: Global Drought Causes Major Worries,” CNN, Sept. 8, 2012. []
  8. Fiona Harvey- Environmental Correspondent, ”Climate Change is Already Damaging Global Economy, Report Finds”, Guardian, September 25, 2012. []
  9. Bill Moyers, “Journalist Naomi Klein on Capitalism and Climate Change,” Moyers & Company, Nov. 19, 2012. []
  10. Carl Zimmer, “An Ominous Warning on the Effects of Ocean Acidification,” Environment 360, Yale University, Feb. 15, 2010. []
  11. Documentary on Climatic Change – Global Warming, narrated by Tom Brokaw, Discovery Channel, 2006. []

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.