10 Oct 2017

The many impacts of climate change

Some of you may know that I have been running a project named "Life plus 2 meters" that uses fiction ("cli-fi") to help readers think about how we may (not) adapt to life in a climate-changed world. Last year, I published Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 1, which had 29 chapters from 27 authors. (It's free to download or $4 to buy.) Just recently, I received 33 new stories ("visions") from 32 authors submitting for Volume 2. (They are eligible for prizes; the final deadline for non-prize-eligible stories is 31 October, so get writing if you want to submit!)

Although, the title alludes to "2 meters of sea level rise (SLR)," the visions -- like the reality -- focus on all types of climate change impacts, i.e., ocean acidification, stronger storms, longer droughts, bigger floods, and greater heat and cold extremes.

Just last week, AS asked if I wasn't putting too much emphasis on SLR and not enough on, e.g., heat stress. That email caught me by surprise, as I was using "2 meters" as a proxy for ALL climate-change impacts, but let me be clear here on my opinions of where the danger lies/damage will come from:

In first place, I put changes in precipitation, which includes everything from stronger storms (=more flooding) to longer dry periods (=dead crops and ecosystems) to changes in where and when precipitation arrives (=overwhelmed infrastructure and species). These changes will be the worst because the atmosphere can push a LOT of water around quickly (the sun delivers as much energy in 2-3 hours as humans use in a year [pdf]), and climate change is speeding up those flows. Humans already spend vast sums on energy and infrastructure to contain flows, and those sums will have to rise by perhaps a factor of 2-3. (The fact that most water infrastructure is missing and/or poorly maintained means the problems will be larger.)

In second place, I put heat and cold stress. These problems will make some parts of the world uninhabitable (a band from the Middle East to India grow too hot for outdoor existence; the UK and Northern Europe may experience extremely cold winters), but people will not be immediately killed or displaced. Some people will "turn up the A/C" (e.g., Phoenix), but others will see big refugee flows.

SLR will probably be quite a small problem relative to the two above. Cities like Miami and Jakarta will be abandoned to rising seas, but most cities will only lose a bit on the edges. (The Netherlands is an interesting exception because half the country is now below sea level so that system may hold or break, in which case multiple cities will be abandoned at once.)

Finally, we must remember that Nature will also be a player (as "Nature bats last"), in terms of how flora and fauna will respond to changes in temperatures, sea-acidity, precipitation and so on. Some crops will fail, some species will go extinct, and oceans may turn into a mass of jellyfish, but most living matter will be adjusting as fast as possible to conditions unseen for 100,000+ years.

All of these forces will be occurring simultaneously, of course, so planners (and citizens!) will need to consider their joint impacts on where they live (or where they might want to live), as the those impacts will be both novel in their destructive power and expensive to counteract.

Bottom line: Climate change will bring slow, but powerful changes to our lives. Have you thought about those changes and how you, your family, your work and your community will cope? Read a little more over at life plus 2 meters to think about the possibilities.

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