I had the occasion to recently watch the film Chasing Ice, a visually stunning and compelling documentary of photographer James Balog’s multi-year venture to capture time elapsed pictures of the rapid erosion of several of the world’s glaciers.
Yet, in the middle of watching the documentary, with its inevitable discussion of loss of glacial ice and the corresponding, devastating rise in ocean level that will cause the inland migration of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, I was struck with this thought: the inland migration to where?
Climate scientists are correct in focusing on the devastating effects of sea level rise, yet there are other, just as devastating, effects of global warming that will be causing migratory effects from inland towards the coasts. In the United States, for example, it is predicted that, within the next few decades, much of the Great Plains regions may turn into a massive dust bowl lasting for nearly a thousand years. The national forests are burning as we speak. The aquifers used to keep our farmland going are at the lowest levels ever recorded. And when a region of the US that extends from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains becomes increasingly uninhabitable, where will its current inhabitants relocate? Answer: to the same areas that will be experiencing a relatively rapid influx of climate refugees from the opposite, coastal direction.
This would still be a somewhat manageable problem if the climate change already programmed into the system were to unfold slow enough to support the normal migration of people and societies. But we blew past that milestone years ago. Consider this: the last time CO2 was at the current level of 400ppm, the oceans were over 70 feet higher than they are now, Greenland and the Antarctic were almost ice free, and average global temperature was between 5 and 10 Fahrenheit hotter. Even if we magically stopped all CO2 production today, we’ve already baked in dozens of feet of sea-level rise over the next few hundred years, ramping up to about a foot per decade and faster by the end of this century. If we take into account realistic projections of another 50% increase in CO2 levels before we decide to stop, then our decedents will be living on a planet with no ice sheets at all: something that has not existed in the last 50 million years.
Rolling back 50 million years of climate change in the span of a few centuries is the ecological equivalent of slamming the breaks on a freight train: we are moving beyond the realm of adaptability, beyond triage, beyond base survival, and into mass extinction.
There is no doubt that the human race will find some way to survive. But the vast majority of species that make up the ecosystem upon which we rely for food and a variety of other things will not. The rate of change will simply be beyond their ability to adapt. The infrastructure that supports our current level of civilization will not survive. The rate of sustained damage due to climate change will be far beyond our resources to fix. And the societies that sit on top of all of this will not survive. The bonds that allow us to enjoy a common purpose are just not that strong.
By current estimates, we still have about 50-100 years before the rate of climate change ramps up faster than our global civilization can adapt. So, look around. Take in the sights. Snap some pictures for posterity, but make sure to convert them to print so they’ll survive. Party like its 1999. Tell your children to enjoy themselves too. But pity your grandchildren. For them, all bets are off.