A lot has changed since 2007

In writing Replay Earth, I was not specifically looking at what people might actually do in a climate-ravaged future. The example I give in the book are notional and the notions are well-established: sustainability, fairness, collaboration, connection. But fairly early on, I realized that this was only part of the equation.

I am now embarked on writing a sequel, and have thoughts about a third book, too. In the sequel, I want to get deeper into the struggle to rebuild the world. What would life be like for people who, on the one hand, are not guaranteed of survival, and on the other hand, feel both the exhilaration and fear of needing to make entirely new social rules?

Since I don’t know what those rule should be, I have embarked on a period of doing research into what people who study these issues are saying. There’s a lot out there, but I’m not too sure how far any of these thinkers and writers have gotten.

One of the first books I’ve looked at is a collection of essays on key topics called Surviving the Century, subtitled “Facing Climate Chaos & Other Global Challenges” written in 2007. It seems to have been something of an inaugural statement by the World Future Council, a Euro-Anglo-American think tank based in Hamburg. Here’s what the scene was like in 2007:

  • George W. Bush was president and he was establishing the pattern of disengagement and duplicity around environmental issues that Trump has taken to the proverbial next level
  • The Kyoto Accords were still in effect, no Paris Accords
  • There’s little mention of actual climate disasters, as many of the hurricanes, floods and droughts that have captured popular attention had not yet happened
  • Glacial loss was just beginning to become alarming
  • And, most importantly, there was just the beginnings of recognition of both how little time we have to react and how long our failure to do so would resound.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say that today there’s the beginnings of a sense that failures to certain things in 10 years, and others within 100 years, leave us only the question of just how warm it will get and just how much of the Earth will become uninhabitable to us, and to life in general for the next 1,000 years or more. That perspective was not present in 2007, at least not in the foreground. If these writers knew that, they were perhaps shielding the public from it out of fear that it would paralyze people.

So what did the World Future Council seek to focus on in 2007? Much of it is still important:

  • Sustainable cities. Herbert Girardet, who also was the lead editor for the book, focused on this. The world is largely urban now. In the developing world, once the redoubt of the rural, people are streaming in from the countryside. Deurbanization is not likely, but redefining the city might. Girardet draws on a 1996 UN formulation:

A sustainable city, ‘EcoPolis’, enables all its citizens to meet their own needs, and to enhance their well-being without damaging the natural world or endangering the living conditions of other people, now or in the future.

  • `A new socio-econcomic order. Francis Moore Lappe (she of Diet for a Small Planet fame) addresses the paradox of Western democracy: free-market capitalism leads to the concentration of power, while democracy is intended to disperse it. She calls our current arrangement “thin democracy” and wants to build a living, dynamic democracy in which the goals of society are constantly evolving and determined by the citizens. Businesses cannot elevate profit and shareholder value above the needs of the many.
  • Sustainable international trade. Many commentators have observed that while it may seem wonderful to be able to buy a pear from Japan and an apple from Chile, the environmental cost of flying a piece of fruit all that way is not sustainable. Stewart Wallis describes a new view of international trade that is centered around a few basic ideas: environmental sustainability, reduction of poverty and inequality, and regulated by open and accountable public governance.

These are all great starting points and were probably cutting edge 12 years ago. What they don’t address is what we already see happening, the cracking of the social fabric in many countries, and at all levels of development. In the relatively calmer climate of 2007 (presumably before the Crash) the answer to “How will we get there?” seems to have been assumed to be “Through steady persuasion based on the truth.”

I find it hard to believe that will suffice in today’s world. Saving this world and building a new one will require vigorous offense and defense. Living in the US in 2019, it’s hard not to feel that a key question, perhaps the key question, is “How will we conduct political change in a world where the forces arrayed against change are willing to use every social division to prevent it?”

Books like this are valuable and I’ve learned some important things from it. But we need to think in more than technocratic and idealistic terms — to those needed perspectives must come, “But how do we convince people to fight for this? And how should that fight proceed?” It seems to have been a disease of think tanks in recent years to eschew this question, but if your starting point involves greater democracy, you really must ask that question. Otherwise, you are just feeding the trope that all intellectuals live in a very well-furnished Ivory Tower, descend to go to Davos now and then, and know nothing about how real people live. And i really don’t think that is the reality or intent of the WFC.

A tale of two storms

Katrina, Sandy, now Harvey — we have stared at these storms that have ripped apart the life of communities every few years. Thousands of people’s home lost, in the case of Katrina nearly 2,000 people dead. 100 year storms, 500 year storms, 1,000 year storms — not anymore. We are transitioning to an era when the recent past is not an accurate predictor of the immediate future. But we’re now like the man who got on Interstate 80 in New Jersey to go to California — he knows it will be warmer when he gets there, but no idea what it will be like along the way.

Yet more than computer models and statistical analysis, what’s happening in the places without the economic resources of the United States tells us a lot about what the whole world might look like in the coming decades — be that the 30-60 years of Replay Earth or some time a bit further down the road.

Because while Harvey dominates the news here, The Guardian reports that India, Nepal and Bengladesh are being wracked by their own set of fierce rains, driven by one of the wettest monsoons on record. And the toll is horrific: 1,200 dead, as many as 40 million at risk of loosing their homes to the floods, with at least another day of rain in store.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, that’s India. We have better this or better that,” but that would be foolish. Could Houston survive a storm like this every few years? New Orleans can’t even turn on all its flood relief pumps 12 years after Katrina. And what about when there are 20 Houstons and New Orleans, hit by overlapping storms? Apart from the cold cash involved, do you see a society with the cohesion and will to put aside many competing priorities and spend billions, maybe trillions, on flood control and relief? India is just farther along the curve we’re on.

I don’t know much about India’s weather, but I know I’m seeing a lot of articles about whether Harvey is climate or weather. As a general concept, the distinction between the two is useful and helpful to unconfuse people who think — or want us to think — that global warming means no more cold days. But every day, the climate produces weather — they’re not happening on different planets. The weather we see now is produced by the climate we’ve created in the last 2,000 years, and of course, more so since the advent of universal electricity and the automobile.

That climate is better than the old one at heating up the ocean that is 75% of our planet and the air just above it. That means bigger, wetter storms in some places, just as it means hotter, drier climate in others. Specifically, places like Houston and Mumbai are going to be hammered much more with such storms. Whether there will be more of them, or they will just be longer or more intense, time will tell. But we’re seeing that happen before our very eyes.

This climate will take decades, maybe centuries, to unwind. It will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better. We can speed that up, we can limit some of the damage. But not all of it — we have lost that last moment of control, probably a while ago.

What we can control is how we react and how we learn from that. We are in the early days of a world where most of the time, somewhere, there will be millions — perhaps hundreds of millions or billions — of people homeless or without livelihood from climate change.  We have a lot of work to do.

Will large parts of Earth become uninhabitable?

One of the amazing aspects of human history has been our ability to live almost anywhere. In the last 100,000 years or more, humans have migrated to and settled in places as diverse as the Arctic Circle and the Kalahari desert. The last frontier of human settlement was not determined by temperature but by oxygen — few live in altitudes somewhere above 14,000 feet. Recent research suggests that the Sherpas, for example, are descended from people who arrived in that area sometime in the last 5,000 – 10,000 years and adapted slowly to the highest altitudes. They may even have had help from ancestral Neanderthal genes.

Today, we face a different problem. Our current popular view of potential climate disaster often centers around rising seas — think Hurricane Katrina or Superstorm Sandy on a vast scale. Should that come to pass, very large numbers of people would be forced to move inland.

But the damage we are currently doing risks a potentially far more devastating consequence — driving the temperature in large regions past the threshold of where people can work, and ultimately, just survive outdoors. A recent article in the Guardian describes a research study that uses computer models to project that certain areas in a large swath of Asia, from the Persian Gulf to China, will periodically become too hot to survive outdoors for more than a brief period by 2100. The article is a lay explanation of a scientific journal article by a team of researchers from MIT, Loyola Marymount and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. At least some of it was funded by the Singapore government, which apparently doesn’t agree with the current US government’s dismissal of climate change.

We often think of cold as a killer, but people can survive very cold temperatures surprisingly well with very basic technologies. Witness the Inuit and their relatives who are indigenous to the Arctic Circle around the globe. But our biology cannot tolerate temperatures above about 108F without ceasing to function. Really, we don’t do well above 100F as anyone who has had a fever knows.

We keep our bodies cool by sweating. As the research details, when the temperature and humidity combine to create a wet-bulb temperature  (WBT –that’s sort of like the temperature-humidity index, but not quite) of 35C or 95F we can no longer cool ourselves. Heat builds up rapidly and destructively in our bodies. At this point, we risk death within six hours.

What both articles highlight is that by 2100, large parts of India and Pakistan — notably the areas on the Indus and Ganges rivers — will suffer extreme heat and humidity prior to and during the monsoon season. Parts of Iran, China and Vietnam will also be affected. Wet-bulb temperatures will breach 31C or 88F some of the time, a limit considered dangerous to be outside and essentially impossible to work in.

After that, temperatures could breach the 95 deg wet-bulb limit a few days each year and these regions would simply become impossible in certain months and years. Would people leave and come back? Or would they just abandon the lands and migrate elsewhere? How will people who depend on manual labor to survive and live in rural conditions with no air conditioning live — or will they begin to pack up and leave? Just the very word “inhabitable” may take on new meanings.

The last time such dramatic and lethal climate changes occurred was at the start of the last glacial maximum around 26,000 years ago, when much of the Northern Hemisphere was covered with thick ice. But there were likely less than 1 million people in the entire world then. The regions we are talking about now are home to 1.7 billion people today. Many are farmers, and not farmers sitting in air-conditioned tractors, either. Consider the ramifications of people no longer being able to live and grow food in one of the most densely populated and farmed parts of the world. Places where only a few thousand years ago humanity began the great transition to permanent settlements built around agriculture.

Where will these people go? What will they eat? What will people in other regions who depended on their farming output eat? When we see what the carnage in Syria has wrought in terms of political tension around the world, it’s hard to imagine what societies around the world will do to absorb this. Even if temperatures fall a few degrees short of these projected levels, some people will not be able to tolerate them. People will get sick, people will die. We just don’t really know how bad it will get and how people will react.

If there is a silver lining to this, here it is (from The Guardian):

The analysis also showed that the dangerous 31C WBT level would be passed once every two years for 30% of the population – more than 500 million people – if climate change is unchecked, but for only 2% of the population if the Paris goals are met. “The problem is very alarming but the intensity of the heatwaves can be reduced considerably if global society takes action,” said [study author] Eltahir.

In Replay Earth, I explore some of the actions the people displaced by climate change might take. I hope that the people of 2100 don’t actually get to find out, but that will depend on what we do in the next decade or two.