Is climate change bad?
Climate change poses an existential challenge for the future of the human race. Most climate change impacts confer few or no benefits, and may do great harm at considerable cost. The following list examines the possible outcomes of unchecked climate change.
While CO2 is essential for plant growth, all agriculture depends also on steady water supplies, and climate change is likely to disrupt those supplies through floods and droughts. It has been suggested that higher latitudes – Siberia, for example – may become productive due to global warming, but the soil in Arctic and bordering territories is very poor, and the amount of sunlight reaching the ground in summer will not change because it is governed by the tilt of the earth. Agriculture can also be disrupted by wildfires and changes in seasonal periodicity, which is already taking place, and changes to grasslands and water supplies could impact grazing and welfare of domestic livestock. Increased warming may also have a greater effect on countries whose climate is already near or at a temperature limit over which yields reduce or crops fail – in the tropics or sub-Sahara, for example.
Warmer winters would mean fewer deaths, particularly among vulnerable groups like the aged. However, the same groups are also vulnerable to additional heat, and deaths attributable to heatwaves are expected to be approximately five times as great as winter deaths prevented. It is widely believed that warmer climes will encourage migration of disease-bearing insects like mosquitoes and malaria is already appearing in places it hasn’t been seen before.
While the opening of a year-round ice free Arctic passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans would confer some commercial benefits, these are considerably outweighed by the negatives. Detrimental effects include loss of polar bear habitat and increased mobile ice hazards to shipping. The loss of ice albedo (the reflection of heat), causing the ocean to absorb more heat, is also a positive feedback; the warming waters increase glacier and Greenland ice cap melt, as well as raising the temperature of Arctic tundra, which then releases methane, a very potent greenhouse gas (methane is also released from the sea-bed, where it is trapped in ice-crystals called clathrates). Melting of the Antarctic ice shelves is predicted to add further to sea-level rise with no benefits accruing.
A cause for considerable concern, there appear to be no benefits to the change in pH of the oceans. This process is caused by additional CO2 being absorbed in the water, and may have severe destabilising effects on the entire oceanic food-chain.
The effects of glaciers melting are largely detrimental, the principle impact being that many millions of people (one-sixth of the world’s population) depend on fresh water supplied each year by natural spring melt and regrowth cycles and those water supplies – drinking water, agriculture – may fail.
Sea Level Rise
Many parts of the world are low-lying and will be severely affected by modest sea rises. Rice paddies are being inundated with salt water, which destroys the crops. Seawater is contaminating rivers as it mixes with fresh water further upstream, and aquifers are becoming polluted. Given that the IPCC did not include melt-water from the Greenland and Antarctic ice-caps due to uncertainties at that time, estimates of sea-level rise are feared to considerably underestimate the scale of the problem. There are no proposed benefits to sea-level rise.
Positive effects of climate change may include greener rainforests and enhanced plant growth in the Amazon, increased vegetation in northern latitudes and possible increases in plankton biomass in some parts of the ocean. Negative responses may include further growth of oxygen poor ocean zones, contamination or exhaustion of fresh water, increased incidence of natural fires, extensive vegetation die-off due to droughts, increased risk of coral extinction, decline in global photoplankton, changes in migration patterns of birds and animals, changes in seasonal periodicity, disruption to food chains and species loss.
The economic impacts of climate change may be catastrophic, while there have been very few benefits projected at all. The Stern report made clear the overall pattern of economic distress, and while the specific numbers may be contested, the costs of climate change were far in excess of the costs of preventing it. Certain scenarios projected in the IPCC AR4 report would witness massive migration as low-lying countries were flooded. Disruptions to global trade, transport, energy supplies and labour markets, banking and finance, investment and insurance, would all wreak havoc on the stability of both developed and developing nations. Markets would endure increased volatility and institutional investors such as pension funds and insurance companies would experience considerable difficulty.
Developing countries, some of which are already embroiled in military conflict, may be drawn into larger and more protracted disputes over water, energy supplies or food, all of which may disrupt economic growth at a time when developing countries are beset by more egregious manifestations of climate change. It is widely accepted that the detrimental effects of climate change will be visited largely on the countries least equipped to adapt, socially or economically.
This post is reproduced from Skeptical Science and is used with permission