standard Long-term thinking needed for climate change strategies

Climate change strategy, whether talked about in the media, at a COP meeting, university conference or elsewhere, has mostly focused on mitigation.  But there’s always issues with how to address a problem that is beyond the human life-cycle.  Indeed, many environmental problems are usually of this sort, from air pollution to industrial contamination or nuclear waste storage — they all tend to last for centuries.  The climate problem seems as complicated as the species responsible for it — humans.  But it’s not only the Earth’s climate that is in peril, but the oceans as well.  If CO2 emissions increase the planet’s oceans lose out on oxygen.  Mitigation is a potential solution, but it has been widely known that even if all production of green house gas emissions were to cease, the planet’s temperature would continue to rise, although not as severely.  At some point the world itself has to be able to adapt to the foreseeable and unknown consequences of climate change.  The uncertainty surrounding climate change is what makes it so difficult to communicate.  Is it always inevitable that it will lead to catastrophe?

When disasters occur on a local, national or global scale there is urgency for what could have been done to prevent loss of life, destruction of people’s homes and the planet itself.  There is stoicism — that really nothing could be done because the event is of such large magnitude that to do anything is useless.  But also a sense of hopelessness or nihilism — nothing can be done and it doesn’t matter anyway.  The first is often common during times of catastrophe and the second may be more common than what people think.  What makes people refuse to care and does this have anything to do with finding ways to adapt to climate change as well as mitigate CO2 emissions?  Like many of the sciences, we usually venture into the problem of communication.  How do you inform the world about something that is so massive, so ubiquitous as the weather when often meteorologists themselves aren’t able to convey what it will be like next month or even tomorrow?

Could we imagine living in such a world that along with the weather forecast people receive the latest news about how climate change will affect their weekend?  But it is known, especially by quaternary scientists — those who study the last 2.6 million years of the Earth’s environmental history — that climate change doesn’t really work like that.  Changes in climate usually occur over large time scales, in the thousands or tens of thousands of years.  In fact, we are actually moving towards another ice age.  In some cases, humans generally have an extremely limited perception of how the planet’s climate works.  People live and die while the planet moves on and this has been the case for thousands of years.

Maybe it’s no surprise that much of the world’s population has difficulty thinking about something like climate, because the human life span is simply far too short.  There is yet another obstacle to overcome — sometimes knowing just how bad it is or could be may actually backfire or at least when emphasising the negativity of the findings.  It seems the world today is depending more and more on its youth and the unborn to put right what so many people for generations have gotten wrong.  Maybe some of the world’s most ‘intelligent’ who got high marks on their exams, made the right social connections and went on to usher in the technological future, didn’t realise that the planet is not so easy, that when dealing with global environmental problems instead of churning out one innovation after the next, you actually need to ‘think’ about their implications.  Modern society blanketed itself in a sterile, technological reality, making it difficult to realise what it was doing to the rest of the things it interacts with.

The world is now in a situation where it is locked into its dependence on fossil fuels and this is likely to stay with us for some time to come.  Oil, the most precious resource of them all,  isn’t only used for fuel of course, people need it for many, many other things, from plastics to petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals, and this makes burning it in your car’s tank seem most unwise.  As the global climate continues to transform the planet it will continue to make noticeable differences to the its ecosystems, including the survival of many species.  Researchers have revealed in the recent past that as the climate shifts in different parts of the world habitats will become unsuitable for many species of plants and animals (see Mapping Future Climate Space).  In fact, some researchers have proposed intentionally relocating species to save them from climate change. There is also the question of how climate change will also increase the presence of invasive plants as well as insects.

One of the biggest concerns surrounding climate change is that the poorest countries will and in fact are paying the price for the world’s largest national carbon emitters such as the US, China, India and countries in Europe (Germany and the UK are the top two).

China’s CO2 emissions

Scientists have concluded that the biological effects of climate change are literally being exported to the countries that have high levels of biodiversity, but low levels of CO2 emissions. If climate change affects vegetation or plants through temperature and precipitation it will affect the habitats of most species that live on the ground, including humans.  Living in a technological society where many food products are imported (often from developing countries), people are not conscious of the fact that those who live off the land will be the most affected while the rest of the world’s population are seemingly ‘insulated’ from the problem.

According to a study that was published a few years back in EMBO reports,the greatest changes to biodiversity will take place in the tropics where plants and animals will be exposed to conditions well beyond what they’ve been used to.  This includes endangered species who are struggling enough as it is.  Some of these tropical climates will be entirely new adding to the uncertainty as to how some species will inhabit these areas in the future.  Those species that are confined to particular climate spaces for survival will have it the hardest and are at most risk of extinction.

Deliberate long-term planning is needed to combat a number of these effects from climate change.  It is no longer merely a question of whether they can be alleviated or not, rather, it is a question of how much the planet can endure the direct and indirect impacts of climate change in order for us — the human species — to plan ahead.

References and Further Reading

Exporting the ecological effects of climate change. EMBO Reports

Long-term ocean oxygen depletion in response to carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. Nature

Climate-driven species migration: from source to sink and back. IHRR Blog

If Greenhouse Gas Emissions Stopped Now, Earth Would Still Likely Get Warmer, New Research Shows. Science Daily

When Will the Next Ice Age Begin? New York Times

‘Sky is falling’ warnings to backfire. Futurity

Invasive species and climate change a “deadly duo”: report. Reuters

New Guide: When to move species struggling with climate change. Live Science


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