Climate changes before I retire

Posted: Mar 23rd, 2013

Photo: Peter Morawski (flickr/creative commons)

There’s not a lot about climate change and its effects that horrifies me anymore. I guess you could say that I’m desensitised to it – melting permafrost? Yeah, I’ve read about it. Losing the Great Barrier Reef in Australia? Going to visit it before it’s all gone, but yeah, we’ll lose that too. A friend is buying a house? I’m cracking the jokes about how high above sea level it is and whether we’ll need to fortify it for the ‘end of the world’.

Most of the research that is coming out now looking at climate models and the potential feedbacks we may get from complex climate systems are thinking we may have underestimated how fast climate change is going to kick us in the ass. If we’re lucky, and none of the non-linear feedbacks kick in too fast, we’re looking at experiencing between 1-3oC of global warming by 2050, and it’s likely those estimates will be conservative.

Warming projections to 2080 from Rowlands et al. in Nature Geoscience 5, 256-260 (2012)

The key word in that sentence is experiencing. I’ll be 65 in 2050, so this is something I’m going to see, experience, live, breathe and feel in my working lifetime.

Climate change is not an abstraction for me and anyone of my generation – it is reality. So when my friends and I joke about needing squirrels on treadmills to run power generators and stockpiling wine from the Napa Valley before it becomes so hot and arid they can no longer grow grapes, it’s not that far removed from what we may experience.

Want to think about adaptation? Well, when I retire, some of the things I’m going to have to consider very carefully are; how secure are the water resources where I live? How often will the area experience extreme storms or other climate supercharged weather events? How quickly do emergency services respond and get things running after any of those much more common disasters? How robust is the local agriculture; will there be food shortages?

These are things that may not be so far-fetched by 2050.

Climate change is no longer a far distant problem that can be solved by some magical technology that will be invented by the next generation.

The consequences of super charging our atmosphere with carbon dioxide pollution are already being felt today and given that 2oC is the internationally recognised point between possibly manageable climate change and catastrophic climate change, the fact that it could be as high as 3oC before I retire means we could be living in a very different climate in my lifetime.

Climate change impacts with each degree of warming (UNEP/UNESCO)

The uncertainty within climate models means that we could be lucky enough to ‘only’ experience 1-2oC of climate change by 2050, or we could be almost off the climate cliff. The problem is that the uncertainty ranges between pretty uncomfortable to the beginnings of catastrophic – before I retire.

Climate change is going to affect everything. Climate related drought and crop losses could wipe out all the gains we’ve made towards ending world hunger. It is likely to make hundreds of millions of people homeless from increased weather extremes everywhere from South East Asia to Manhattan. The supercharged summer heatwaves will kill many more people who are not used to dealing with extreme heat and live in cities not used to coping with extreme heat. All before I retire.

This is no longer about the pollution and climate you’re leaving your children. This is about the choices we face today and the consequences those choices will have on the trajectory of our planet’s liveability before I retire.

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