Climate change – who cares?

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Hey, if the climate changes, it’ll just mean gentler winters and more beach time, right? Wrong. Very very wrong indeed.

As Andy Lowe mentioned in this post, there are different opinions about climate change, most of which boil down to “it’s not happening”, “it’s happening but it won’t be bad”, or “there’s nothing I can do”. There’s only a small fraction of the population, it seems, who know that it’s happening, know that it does not augur well, and want to do something about it. I’d like to mainly address the second part here.

So what’s so bad about climate change? For starters, the atmosphere won’t be warming uniformly, which means that anyone expecting balmy Wisconsin winters will be sadly disappointed. In fact, Wisconsin winters may get colder, because melting polar ice will affect the Great Ocean Conveyor Belt (see left). This ocean current carries cold water along the ocean floor south towards the equator, where it warms, rises to the surface, and moves north.

This is a bad thing because the melting ice is fresh water, which is lighter and less dense than seawater. That, and the extra rain generated by the increased ocean surface area exposed by melted ice, will make it difficult for the water to sink, which will in turn interfere with the circulation of the current. If the current stops, all that water that previously warmed the northern  hemisphere, won’t. (There’s a fuller explanation of this phenomenon from NASA here).

The melting ice will also raise sea levels, flooding low-lying areas of the planet and depriving millions of home and livelihood, driving them to seek refuge elsewhere.

In addition, the increased atmospheric temperature and increased water in the atmosphere will cause more frequent, and more devastating, extreme weather events. Other weather patterns such as rainfall and seasonal temperatures will change, too, so large agricultural areas which are dependent on rain may become dustbowls, while low-lying areas which rely on seasonal flooding for crops will be permanently underwater.

Then there’s the plants and animals. Animals have some capacity to migrate to a more amenable climate, although the fragmentation of habitat can make that difficult. Plants have a little more difficulty migrating, and their attempt to change to compensate may not do the trick.

For example, while this post looks at a successful adaptation, consider flowering plants: a warmer climate may make them flower earlier. If this is before the hatching of the larvae of the insects that pollinate them, there’s no pollination and hence no next generation.

And the final indignity is that, once it becomes blindingly obvious that climate change is happening and is Not A Good Thing, there’s no way we’ll be able to reverse the process, or even slow it down. Climate change is not a straightforward, linear process: there will be a tipping point beyond which we can’t go back. Anything we need to do at this stage in order to deal with the situation will also be much more expensive than anything we do now.

So it makes sense to do what we can, while we can. Note: you can find several clear and mind-boggling infographics at the very useful Information Is Beautiful site here.

[Featured image: Great Ocean Conveyor Belt. Image courtesy Argonne National Laboratory]

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