It doesn’t matter what we call “climate change”

Alex Lee recently wrote that “the term ‘climate change’ isn’t working anymore” because “most people don’t understand what the term climate means.” Generally, he argues, people confuse “climate” with “weather,” “climate” is too scientific of a term, and “climate change” doesn’t really reflect the “acute environmental crisis” people actually experience; we should stick with “global warming” because floods, hurricanes, higher temperatures, wildfires, and the like, are directly tied to heat. People will better connect with “global warming” because it’s easier to understand than the broader, more nuanced idea of “climate change.”

This is a fairly common hypothesis. Essentially, the argument is that people tend to not be science-literate enough to make the term “climate change” rhetorically effective; most people know too little about science or lack the capacity to assess scientific information necessary to get a firm grip on the real risks at hand. If we take it at face value, we essentially have two options: improve public science education, or play rhetorically to science illiteracy. It seems that Lee would have us do the latter.

In truth, however, this is a false choice based on a false hypothesis. Research from Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project, led by Dan Kahan, has empirically shown that science literacy doesn’t make people more likely to perceive the risks of climate change as serious. In fact, high levels of science literacy counter-intuitively deepen polarization. More nuanced understandings of climate science tend to make people who doubt the seriousness of its risks more likely to rationalize away perceived threats. Instead, it’s people’s pre-existing values, world views, and cultural commitments that explain how they perceive the risks of climate change, and improving science literacy usually makes those values-based positions more entrenched.

So, if we take the Cultural Cognition Project’s research seriously, improving public science education might actually make things worse—at least as far as “convincing” climate deniers goes. Moreover, if science illiteracy doesn’t actually explain political disagreement about climate change, there’s little reason to play to it rhetorically and re-wed ourselves to the term “global warming” over “climate change.”

This is not to say that terms don’t matter. They most certainly do. But to suppose that calling it “climate change,” “global warming,” “global weirding,” “the climate crisis,” or “global environmental change” makes all the difference is a red herring. It doesn’t seem to matter what we call climate change. People’s perceptions of the global socioecological crisis will only change as their worldviews change, and worldviews only change with first-hand, personal experience—like Harvey’s devastation in Houston, Florida’s bout with Irma, the American West’s ongoing wildfire, and Lee’s glacial bathtub ring.

Perhaps more important than the particular term we decide to use is consistency in terminologymaintaining a unified rhetorical front. When environmentalists, political activists, and climate scientists spend their discursive capital bickering over whether to call it climate change or something else, it gives political opponents ammunition to argue that the movement for improving global environmental policy lacks solidarity, which only further precludes progress.

As Lee notes, “words matter.” But the choice between either “climate change” or “global warming” isn’t going to be what moves the needle. Words matter, but what matters more is to what end we use them, and in-fighting about terms among environmentalists is about as useful as debating facts. It’s as if we’re on a sinking ship and we’re worried about whether to call the hole in the hull a “breach” or a “gash.” At the end of the day, we’re still sinking, time is limited, and either way we have to deploy the lifeboats or we’re all getting wet.

Ultimately, the debate over climate change isn’t a problem of terms, public scientific literacy, if the facts about climate change are “settled,” or if people “believe” in climate change or not. As Jim White argues, climate change isn’t a question of belief—the physics of climate change don’t care if we believe in them or not. The real climate controversy is one characterized by fundamental differences in values—the parameters of competing world views that are often incommensurable—and it’s mediating those conflicts in value that we should be talking about.

Cross-posted with the Committee on Environmental Thought (ComET) Blog: Environmental Thoughts

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The ethics of rising sea level (I)

Rising sea level: Inevitability and responsibility

The physics of climate change—the greenhouse effect—are well established. As the Sun blasts the Earth with energy, the Earth absorbs some of it and reflects the rest. Then, depending on surface conditions and the composition of the atmosphere, more or less of the reflected energy makes it back out to space. But if the atmosphere gets in that reflected energy’s way because it’s full of carbon, for example, it gets reflected again back down at the Earth. Since much of that energy is heat, global temperatures go up. Just like an enormous greenhouse. Meanwhile, the Sun is still blasting the Earth with energy and the process continues.

Photo courtesy of the Florida Sierra Club

Photo courtesy of the Florida Sierra Club

The Earth functions much like an organism. Certain homeostatic processes are physiochemically determined. If the system overheats, symptoms start to develop as the system adjusts to stabilize itself. For humans, we might sweat, feel light-headed, lose consciousness, or worse. For the Earth, landscapes change, ecosystems adapt, weather gets more erratic and intense, land ice melts, the oceans expand, and, in turn, sea level rises.

Climate change and sea level rise

Climate change means many things—uncertainty among them—but the relationship between global temperature and sea level is straightforward. When the planet cools, sea level drops, and when it warms, sea level rises. This happens for two reasons: 1) the thermal expansion of water and 2) melting land ice.

The former means that as heat diffuses from the atmosphere into the ocean, the volume of the ocean—the literal space between the water molecules—increases. If that’s not intuitive, think of steam rising from boiling pot of water: if you add enough heat to water, the space between the molecules increases so much that they fly apart and into vapor form.

As for the latter, you can probably guess Antarctica’s role.

As Antarctic temperatures rise, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet will continue to melt, the amount of water in the ocean will increase, and sea level will rise. For obvious reasons, any amount of sea level rise poses problems for coastal communities everywhere.

Photo courtesy of WaterSISWEB

Photo courtesy of WaterSISWEB

According to the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), we can generally predict 2.3 meters of sea level rise for every °C increase in average global temperatures over the next 2000 years, more than a third of which will be attributable to the melting West Antarctic Ice Sheet. By that math, even if the world manages to keep global warming within 2°C (which is doubtful), we can still expect sea levels to rise by nearly 15 feet.

You can click on the map below and zoom in to see for yourself what the world looks like with 15 feet of sea level rise.

Map courtesy of CReSIS

Map courtesy of CReSIS

In North America, 15 feet of sea level rise would mean cities like New Orleans, Miami, New York, and Boston are flooded, as are sizeable portion of the Yucatan Peninsula and Alaskan coast. Around the world, Bangladesh and the Maldives, large parts of South East AsiaNorthern Europe, much of the Amazon Delta, and the northern coast South America would be underwater.

Though I use hypothetical language, it is important to be clear that some degree of sea level rise is now inevitable. Given present atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, the relevant question is not if sea level will rise, but when, and by how much?

Expectations and inevitabilities

To put expectations in perspective, FEMA’s most recent assessment projects sea level rising by more than a meter by 2100. Miami, the Maldives, the southern tip of Vietnam, swaths of Indonesia, and the mouth of the Amazon Delta are flooded with just one meter of sea level rise.

Southeast Asia with 1m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of CreSIS

Southeast Asia with 1m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of CreSIS

Here’s a world map of 1 meter of inundation for reference.

And it won’t stop then or there.

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations measured in April 2017 logged around 409ppm (updated May 2017). The last time there was this much carbon in the atmosphere was the Pliocene—3 million years ago. The Pliocene was significantly hotter and sea level was more than 20 meters above what it is today. Given the amount of carbon already in the atmosphere, in coming centuries as the Earth’s natural feedbacks to carbon forcing play out, we are likely justified in anticipating something like Pliocene-era sea levels.

With 20-25 meters of sea level rise, the map looks very different.

North America with 20m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

North America with 20m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

Here’s an interactive map tool you can use to check out various amounts of sea level rise.

In the United States, 20 meters of sea level rise means the state of Delaware, California’s bay area all the way to Sacramento, the entire edge of the Gulf Coast (Houston’s port becomes the coast and much of Louisiana goes the way of Atlantis), and the bottom third of the Florida Peninsula are all underwater. Elsewhere in the world: Shanghai, Bangladesh and the Maldives are long since submerged.

Southeast Asia with 20m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

Southeast Asia with 20m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

But it could be much worse depending on how global climate policy evolves and how the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and other stocks of land ice respond to climate change.

Catastrophic sea level rise

For sake of thought experiment, let’s consider the catastrophic scenarios projected by the IPCC’s A2 and A1F1 emissions pathways, putting us somewhere between 800 and 1000ppm CO2 by 2100. These worst-case scenarios mean that eventually, as Earth systems respond over centuries to come, we reach Eocene conditions—a world entirely without ice. Without ice anywhere on Earth, sea level sat more than 100 meters higher than today. The map tool only displays up to 60 meters of sea level rise, but that should be motivating enough. Just consider it a conservative portrayal of Eocene-era sea levels. BuzzFeed also recently issued some interesting depictions of what the world looks like without ice.

North America with 60m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

North America with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

There are good reasons to think that this is bad, or at least undesirable, in and of itself. Maybe we want land ice to exist for its own sake. It might just make us feel better to know that glaciers are out there. Moreover, perhaps we have an obligation not to destroy the natural condition and function of the Antarctic ecosystem, even if not for the ecosystem’s sake but out of respect for Antarctica inhabitants’ right to habitat.

Relevant concerns, to be sure. But the human implications of catastrophic sea level rise are more than disturbing enough to warrant the catastrophic hypothetical. With Eocene era sea levels, cities flood the world over, many coastal countries are submerged entirely, and hundreds of millions of people lose their homes.

Asia with 6m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

Asia with 6m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

In the United States, the Gulf and Southeast Coasts are fundamentally reshaped. Florida is completely submerged, the Mississippi Delta consumes all of Louisiana and extends into northern Arkansas and Tennessee, and Georgia and South Carolina lose large stretches of eastern territory. Bangladesh and much of India, vast amounts of Northeastern China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Philippines, all of Denmark and the Netherlands, as well as much of Northern Germany including Berlin are entirely flooded.

Europe with 60m of SLR

Europe with 60m of SLR

Some nations like the US and China have large amounts of inland territory into which their populations can move (albeit still at huge costs), but many do not. Many people, Bangladeshis for example, will lose their entire country in the catastrophic scenario. This raises several questions.

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise--Map courtesy of geology.com

Bangladesh with 60m of sea level rise–Map courtesy of geology.com

Where should people of entirely submerged nations go? How should responsibility for adaptation assistance be divided? Should neighboring nations take on climate refugees simply because they’re closer, or should nations with greater contributions to climate change or greater ability to pay shoulder more of the responsibility?

The forced migration of countless individuals to new regions within and without their own nations—i.e. population displacement—is perhaps the most obvious ethical dilemma presented by the catastrophic scenario. Bangladesh is commonly considered with regard to the catastrophic sea level rise and population displacement because it is densely populated and especially vulnerable to rising sea level.

Moreover, Bangladesh’s cumulative and annual contributions to climate change inducing greenhouse gases are negligible. Compared to the United States, Europe, India, and China, Bangladesh is not, in large part, complicit in causing climate change, the melting of land ice, or the rise of sea level. That Bangladesh bears little responsibility for causing climate change and its impacts on sea level, yet shoulders the most extreme conceivable consequence is intuitively objectionable by most common conceptions of justice, wrongdoing, rights, and fairness. And if we were to weigh the marginal benefits of industrialization against the resulting change in climate and sea level rise, it would be a strange calculus indeed that rules the prerogative to continue burning fossil fuels over and above the global costs of lost coastal territory and massive population displacement.

Continue reading to Part II

Prime real estate!

Antarctica is melting! An iceberg the size of Chicago recently broke off of the Pine Island Glacier because of an enormous and growing crack in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. And the Chicago-sized glacier is only the latest event in a recent trend of Antarctica’s glaciers melting.

Why this is happening is still something of a mystery—but a warming Southern Ocean eating at the ice from below and higher air temperatures from climate change melting it from the top-down are the main suspects. Whatever the cause, the Antarctic is melting—and we might be responsible, even if only in part. So what does, and what should, the Antarctic meltdown mean to us?

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Original artwork by Xander Pollock

Should we see the Antarctic meltdown as yet another sign that the human footprint on Earth is out of control and must be stopped? On the contrary, if anthropogenic climate change is not at the root of Antarctica melting, it’s not so clear that we have a responsibility to intervene for its own sake—though intervention for humanity’s sake may be another story.

There are several implications of a melting Antarctica worth considering. Worthy concerns range from sea-level rise and the threat posed to human civilization, what Antarctica might mean to us as climate change intensifies, habitat and biodiversity loss, messy international politics over the governance of a global commons, the inherent value of wilderness, and the impacts of Antarctic melt on ocean ecology.

The issues raised above are too many and too complex to cover in a single post. So, this represents the inaugural installment of a six-part series I will be writing on the ethics, science, and policy questions surrounding the Antarctic meltdown.

The ethical elephant in the room is sea-level rise. If the entire West Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt, sea-level would rise somewhere between 16 and 23 feet. Coastal dwellers beware. Even if humans aren’t responsible for Antarctica’s recent trend of melting, outwardly we seem morally obliged to mitigate the Antarctic meltdown because of its disastrous consequences for humans living on coasts. But human interests aren’t necessarily the only concern. In any case—hold that thought. We’ll dive into the ethics of sea-level rise in a later piece.

Fresh water and climate change

What follows takes a look into what Antarctica might mean to us in context of freshwater scarcity—or rather, drought—-due to climate change. In a recent piece, “Our new hydroverlords,” I discussed some of the scary possibilities that could arise as a result of water scarcity due to climate change. With this fresh in my mind, I thought—what role does Antarctica play in this dialectic?

Consider: water is essential to life on Earth. While the marginal value of water is relatively small—a 20 oz. bottle of fresh water can cost less than a dollar—its total value is beyond measure—without water, life as we know it would come to an end. Disregarding the needs of the nonhuman world for the moment, we use water for drinking, agriculture, industry, recreation, etc. The list goes on.

Freshwater only makes up about 2.5% of the total water on Earth, and most of that—more than 99%—is trapped in the Antarctic and Greenland Ice Sheets. Of that 99%, the Antarctic Ice Sheet contains roughly 30 million cubic kilometers of ice—and it has been that way for the past 40 million years. But this pristine and ancient reservoir is draining into the ocean.

Technically, Antarctica is a desert. Among several other places contending for record low annual precipitation, Antarctica is one of the harshest, highest deserts on the planet. But ice has been building up for millennia, so while scarce precipitation falls there each year, the ice is at least a mile thick in most places. So, if we even come close to the National Center for Atmospheric Research’s most severe drought prediction, we may start seeing the South Pole in a different light within the century.

Depending on how much desalination technology improves in the next 80 years or so, places with plentiful freshwater resources may get increasingly hard to come by. That’s not to suggest that governments or multinational companies should start shipping glacier fragments or piping melt water—or that this would be legal, feasible, cost efficient, or desirable—but as latitudes of livable precipitation press northward and southward, Antarctica may start looking more and more like prime real estate. With the human population climbing well beyond 7 billion and close to a billion people going without access to clean freshwater already, there are bound to be lots of hot, thirsty folks in the future.

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099

National Center for Atmospheric Research Precipitation Prediction 2090-2099 — CLICK TO ENLARGE

Seven nations—Australia, Chile, Great Britain, Argentina, France, New Zealand, and Norway—have claimed territory in Antarctica by right of discovery and occupation, but the Antarctic Treaty System has peacefully suspended any future territorial claims. So long as the treaty is in place, these claims should neither expand nor diminish—nor should Antarctica become an object of international discord.

In short, no one “owns” Antarctica so no one can “buy” resources or property there like we typically think when it comes to land. But land is land and humans are, at the end of the day, just animals that will adapt to climate change however we can if things elsewhere get inhospitable enough.

Resource scarcity exacerbated by a climbing population and climate change could mean a new interest in extraction from the Antarctic. If humans are struggling with drought and the Antarctic Ice Sheet is melting anyway, shouldn’t we attempt to harvest that freshwater resource rather than let it slip into the ocean?

Changes in the Antarctic ice could also be seen as an opportunity for fossil fuels exploration and send the Southern Ocean the way of the Arctic.

In the most radical scenario, even multinational emigration, settlement, and urban development is possible. If things get warm enough from catastrophic climate change and the land beneath the ice sheet starts poking through, should humans become Antarctica’s first permanent mammalian terrestrial inhabitants?  In spirit reminiscent of Westward Expansion, should we press forward—or rather, southward—into the wild?

Human presence in the Antarctic would represent a fundamental shift in Earth’s last wild ecosystem, as well as for geo-politics—and both are rife with ethical quandaries. If at some point our survival or the prevention and alleviation of human suffering depends upon Antarctic resources, then have we non-arbitrary justification for doing so? But barring abject, otherwise inescapable poverty, don’t we also have good reason to prefer to see the world’s last wilderness remain exactly that?

Human beings have been an exceptionally successful invasive species and could no doubt make life in Antarctica work, but the inherent value of preserving its natural condition may outweigh our disposition to view the nonhuman environment as a resource stock. Put a pin in that thought: we’ll consider the idea and value of wilderness again and in more depth in a later post.

So humans are resource hungry and need places to live—especially as the world population grows—but Antarctica isn’t exactly low-hanging fruit. If it comes to that, it’ll be a long time off. If such a day does arrive, something of an international governance fiasco might ensue. Antarctica could become the world’s next radical political experiment.

But not to worry, the Environmental Protection Protocol to the Antarctic Treaty currently prohibits development in Antarctica almost altogether (short of a few low-impact scientific research stations) in order to “preserve the intrinsic value of Antarctica.” In turn, some of these questions may be ethically rich but legally moot…for now.

However, a recent attempt to create a new Antarctic ocean sanctuary failed in an moment of international politicking—so perhaps we should take this as a sign that, like the climate, international norms of Antarctic governance are changing. Or is the failed sanctuary vote just business-as-usual? But hold that thought, yet again. We’ll get to that in one of the next installments of the Antarctic meltdown.

Our new hydroverlords

The image below is one of four precipitation models published by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) that together forecast extreme global drought less than 50 years from now as a consequence of climate change. What follows illustrates predicted global precipitation levels in 2060-2069 assuming a moderate greenhouse gas emissions scenario as defined by the International Panel on Climate Change. Moderate.

Climate prediction map 2060-2069

Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2060-2069

Take a moment to let all the purple, red, and yellow sink in. These are Dust Bowl conditions and worse. Take another moment.

It is difficult to emphasize enough the gravity of this predicted drought. We should all keep the above image in mind when we consider the value of water. Water is fundamental to the existence of life as we know it. Not just human beings. All life on Earth. For obvious utilitarian and deontological reasons, by the land ethic and the difference principle, by the precautionary and proactionary principles, and by our natural moral sense, water is of the highest non-arbitrary value and it is our responsibility as constituents of the human world and of the Earth itself—if we even entertain such a distinction—to do everything in our power to prevent and prepare for this possibility.

Pause to consider what it would mean for governance, for geopolitics, for the world if we fail to curb climate change beyond this moderate GHG emissions path and simultaneously 1) fail to implement and enforce the universal human right to water as recognized by 122 countries of the UN in 2010, and/or 2) consent to the privatization of water resources by multi-national corporations. I, for one, would not welcome our new hydroverlords.

What’s worse, the map shown above is only the third of four models. The fourth model extends from 2090-2099. Brace yourself for the purple: Precipitation Model with Climate Change: 2090-2099

Water resource management, conservation, and preservation will likely fall into their own compartmentalized regime complexes—as discussed by Keohane and Victor—fragmented from other initiatives focused on mitigating and adapting to the various impacts of climate change. According to Keohane and Victor, there’s reason to be optimistic about the capacities of this regime structure. But simply adapting to new conditions of water scarcity equates to treating the symptom rather than the disease. While adaptation is absolutely necessary, we must simultaneously confront climate change at its source: human greenhouse gas emissions (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, etc.) and the several positive feedback cycles that global warming entails.

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations alone are currently around 397 parts per million (ppm), which essentially guarantees an increase in average global temperatures of ~4 degrees Fahrenheit (~2 degrees Celsius). What’s more, unless we reduce GHG emissions by ~80%, we can expect the increase in average global temperature to be even more dramatic.

Confronting climate change means one of two things (and maybe both, but probably not—the former would render the latter largely unnecessary and the latter would likely preclude the former). We must reduce greenhouse gas emissions through 1) an immediate significant reduction in energy consumption or 2) a techno-scientific revolution in renewable energy, energy storage, energy transmission, transportation, agriculture, infrastructure, manufacturing, and architecture.

Coupling either approach with reforestation and afforestation projects would be a good idea too, especially considering the Brazilian government’s recent report that deforestation in the Amazon has actually gotten worse since May of 2012.

In all likelihood, the future holds an increase in energy consumption, not a decrease, so we must—at some level—prepare ourselves to rely on faith in Julian Simon’s infinite resource of the human mind to spark the large-scale techno-scientific advances that the climatic consequences of our industrial behavior demand. We must have faith in progress, despite the paradox therein. A daunting task, to be sure, but we have little choice as we have collectively agreed, both implicitly and explicitly, that the Good Life is an energy intensive one. The climate challenge is upon us. If we are to progress, we must progress toward sustainability—and hopefully to a future with more water than NCAR has predicted. Let’s get it together, humans.

jmk