Be prepared!

Be prepared! that’s the boy scout’s marching song,

Be prepared! as through life you march along.

Be prepared to hold your liquor pretty well,

Don’t write naughty words on walls if you can’t spell.

Read more: Tom Lehrer – Be Prepared Lyrics | MetroLyrics

I was never a Boy Scout, for obvious reasons, but nor was I a Girl Guide, although I’m sure I would have enjoyed Girl Guides. Nevertheless, I still think it’s a good idea to be prepared.

When I first moved to New Zealand eight years ago, the Government was telling citizens to be prepared for a civil emergency. They recommended, and still do, that every citizen have an emergency kit which should include things like enough food and water for every member of the household for three days, first aid, torches, radio, blankets and a tent. I thought this was a good idea and so went ahead and got most of these things. It wasn’t long before my emergency kit was put into action with the start of the Christchurch earthquake sequence.

Humans prepare for lots of things. We buy house insurance to protect ourselves should the house burn down even though the chances of this happening are small. If we have the option to reduce our exposure to risk at an acceptable cost, then what sane person wouldn’t? The more catastrophic the risk, the more we ought to be prepared to pay to reduce it.

Where am I going with this?

I don’t understand why we as a society are not doing more to reduce the risk of extreme climate change. On Friday this week, the IPCC will release their 5th report on climate change and in it they will say that scientists are now 95% certain that humans are changing the climate. This is up from 90% in the previous report in 2007. With each report the science becomes clearer. With each year of inaction on our part, the cost of combatting this problem grows and the risk of catastrophe increases. It was more than 20 years ago now that James Hansen stood before US Congress testifying that the world was getting warmer and that we are largely to blame. Had we taken action at the time, the world would be in a completely different place right now. Instead, CO2 levels have risen from about 350ppm to 400ppm and as James Hansen predicted, it has become warmer, the ice is melting and the sea level is rising.

Critics of climate science have become obsessed with climate sensitivity. This is the amount by which the climate is expected to warm with each doubling of atmospheric CO2. But by obsessing over this value they are creating a distraction from the reality that we are in for a great deal more than just a doubling of CO2. On our current trajectory, we are heading for a tripling of CO2 by the end of this Century. A study published by James Hansen this month finds that if we burn all the fossil fuels on the planet, then most of the planet will become inhospitable to humans.

Humans cannot withstand hot and humid conditions for long periods of time. We are better able to cope with hot and dry conditions because our bodies can sweat to cool down. It is thought that the maximum tolerable wet bulb (100% humidity) temperature humans can withstand is 35°C.

Here’s what James Hansen says about it in his recent paper on climate sensitivity:

The human body generates about 100 W of metabolic heat that must be carried away to maintain a core body temperature near 37°C, which implies that  sustained wet bulb temperatures above 35°C can result in lethal hyperthermia. Today, the summer temperature varies widely over the Earth’s surface, but wet bulb temperature is more narrowly confined by the effect of humidity, with the most common value of approximately 26–27°C and the highest approximately of 31°C. A warming of 10–12°C would put most of today’s world population in regions with wet a bulb temperature above 35°C.

Where does James Hansen peg climate sensitivity? At 3-4°C per doubling of CO2. He comes to this figure by studying climates from the past that were much hotter than today and when humans did not exist. What will 3-4°C hotter feel like? I have wondered about this quite a bit but it’s very hard to imagine something you have not experienced. I have certainly felt hot and humid before but not hot and wet bulb humid.

In his article, The Missing Factor in Climate Change Adaptation? Human Psychology, Professor of Organisational Studies, Christopher Wright, questions how we might cope from a psychological perspective. He uses an example from the book, Climate Wars, by Gywnne Dyer which sees America taking extreme measures to keep out starving Mexicans by deploying automated machine guns at the border. What if we transfer this scenario to Australia? The population of Jakarta, Indonesia, is 10 million. Forty percent of the city is below sea level. Australia can’t seem to manage the minuscule 25,000 or so asylum seekers arriving annually on its shores so how might they cope with 5 million or 10 million or more? Will they set up a violent border where asylum seekers are slaughtered on sight? What if parts of Australia become uninhabitable? Will Australians migrate en masse to New Zealand? How would New Zealand cope with this migratory influx? Will they turn them away as Australia currently does with asylum seekers?

It is said that our society is just three solid meals away from anarchy.  Fellow blogger at Cosmogonic Grunt has a good post, Syria: the bleeding edge of climate change. This post states that in the five years preceding the Syrian conflict, the country experienced extensive drought. The NOAA produced a report in 2011 which found a direct link between rising CO2 and drought in the Mediterranean region spreading from Gibraltar to the Middle East.

It is telling that one group taking notice of all of this is the Department of Defence. The Australian Department of Defence 2013 white paper writes specifically about climate change.

The risks associated with resource insecurity may be exacerbated by changes in the global climate system. The inundation of low-lying regions, more frequent and severe natural disasters and shifts in rainfall patterns would lead to loss of agricultural production in some areas and potentially large-scale human migration. The combination of the effects of climate change and resource pressures will increase the risk of insecurity and conflict, particularly internal instability in fragile states, many of which have increasingly large populations in areas that will be affected by climate change. These factors, taken together, point to an increasing demand for humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and stabilisation operations over coming decades.

When I read about the consequences of climate change – extreme weather, rising seas, rising temperatures, melting ice – I feel like something is missing. I am detached somehow from these words. It’s like reading about an earthquake but not actually understanding what it’s like to experience one. So I’m going to add here finally, my understanding of the possible consequences of failing to reduce our risk of extreme climate change.

Extreme drought and rainfall will cause crop failures which will create food insecurity. This, along with rising seas, will cause human migration of epic proportions. Natural disasters are distressing in themselves but their tragedy escalates when people are forced from their homes. Who will take them in?

If no-one takes them in, will it create conflict? When people have nothing to eat or drink they are unlikely to accept their fate without fighting for their lives.

A paper published this month in Science found that when rainfall and temperature patterns deviate from the norm, the risk of conflict is substantially increased. If there is conflict, there will be fear. If people cannot feed their children, there will be anxiety, stress and helplessness along with malnutrition, starvation and disease.

The natural world does not recognise political boundaries and so insects will spread further afield. Insect-borne disease such as malaria are likely to become harder to control. The migration of fisheries to cooler waters will make life hard for poor communities around the equator that depend on fish for food. Ocean acidification will destroy our coral reefs and the industries that depend on them. And finally, for people living in the tropics in particular, the heat and humidity. How will they cope with that?

Is the risk of these things worth making the small sacrifice today by paying a carbon tax, investing in carbon-free energy sources and carbon capture technology and then preparing as best we can for the changes which we have already locked into the climate system? I think so.