What will happen to the Earth if we don't change our polluting ways?


Don’t believe the hype—The debate among scientists over the reality of global warming has come to an agreement: It’s happening right now. Given that fact, it’s time to meditate on what will happen if the status quo remains unchanged.

Seed caught up with three climate specialists to find out just what will happen to our weather patterns in the next century if carbon emissions continue unchecked. We are doing this for your information, for your own good and, maybe, to scare you a little.

TIM PALMER is the head of the Probability and Seasonal Forecasting Division at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts. He also served as lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change‘s most recent survey report.

Let’s start off with the summer months—June, July and August. Think about the drought that Europe had a couple of years ago, which resulted in tens of thousands of fatalities and major crop loss. According to analyses of the world’s climate, a European summer drought that would [currently] occur once every 20 years, can be expected to occur once every three years toward the end of the century, when carbon dioxide emissions will be roughly twice what it was in pre-Industrial Revolution times. That’s a seven-fold increase.

The same calculations go for El Niño-like weather patterns in the Pacific and monsoons in Southeast Asia. Extreme flooding could make countries like Bangladesh uninhabitable and would displace thousands of environmental refugees.

Under the stress of extreme drought, many plants stop absorbing carbon and actually emit more into the atmosphere. If the Amazon rainforest, a big carbon sink, becomes too stressed under drought conditions then it could significantly impact the carbon budget on the atmosphere, and you have a potential feedback effect.

Agriculture will also become a problem. We have growing populations, but it will be difficult to sustain food crops in particular regions with extreme changes in climate. Another consequence of changing climate would be a rise in the frequency of climate-related diseases—forms of malaria, cholera and meningitis are known to be linked with climate variability.

In the winter, for the latitude belt of Northern Europe and the US, or Southern Canada, we are finding that the typical winter storms could hold much more water than they do under present-day conditions. Winter rainfall will increase substantially. The problem with that is when rivers burst over their banks, and you are left with whole areas of land under water.

Climate links a lot of things together. Corals are being affected by warming sea temperatures and polar bears may well become extinct as summer sea ice leaves the Arctic. There is also the related problem with the acidification of the oceans from extra carbon dioxide, which threatens the ability of crustaceans to make their shells. Once you start to think how we as humans, and the animal and plant life, have adapted to the particular types of climate locally, it doesn’t take much to realize that a systematic shift in climate—either wetter, colder, warmer or dryer—is going to significantly affect all those life forms.

JAMES LOVELOCK, an environmental scientist, formulated the Gaia hypothesis, which asserts that all life on Earth functions as a single, self-regulating organism. He’s the author of nine books, including The Revenge of Gaia: Why the Earth Is Fighting Back—and How We Can Still Save Humanity, which will be available in the US later this year.

I think the most probable prediction for the future of the world—you can’t predict with certainty, obviously—is that it will go to the hot state it was in 55 million years ago and stay there for quite a long time.

In what the geologists call the early Eocene, 55 million years ago, an accidental geological event released something on the order of one teratonne—that’s a million million tons—of carbon compound into the atmosphere. There’s good evidence from isotope analysis—very similar to that used with ice cores—that the temperature rose 8° C in the temperate and Arctic regions and about 5° C in the tropics, as a result of that event. We think there was much less life on the planet during the 200,000 years of the hot state, and most of it was up in the Arctic basins.

Now, we’ve put into the atmosphere more than half as much carbon dioxide as was released then. Not only that, but in the early Eocene, people weren’t around. We’ve taken an awful lot of the Earth’s surface for farming, so that it’s no longer available to cancel out the damage done by the amount of carbon dioxide we’ve put in. So that, and the fact that the sun is about half a percent hotter than it was then—it doesn’t sound like much, but it all adds up—makes it likely that we’re on the verge of jumping up to the same high temperature that occurred 55 million years ago.

The prospects for the coming century are pretty grim: If these predictions are correct, it means that all of the efforts that have been made, like the Kyoto and Montreal agreements, are almost certainly a waste of time. They should have been done 50 or 100 years ago. It’s too late now to turn back the clock, so to speak. So I think we’ve got to found a decent Arctic civilization with a very reduced number of people in the not too distant future.

MARTIN HOFFERT is a professor emeritus of physics at New York University and a strong advocate for the use of alternative energies. He has been interviewed by PBS and Technology Review about his varied schemes for giving energy to the world’s population, including space-based solar power systems and mining on asteroids and different planets.

The biggest problem that we face in the “business as usual” scenario is climate change. By raising the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere we are raising the temperature on the planet.

The Earth has warmed, so far, about six-tenths of a degree [Celsius]—about 1° F. That’s on average—it has gone up more in the high latitudes. In the last Ice Age, about 20,000 years ago, the Earth’s temperature was only 3° C colder, and the whole Northern Hemisphere was completely covered in ice. We are talking about as much of a change in the opposite direction, because by the time CO2 doubles to over 500 parts per million, temperatures could get warmer by 2.5° C. We estimate that this rise in temperature could irreversibly melt the land glaciers over Greenland and Antarctica, which could raise the sea level 20 and 200 feet, respectively.

There is a relationship between all other environmental problems and climate change. If you look at the major problems—less fresh water, poverty and disease—and the fact that the biological diversity in the world is being threatened, these are important but they are all related to the energy issue. If we don’t have enough energy to supply everyone on the Earth in a sustainable way, it’s impossible to deal with all these other issues.

The business as usual scenario is that this is not only going to continue but get worse as we shift from oil and gas to coal, which has a higher CO2 output per unit of energy. If we are really going to solve this, we have to face energy alternatives, and we have to do it in the next 30 to 50 years.

Otherwise the world will be a completely different place. We are in the process of changing the whole planet with these shifts that we are producing. If we are not able to make this conversion in the global energy system within this period of time, it’s going to be very bad.

Originally published April 30, 2006


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