What if climate change is coming sooner and will be worse than we expect?

Posted Tuesday, October 29, 2013 in Sustainable Maine

What if climate change is coming sooner and will be worse than we expect?

by Michael Kelly

In the nineteenth century, because it was so much shorter than the overland route, folks would scrape a road across the sea ice from Brunswick to Portland. No one is alive today who made that trip or even remembers that the ocean used to freeze that thick.

Even so, pretty much everyone in Maine recognizes from personal experience that global warming is real: over the course of my life, I’ve watched Quahog Bay go from heavy winter ice to no winter ice. Anyone who reads the scientific literature knows that it’s caused by burning stuff, particularly fossil fuels. Folks who have it on their radar also know that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is saying that humanity is going to be in big trouble before the end of the century unless we stop burning things.

However there are a couple of things that most people do not know, even the ones paying attention. One of those is that the IPCC climate predictions are very conservative. If there are credible scientific studies, some saying that sea level will increase by three feet by the end of the century and others saying six feet, the IPCC goes with three feet. In today’s Orwellian political environment where up is down and down is off duty, this probably comes as no surprise. The point is that there is a large body of research indicating that climate change is coming sooner and will be worse than we’ve been lead to expect.  Most of us have been allowed to think that climate change is a slow, cumulative process, but Maine’s world renowned Climate Change Institute has discovered that climate change emerges abruptly, like boiling water; it’s not boiling until suddenly it is.

Most of our leaders, for whatever reasons, are whistling past the graveyard, hoping for the best when it is perfectly obvious that if we continue burning things at the rate we are, we will force an abrupt shift to a whole new kind of climate. According to a recent study out of Rutgers University, the last time carbon dioxide in the atmosphere suddenly doubled, the planet’s temperature spiked 9 degrees Fahrenheit in thirteen years. Imagine your temperature suddenly going up like that. You wouldn’t last long. Neither, in the face of a comparable change, will human civilization. By the way, the planet will be fine, been there done that. We are the ones who won’t make it.

The other thing that most people don’t realize is that even if we stop burning things this year, we are still going to face significant climate weirding, storms, droughts, floods, and fires, far worse than what we are already experiencing. Anyway, given that there are 1,200 new coal fired power plants already in planning or under construction worldwide, we can confidently anticipate that humanity is not about to stop burning things anytime soon.

Consequently, the time has come to talk of adaptation and resilience, of desperate measures in the face of insurmountable odds. For instance, an abrupt shift to a somewhat hotter world, say 4 degrees Fahrenheit (imminently possible in the next twenty years), could produce many millions of drought-driven climate refugees within the borders of the United States. Do you suppose they might want to relocate to places that will seem relatively secure, like Maine? What would we do if 3 million refugees came knocking at our doors. Whether that is a catastrophe or an opportunity for the state will be decided by what we start doing now to prepare for them.

My family survived the Dust Bowl in Oklahoma in the 1930s, barely. Hundreds of thousands of other people were forced to abandon the Midwest. Many moved to California. It was an ugly, deadly time that inspired heart rending novels like Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and testaments to human endurance like Agee and Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The Dust Bowl, with storms that stretched from Texas to Washington, D.C. took America by surprise.

This time we can prepare, we at least know that something is coming, even if we don’t quite know what it is. Whatever else, it is not a surprise. The farsighted have already begun learning and making plans. This is a train you want to get on board, because the only way any of us get through tragedy on this scale is by facing it together.

Perhaps we are lucky that we can’t know exactly what to expect, at least at the regional and local level. When people think that they know the answers, or they pretend to know because it increases their influence, they get so caught up in manufacturing the illusion of certainty that they neglect to ask questions or even listen. If you’re already right, making any effort that could be interpreted as an effort to be more right seems like an embarrassing contradiction. The ultimate consequence is that people who operate this way always insist that they are on top of everything right up to the moment of catastrophic failure. Even then, the worst of them just shout louder.

In the case of climate change, it is impossible to know what we are going to face in our lives. There are too many unknowns. We can’t even predict today’s relatively stable weather more than a week in advance. In effect, we’ve had 11,000 years of good weather. All of human civilization has evolved during that time and it’s about to come to an end. No one knows what’s in store so we will have to improvise.

What we certainly can do is constantly strive to be less wrong. That’s what science does so well. Science starts with the assumption that what we think we know is wrong, but that we can study and learn and become less wrong. The achievements of science have been astonishing, however badly they may have been abused by the power mongers among us. We may find that surviving the future is going to force us all to become scientists, at least in the sense that we begin to constantly strive to be less wrong.

Wouldn’t a society that values truth more than power or wealth be astonishing? Imagine leaders and followers who actually were committed to making society work for everyone by striving continuously to be less wrong. Science only works because people cooperate, they share knowledge, they build on each other’s discoveries, and they subject themselves to real tests of validity.  That’s the behavior the future will demand from each of us, if we are to survive. The tests will continue to be real. We better start making sure that our answers are too because the future is knocking at our door.

Climate Adaptation Facts: A Briefing for Kennebec Valley Watershed Communities November 2nd 9 A.M. to 2:30 P.M. registration opens at 8 A.M. Kennebec Valley Community College. Featuring:

Paul Mayewski and Sean Birkel from the Climate Change Institute, University of Maine; George Jacobson, Maine State Climatologist; and an expert panel on Building Community Resilience. Stephen Mulkey, Unity College President, will provide closing remarks.



Michael Thorne Kelly, Ph.D. is President of Michael Thorne Kelly Inc., a national consulting firm that helps organizations develop strategic resilience. His clients include large international Fortune 500 corporations, federal and state government agencies, NGOs and municipalities. His publications encompass social commentary, business management, psychology, and education.

blog comments powered by Disqus