Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The Climate Crisis Future

In mid-December, environmental and city planning officials talked about the future of Arcata, here on Humboldt Bay on the North Coast of California.  Probably the most dramatic moment came when (as reported by the Mad River Union) the Community Development Director pointed to a map of the city and talked about a situation that could come to pass within the lifetime of Arcata's youngest citizens.

"Arcata is not going to be here in the future," he said.

Pointing towards the hills to the northeast he added, "It might be there."

He was talking about a possible future only some 80 years away. But to reach that kind of impact, destructive changes would begin decades earlier.

 Specifically he was talking about sea level rise and its impact due to the climate crisis.  Nobody really knows how fast those levels will rise or how high.  But the range of possibilities and the most likely prospects add up to a very big change, in perhaps the not too distant future.

Sea levels are rising now.  I saw one story that claimed that they are rising faster here than anywhere in California.  The situation is further complicated by land that is slowly sinking due to tectonic forces.  But how fast and how much sea levels rise will make the difference, and that could well begin long before even much of the low-lying areas near the Bay are inundated.  Flooding of underground utilities, especially sewer lines, could affect areas farther from the Bay.

The city is protected by what was described as "41 miles of aging dikes."  The city faces decisions--as many coastal cities now do--of what to protect and how.

Flooding caused by the climate crisis has already begun in the US. Many cities are looking to build dikes and seawalls and other infrastructure at huge cost, knowing that this investment may not protect areas of the city for very long.  But how long is not long enough?  And what are the tradeoffs in terms of environment such as wetlands, or wildlife sanctuaries?  Arcata's sewage treatment plant, a national model, uses marshes a stone's throw from the Bay.

To make those decisions requires studies that are as precise as they can be.  City officials have no choice but to think about the unthinkable.  Since many cities are facing the same decisions, they swap information and ideas.  Some "mitigation" (or addressing the effects of the climate crisis) may benefit from regional solutions, such as regional sewage treatment plants.  It's not possible for responsible people in these positions to ignore climate realities.

According to Kevin Hoover's Union story, "a minute number of Arcata residents...a few dozen total" attended the two events.  Yet I am confident that the vast majority of Arcata citizens accept the reality of the climate crisis.

That is not true of the incoming leaders in Washington.  All the relevant cabinet posts and congressional committee chairs are, like our homegrown Hitler and his vp, climate crisis denialists.  Their solution to problems like Arcata's is to deny that they are happening, to deny the causes of the climate crisis and methods of addressing the causes.  On this issue, the United States will shortly have the most extreme denialist government and policies of any major nation on the planet, as well as the vast majority of non-major ones.

The climate crisis in its essential outlines has been proven by every method known to science, from observation of contemporary and historical phenomena (from satellite imagery to ice-core analysis), from repeatable experiments, from models confirmed by data and refined, from predicted phenomena in the real world happening right now.  Physics, chemistry, biochemistry, mathematics, geology, hydrology and the various other components of "climate science," all have been applied, and they all contribute to the same conclusions.

The near unanimity of scientists studying these subjects, and the outlines of their findings, are widely publicized.  Never in history has a major crisis been predicted by so many scientists in so many related disciplines in so many parts of the world with such overwhelming confidence, for so long.

And just enough citizens of the US voted leaders into power who claim they don't know it's true, or they know it's not true, it's not been proven, it's fake.  So stop studying it, and certainly don't do anything about it.

So what does it mean when people claim, in the face of all this evidence and expertise, to not believe in the onrushing catastrophes of the climate crisis?

It seems clear to me that it means they absolutely do believe it--and it scares the shit out of them.

Sure, fossil fuel money funds denialist propaganda, politicians ally themselves with it to get their hands on some of that money and political support, and they and others bend their ideologies to embrace denialism and cluster together in their denialist support groups to exchange their certitudes that a left-wing conspiracy of scientists out to feather their nests has invented a crisis to destroy free enterprise and jobs, and sap the country of needed resources, initiative, Christianity and precious bodily fluids.

But that's just a consequence of the initial condition of being too scared to face it.

And that's where we are.  Everybody with an ounce of sense is scared.  I've lost more than one night of sleep over it.  The difference is denying it versus dealing with it.

For some, it's their job to deny it, and for others, it's their job to deal with it. There is this conflict and power struggle between the people who must confront at least dealing with the effects but also those determined to address the causes so things don't get completely out of hand in the far future, versus the professional denialists now assuming power.

Since it became clearer in the past decade or so that the climate crisis is proceeding faster than the split-the-difference UN reports predicted, it's become less certain that any efforts now or the near future will prevent the end of civilization as we know it.  But the Paris agreement said the good old stubborn human race was going to try.  That is, at minimum, healthy.  And it may be effective.

Will that agreement and its needed impetus (for its targets are acknowledged to be insufficient) survive the next several months and years?  Or will this retrenchment end our last best hope to make the climate crisis future less than civilization ending?

That's become the question, at least in how to think about the future. Meanwhile there are more practical concerns. The end of civilization due to climate crisis, the 6th mass extinction and a cascade of violent responses to resulting crises,  probably requires centuries (though the estimates range from 10 to 1,000 years.) But well before that, there are likely to be enough catastrophe to change everyday life and test all civic institutions long before the end of the century.

Not just coastal cities.  But places that aren't built for the amount of rain they will get, or the drought, or the more frequent and more violent storms, and the extended periods of major heat. Such effects are already happening.  Climate-induced or exacerbated food shortages are causes of war and forced migration in Africa and the Middle East.  Islands and isolated places face inundation and collapse.

Richer places are vulnerable partly because large populations and economies depend on fragile elements of infrastructure.  Every weakness in civic systems makes the whole vulnerable to climate crisis effects.  A weakened health care system--for instance, caused by chaos created by the suicidally stupid cancellation of Obamacare (i.e. the current healthcare system and infrastructure)-- could aid the spread of diseases manifested because of climate crisis caused changes in the range and lifespan of disease-bearing insects, for example.

Of course people are scared shitless.  It takes courage to face it, to figure out what to do and to work at it.

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