I hate to do this to you on a Monday morning but three stories caught my eye this last week. The first one could be called a doomsday warning. The second deals with conclusions about ocean biodiversity drawn from a study. And the third is a statement acknowledging that traditional ranching practices are no longer working in the United States. What do all three stories have in common? Climate change.
Whether you believe global warming is natural variability in our geological history, or human induced caused by our love of fossil fuels and meat (methane from cows), or the beginning of the “End of Days,” one thing is abundantly clear – we are witnessing trends that point to an altered scenario for life on the planet and we have little choice but to seek solutions, something for which our political leaders have demonstrated little appetite. We on the planet can do something to mitigate the risk by, one, adapting to our new circumstances by altering us, our crops, and our animals(some of this sounds silly but one recent scientific study on genetic modification suggested this with a little bit of tongue in cheek), or by changing consumption patterns, conserving energy and altering our infrastructure to make it greener. What we cannot do is pretend not to see what is apparent before our eyes.
So what were the stories that have motivated this update?
World Bank Warns of the 4 Degree Celsius Threshold
For those who live in the world of Fahrenheit, 4 Celsius translates to 7.2 Fahrenheit. And the World Bank is talking about a mean temperature in its warning. Mean is a median. The range of temperature we will experience in this 4 Celsius scenario could see daytime temperatures 10-15 Celsius (18 to 27 Fahrenheit) higher in tropical areas of the planet although polar regions will probably experience the largest increases.
The bank’s doomsday scenario is prophetic. In it the threshold for widespread crop failure, malnutrition, mass migration and rising sea levels comes if we allow temperatures to rise by 4 Celsius. Most nations that are signatories to the Kyoto Protocol and other international climate initiatives have set a holding target of half of 4 Celsius. But the World Bank study is pessimistic and believes that we more than likely will see, based on current CO2 emissions, an increase of 3 to 3.5 Celsius (5.4 to 6.3 Fahrenheit) by 2100.
So although 4 Celsius is not a forecast it is a prophetic warning that we cannot let global warming continue without taking action that involves considerable self sacrifice. Because even a temperature rise of 2 Celsius will lead to significant alterations in land use, sea level and precipitation patterns.
In this doomsday scenario what is most notable is the areas most impacted are parts of the Developing World, already experiencing population growth and food shortages. Adding uncertainty in rainfall, weather patterns, river flow and the impact of rising sea levels on coastal populations, we see significant disruption not only to humans but to ecosystems within these nations. The most prophetic statement in the Bank’s report is this: “There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4 Celsius world is possible.”
Caribbean Fishery Collapse Linked to Climate Change
I love sardines. But they don’t seem to like global climate change as indicated by joint research done by Venezuela and the United States looking at the collapse of the sardine fishery in the Southern Caribbean Sea over the last decade. The collapse is directly attributed to a drop in plankton levels combined with overfishing. Catches have been reduced by 87% based on measurements over a 14-year period. The collapse in plankton correlates changes in water circulation patterns, salinity levels, acidification from absorbed CO2, and water temperature rises of 1.1 Celsius (2 Fahrenheit). The most likely causes – human-made climate change or natural climate variation. The only way to rule which is to continue studying the trends. Unfortunately that does little for those dependent on sardines. The Venezuelan sardine catch was 200,000 tons in 2004. Today it is 40,000 tons.
If human behaviour is the reason for fewer sardines, whether because of global warming, or overfishing, it is clear that humans can provide the solution.
American Ranchers in the West Are Adapting to an Unpredictable Future
The results of a survey of ranch managers in Southern Colorado done last year indicated that 25% planned to leave the industry because of persistent drought. Among ranchers that also practiced irrigated farming the number was higher at 36%. The reasons for such high levels of pessimism are prolonged drought, the high cost of replacement cattle, the inability to grow enough feed, and the low return on cattle they sell.
Ranchers report conditions not seen in their lifetimes. Scientists concur by providing weather data that shows extreme gyrations with searing heat and drought in one year followed by soil-eroding, crop-destroying torrential rains. It is a bag of extreme weather events happening with increasing frequency.
To mitigate against these altered weather patterns ranchers that are staying in the business are looking at genetically modifying the cattle they breed to withstand climate extremes. They also are altering the management of range land and feed crops they grow.
Colorado is symptomatic of a larger problem in the U.S. Cattle inventories in 2011 sank to their lowest levels since 1952. And the pervasive drought that hit much of the farm and ranching belt in the country was described as the most extensive since the 1950s, impacting 80% of agricultural lands across the country.
What are the Lessons Learned?
For all of us on this planet including the non-humans, we must find a collective voice to motivate those who govern us to attack the climate change file by instituting the changes needed to alter the outcome. Governments, manufacturers, inventors, and consumers – all have a strategic role to play to ensure the planet that emerges in 2100 will not be the one prophesied by the World Bank’s doomsday scenario.
Awareness is the first step. A call to action comes next followed by execution. I encourage you, my readers, to get involved in the conversation and together we can collectively create the actions that will alter the future.