You should go to the beach today. It doesn’t have to be Ka‘anapali or Wailea Beach either–Hookipa, Baldwin or Ukumehame will do. It doesn’t need to be a long trip, requiring you to bake for eight hours under the sun’s UV radiation. A quick trip will be fine–just for enough time to appreciate the wonders of the shoreline. Take off your slippers and stand in the sand a few minutes. Walk into the shallows and let the ocean water lap around your ankles and swirl around beneath your soles. If not today, then tomorrow or this weekend at the latest. Oh, and take your kids. That’s the most important part.
One of the things that makes writing about climate change so challenging is that the scientists who do the research and write the papers that explain what’s happening in our atmosphere are generally loathe to predict what their increasingly alarming findings will mean in terms of people and how we will live our lives. They do this for a couple reasons, I think. First, because they are scientists, and as such are taught to be very precise in both how they go about testing hypotheses and how they interpret their results. And second, because there is small but very vocal group of American politicians, activists and corporations who spend vast sums of money denouncing the science and scientific method behind climate change research as bogus and fraudulent because, quite simply, they make ever vaster sums of money from doing the kinds of things (oil and natural gas production, mainly) that lead to the pumping of so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that our entire planet is warming.
Put simply, there’s nothing fun in writing about climate change. The science–chemistry, physics, geology and oceanography–can be extremely technical. Jargon and mathematics (the great nemesis of journalism) is everywhere. And when you finally do track down some agency or scientist’s statement about what increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere or lowering pH values in the ocean will actually mean to life and society over the next century, chances are the statements are vague and ambiguous.
To be honest, it’s much easier to just chuck it all and go to the beach–except given current climatic trends, beaches might possibly become a thing of the past.
Seems impossible. But isn’t the net result of all this? More and more CO2 gets trapped in the atmosphere, world temperatures rise, massive ice sheets in Greenland break up and melt, raising the ocean’s level, which creeps up coastlines, eroding beaches and flooding near-shore developments. Here’s how the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s current website on the effects of climate change puts it:
“In the Pacific, summer precipitation and the frequency of heavy downpours is projected to increase. Rising sea levels are likely to increase the frequency and severity of floods during storms, as well as to erode and inundate coastlines.”
Erode and inundate coastlines. That means sandy beaches like Kam 2 will give way to the rocky walls that line the shore at Kam 3. Even worse, the soft sands that make up the shallows will give way to tree stumps, now-useless seawalls and road beds.
Think about that the next time you’re waiting in line at the Costco gas station.
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DOING THE MATH
On Aug. 5, the University of Hawaii’s communications office sent out a press release titled “Carbon emissions to impact climate beyond the day after tomorrow.” The title was a slightly goofy play off the semi-popular 2004 movie The Day After Tomorrow in which climate change leads to an overnight ice age, but the actual news release was dead serious.
“Future warming from fossil fuel burning could be more intense and longer-lasting than previously thought,” stated the news release. “This prediction emerges from a new study by University of Hawai‘i at Manoa oceanographer Richard Zeebe, who includes insights from episodes of climate change in the geologic past to inform projections of man-made future climate change. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”
Zeebe, who is originally from Germany, has been doing research at UH for the last decade. A trained physicist, he’s been studying climate change for twice that amount of time. And what he’s done now, he told me in a recent phone interview, was to look at climate change using what scientists call fast and slow feedbacks–changes in the planet, depending on how much time they take. A fast feedback in climate change is something like snowfall or cloud cover, while a slow feedback would be the size of land ice or the spread of vegetation.
“A lot of climate studies only look until the end of 2100,” Zeebe said. “The reason for this is that most people are interested in the next couple of decades. But if you go beyond 2100, there are other feedbacks that are slow–like changes in glaciers and large land ice sheets.”
Basically, Zeebe studied feedbacks that spanned millenia in the past. The results, Zeebe told me, surprised him.
“The calculations showed that man-made climate change could be more severe and take even longer than we thought before,” Zeebe is quoted as saying in the news release. “Although we will not see immediate effects by tomorrow–some of the slow processes will only respond over centuries to millenia–the consequences for long-term ice melt and sea level rise could be substantial. Politicians may think in four-year terms but we, as scientists, can and should think in much longer terms. We need to put the impact that humans have on this planet into a historic and geologic context.”
This is where trying to communicate about climate change gets dicey. Zeebe is using terms like “severe” and “take even longer,” but he’s also quick to say that he doesn’t want to sound alarmist.
“I’m not fear-mongering,” he told me. “We have to be careful. These things take time. There is a large probability that big ice sheets will melt, but it won’t happen overnight… This is a pretty dramatic event if you look over the last 100 million years.”
Since most of us don’t take into account things that happened within the last 100 million years, Zeebe is saying that we haven’t seen current carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere in a long, long time.
“What we’re doing right now is kind of crazy,” Zeebe said during a 2012 college lecture that is available for viewing on Vimeo. “It is ridiculous in terms of if you look at the history, of what happened in the past. If you want to see CO2 levels–where we’re going to go if we keep doing what we’re doing–we’re going to rise CO2 levels in the atmosphere up to levels we have not seen for 30 million years. If we look at rates of the CO2 we’re pumping into the system we probably have to go back 56 million years.”
The end result of Zeebe’s recent study is astounding: the climate change trends scientists are observing now–trends that began with Western industrialization two centuries ago–will likely continue for tens or even hundreds of thousands of years.
“Ten, 15 years ago, people put out scenarios as to where we’d be,” Zeebe told me, emphasizing that on this point he was expressing his personal opinion. “We’re at the top [of those scenarios]. We’re business as usual, but close to the worst case scenarios. It may take another 20 years to get a binding protocol on carbon emissions.”
Business as usual is right. Fracking companies on the Mainland are shattering the ground (and possibly contaminating water tables) as fast as they can to extract precious natural gas. The biggest environmental issues in the U.S. right now involve whether to build the proposed Keystone oil pipeline and how much oil to dig out of the frozen Alaskan north. Sure, electric cars are here, but many draw their electrical juice from coal-fired plants and most people still drive cars equipped with internal combustion engines anyway. And over in the U.S. Senate, Republican James Inhofe from oil-rich Oklahoma is always a good source of “skepticism” on those crazy climate change scientists.
“I have offered compelling evidence that catastrophic global warming is a hoax,” Inhofe said in a Senate speech in 2003. “That conclusion is supported by the painstaking work of the nation’s top climate scientists.”
What makes science so believable and dependable is that it’s open to peer scrutiny. And sure, honest scientists disagree about various research here and experiments there, but using words like “hoax” to describe the science behind climate research is beyond disingenuous. Given that in 2012 Inhofe doubled down by writing a book called The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, it’s a pretty easy bet that the good Senator hasn’t altered his views.
For Inhofe and his Big Oil buddies (the Center for Responsive Politics says he’s already raised $192,650 from the oil and gas industry for his 2014 re-election campaign, and took in nearly $445,000 from them in 2008), climate change science indeed threatens them and their whole way of life. I can think of nothing more infuriating than to spend more than a century in charge of the world, moving millions of people and machines around the world while funding a government that invades and topples the regimes who happen to sit atop all that sweet, sweet crude, only to have a bunch of eggheads come in and say your actions are causing so much destruction that our children’s children’s children’s children’s children’s children will still be dealing with it.
Then there are those, who because of ignorance or a slavish devotion or religious dogma (or perhaps both), simply don’t believe in climate change. To a scientist like Zeebe, their “disbelief” is a non sequitur–like refusing to believe the sun is a star or that purple is a color.
“‘Do you believe in climate change?’ I think is not a very intelligent question because it’s about scientific evidence,” he said on the 2012 video.
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THINGS TO COME
In my interview with Zeebe, he very politely but carefully refused to predict what his findings would mean for the world in terms of species extinction, storm severity and so forth. But in that video of his lecture from 2012, he talks about coming up with an “analog” or model for understanding climatic changes.
“There cannot be a perfect analog,” he said back then. “But you can look in the past and you can try to understand these kinds of changes that will tell us something in terms of a case study–what may happen.”
The best analog is what Zeebe calls the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum”–a time in history many millions of years ago when the surface temperature of the Earth rose five to eight degrees Celsius for 50,000-plus years. That, according to Zeebe, led to “mass extinctions in deep sea sediments” and “major reorganization/dispersal of mammals.”
Again, these statements are both vague and subject to change. But our taxpayer-funded friends at the EPA have something a bit more specific, again online at their climate change effects webpage. Here are excerpts from the sections that deal with Hawaii:
• “In the Pacific Islands, heavy rainfall is projected to increase, which may lead to more frequent flooding that could compromise the quality of water supplies and affect crop yields.”
• “In Hawaii, reefs are estimated to bring in $360 million each year, and are valued at more than $10 billion… Reefs already face serious threats from water pollution. Warmer, more acidic coastal waters would likely serve as a further stress on many reefs.”
• “In the Pacific, almost all communities derive more than 25% of their animal protein from fish. Changes in ocean temperatures could cause migratory shifts in fish species and damage to fish habitats. These impacts would exacerbate existing stresses on the fisheries, such as those from pollution and overfishing, and ultimately may lead to a decline in the abundance and health of fishery populations.”
Taking all that in, it’s clear why some cling to Inhofe’s oil-saturated fantasies. Think of how much easier the future would be if climate change was bogus. Thankfully though, Inhofe–powerful as he is–is part of a minority around the world.
“Our planet as a whole is becoming a warmer place,” Acting Administrator of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said when the 2012 State of the Climate report, which drew on the work of 384 scientists, came out earlier this month. “Count on the future being statistically a lot like the past.”