By Brenda Cooper, January 2002
I’ve wanted to write about global warming ever since I sat in the City of Kirkland Council Chambers and listened to a professor from the University of Washington patiently explain how global warming was clearly underway, and clearly caused by humans. He said the scientific debate was done, and sent me home scared and fired up.
“As a futurist, the more interesting question is how might global warming affect us if it does happen?”
Then, I went out on the web and looked. The conclusion I’ve come to is that complexity of atmospheric science is very high, and that while no one knows for sure, both the scientific and political communities are leaning ever more towards accepting global warming as fact. Causes are less clear. Humans are contributors, but how much our activities actually affect global warming is ambiguous, if possibly significant. The debate rages on. And on. And on.
Much of the talk, however, appears to be silly when you step back from it a bit. Many entrenched current energy interests (read petroleum) are claiming that we can continue to put pollutants in the air for a long time if we want to. They could even be right, but why would we want to? Do you want to?
It appears to me that we can clean up our air, travel for less money, and generally err on the side of caution. All that, and it will cost us less harm and frustration than the cost of failing to do so, whether or not global warming occurs. After all, it seems like a lot of political energy has been spent protecting our access to oil. There are a number of plausible alternative energy sources, including huge energy generators we are beginning to understand how to tap like the sun and the wind, and nifty things like fuel cells that are approaching market readiness as well. A few nudges in the right direction?
As a futurist, the more interesting question is how might global warming affect us if it does happen? Ignoring causes, let’s look at outcomes for a moment.
Legal Challenges: If something like the Kyoto Treaty gets teeth, whether or not the US signs it, one scenario is that profligate energy consumers like the United States get sued for damages as flattish islands end up below sea level. Or even more likely, wealthy Americans sue the government and/or major polluting industries if their seaside lawns end up below sea level.
Value Changes: Significant changes in land and resource values may occur. For example, seaside land that becomes threatened by rising sea levels loses value. Or perhaps petroleum stocks plummet as new energy sources begin to reduce demand.
Governmental Coffers Affected: Governments tend to have taxing and other strategies that are built on the status quo. While I can’t speak for other states, Washington’s voters are increasingly ‘anti-new-tax’. So if Washington State starts to lose revenue from gas taxes, it may be hard to replace that revenue, with, say solar cell taxes. But then the government is a pretty able survivor (so far).
Government Intervention: Again assuming fast global warming affects onset (or rapid onset of voter belief in global warming), we may not change lifestyles on our own fast enough, necessitating taxes designed to reduce unwanted behavior (think cigarette tax) and tax breaks for desired behavior (think capital investment tax write-offs). We may be dealing with more government intervention than we like. And since wealthier people can often bypass such interventions by waving money at them (paying $10.00/gallon for gas), the gap between rich and poor may widen further.
Environmental Challenges: If real, global warming is almost certainly the single largest challenge to the environment. If it moves fast enough, plant and animal species might not be able to adapt and find new habitat quickly enough to survive. Either we let many die, which causes risk to the diversity necessary to sustain our ecosystem, or we intervene. It’s a pretty complex system – we would probably learn at least a few lessons the hard way (remember the kudzu vine, and killer bees).
Water Supply Changes: Our current understanding of the ocean is smaller than our current understanding of the atmosphere. Predictions include widespread affects on fisheries and coral reefs. Less snow in the mountains means less fresh water for many cities. Melting glaciers could cause a bit too much fresh water to appear in some places.
Energy Use Changes: Worry about global warming accelerates usage of environmentally friendly and cheap energy (not all environmentally sound energy is cheap today, but supply and demand will play a part). We increase our ability to travel and solve many of our transportation and urban pollution problems. Hey, not all affects are bad, and sometimes we humans accept or even cause positive change. Imagine that.
Wildcard Level Changes: Some predictions suggest that global warming will cause a mini-ice age (remember, we’re dealing with complex and chaotic systems). We could face cholera outbreaks in places that that aren’t used to them. The already endangered rain forests (temperate and tropical) could be further challenged, reducing the forests rather nice habit of turning carbon dioxide into oxygen, and increasing concentration of carbon dioxide far more than we currently think is likely, setting off a chain reaction…
Conclusion: Global warming looks likely enough that it should be taken into account when choosing what actions to take today to affect a positive future. Even if it doesn’t happen, there is a big enough political push to protect the world against it that changes will probably occur based solely on the debate.
I’ve tried to present multiple sides of the discussion in the links you’ll find below.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Global Warming.
Pew Center for Global Climate Change.
Wired News‘ latest take on prospects for global warming treaties.
Marshall Institute offers a site essentially designed to counter global warming fears.
An interactive map of global warming’s early warning signs.