Sunday, October 19, 2014

Climate Change: The Business Case

At the time of this writing, many in the United States are clamoring for more dramatic action against Ebola, a disease that killed 4,000 people in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea before garnering any significant attention in the United States. Ebola is getting virtually no attention as a humanitarian disaster, even though Liberia is a country created by the United States. But as a frightening possibility, the most far-fetched scenarios are driving the public discussion.

Meanwhile, many continue to deny threats for which there is much more compelling evidence. The biggest of these is climate change, which in many ways is a far bigger threat than Ebola.

The snapshot below is from an animation of surface-temperature changes that summarizes in a basic form the extensive evidence compiled by NASA, regarding observed trends.
NASA: 1963 frame, part of a 1880-2013 time series of annual average temperatures
These results are not surprising, given the rapid release of carbon from the surface, the relative scarcity of carbon in the atmosphere, and the small size of the atmospheric layer in which carbon is stored. As I have written elsewhere, it is not plausible for anything but warming to result from this combination of factors.
These images are just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended) of the evidence that NASA provides, for those who need convincing. As I wrote a year ago in Climate Foxholes, however, most people are ready to move on to figuring out what kinds of impacts will continue, and to consider what to do about them. Among these is Business Insider, which has published articles related to many aspects of climate change. These include a recent survey of 25 Devastating Effects of Climate Change, some of which are already underway.

Threats to our favorite foods and drinks can sometimes garner attention most readily, as with recent reports on the impact of Ebola on chocolate prices. It is perhaps for that reason that the authors included wine as a potential victim of climate change. I admit to being concerned as wine consumer (and small-scale vintner), but I also know that this is an impact far more importance to wine-producing communities than it is to me. The resolution of this map is a bit fuzzy, but it is showing that some areas currently suitable for wine will become unsuitable, while other areas -- shown in blue -- will actually become more suitable. This is far from a break-even scenario, though, because the soils, human resources, and infrastructure needed for wine are in the areas of existing production. The same is true for coffee, tea. and other specialized crops.
Image: Dickinson et al, Climate Change, Wine, and Conservation
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 2013
Because I am currently working on a proposal for an entire course on climate justice, I reading the survey of 25 impacts with particular attention to the challenge Dr. Mary Robinson has issued to geographers. Speaking to the AAG in 2012, the former president of Ireland explained the geographic and social variability of climate-change causes, consequences, and vulnerabilities. With that in mind, it can be seen that no particular person will suffer from all 25 of the consequences listed (nor all of those unlisted). But each of the consequences of climate change has its own particular geography, and some people are going to be much more vulnerable overall than others.


As often happens, I found something interesting just after posting the discussion above. One of the reasons that geographers need to be involved in climate change is that geographic trends that are not directly related to climate change interact in ways that add significant complexity. A very important example is the geography of water usage in the United States. The population is increasing most rapidly in areas that are dry and getting drier, but where people use more water than in wetter regions. Current pricing structures -- which result in part from significant Federal subsidies for water in the arid West -- seem likely to compound current and future droughts.

Image: Brad Plumer on Vox -- Maps of Water Use

At the time of the COP21 climate talks in Paris, NPR's Peter Overby reported on corporate lobbyists who were advocating in favor of carbon limits. He cites some continued disagreement among conservative think tanks as to the reasons for taking action, but growing unanimity that carbon emissions should be reduced.

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