Guest essay by Eric Worrall
Bloomberg thinks we’re not scared enough of climate consequences we cannot predict. But a decision to jump at shadows would have its own serious consequences.
What Smart People Get Wrong About Climate Change Extremes
There isn’t enough appreciation of the risks associated with new weather patterns we don’t yet understand.
By Kate Mackenzie
10 September 2021, 20:00 GMT+10
If anyone should be attuned to the real-world impacts of global warming, it’s the policy makers and business heads that have to deal with the fallout. But even the most well-intentioned can fail to grasp just how bad things could get if climate goals aren’t met.
At least that’s the impression I get. That’s why I reached out to Andy Pitman and Sonia Seneviratne, two of the world’s top experts on the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Their fields of study focus on extremes and compound events. Both worry that institutions are too focused on outcomes we can predict with high confidence. There isn’t enough appreciation of the risks associated with new weather patterns we don’t yet understand.
Warming of about 1.2 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels has already had devastating consequences. “Once we get around 2°C we are getting to a climate regime which hasn’t been seen for as long as the human species has been at work,” said Seneviratne, a professor at ETH Zurich who oversaw the chapter on extremes in the most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The document, published every six to seven years, is the pinnacle of scientific knowledge about global warming.
The instruments are meant to estimate the effects of higher levels of warming, but “if it tells you you are resilient at 4°C, that doesn’t mean you’ll be okay. It means your analysis is crap,” he said. It’s like asking “what would happen if you jumped off a 50-meter cliff and then finding you’d land at the bottom and you’d be fine.”
Jumping at shadows means committing substantial resources to addressing a problem nobody is sure exists. Since there is a finite supply of resources, spending more on climate action means draining money from education, hospitals, police, military or infrastructure. If you spend all your money chasing phantoms, you won’t have anything left when a real crisis strikes.
What if the world does warm?
We know beyond doubt that a warmer world is survivable, that life thrives in such conditions. Some of the most prolific periods of abundance occurred in the distant past, when CO2 levels and temperatures were far higher than today.
What about the direct impact on people of warmer temperatures?
We don’t need a time machine to truly understand the impact of warmer temperatures, all we need to do is book a holiday to somewhere warm. Or move somewhere warm, like I did.
I have no doubt that if the world warmed 4C, a lot of cities would need to fix their drains and maybe change the grade of tarmac on their roads. But this wouldn’t happen all at once, it would happen over decades, as part of the normal maintenance cycle.
The main impact for most people would be nicer weather.
I live in a place where the daytime temperature for half the year hovers around 30C / 86F. And life is beautiful. Low heating bills, a big swimming pool to enjoy with friends, long outdoor evenings where it doesn’t get cold. I even get to save on water bills – most of the time when the swimming pool gets a little low, a tropical storm pops up to refills it for me.
Given substantial evidence that climate models are running way too hot, I doubt we are going to see a significant climate shift by the end of this century, or likely even by the end of the next century. Folks are still going to have to move if they want to enjoy good retirement weather.
But if the last 10,000 years of climate shifts can teach us anything, that lesson is that humans flourish when the world warms. Our civilisations rise during warm periods, like the Roman Warming or Medieval Warm Period, and falter during cold periods, like the Dark Ages or the Little Ice Age.
The end of the Little Ice Age was an exception – because the industrial revolution which occurred during the final years of the little ice age finally gave us the means to be prosperous in the face of climatic adversity.
The industrial revolution was an advance we should treasure, not regret.
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