SCIENTIFIC AND SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
A STUDY COURSE
Impacts of Climate Change
“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” The Bible (1)
For the past 150 years, the Earth has been warming:
- Since the industrial revolution, global average temperature has increased by 1.1°C (2°F). (2) This temperature increase does not seem to be a big deal. However, as you will see, climatic changes can be observed almost everywhere, and in many areas, climate change is already disrupting people’s lives.
- Each of the last three decades has been successively warmer at the Earth’s surface than any preceding decade since 1850. (3)
- 2016 was the hottest year on the historical record and the third consecutive record-breaking year. Of the 17 hottest years ever recorded, 16 have now occurred since 2000. (4) (5)
- Present emission trends put the world plausibly on a path toward 4°C (7.2 °F) warming within this century. (6)
In Class 4, you will learn about the causes of global warming more in depth. Now you just need to know that the main reasons for the warming are the burning of fossil fuels (oil, coal, and natural gas) and deforestation, which are adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.
Global warming has serious long-term impacts on the climate, which affect various areas of the world in different ways and to different degrees.
Often, the terms global warming and climate change can be used interchangeably. Depending on the context though, one of them is sometimes more accurate. Global warming describes the global average increase in the Earth’s surface temperature, while climate change is used to emphasize the effects of that warming on the Earth's climate.
In this and the next class we will examine some of the impacts of climate change.
Watch this video:
Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability, a report by the Working Group II of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 12 min.
Section 1: Melting of Glaciers and the Polar Ice Caps
Due to warmer temperatures, mountain glaciers all over the world are receding. The dramatic worldwide shrinking of the glaciers is one of the most visible evidences of global warming. Glaciers act as a kind of global fever thermometer.People and governments in many countries are alarmed.
In the Alps, the glaciers lost about 1/3 of their area and half of their volume between 1850 and 1975. Since then much more has melted. Switzerland went so far as to cover one of its most rapidly melting glaciers to slow down the loss. (7)
In the United States, the glaciers in “Glacier National Park” are retreating so quickly it has been estimated that they will vanish entirely by the year 2030. (8)
In the case of Kilimanjaro, the highest mountain in Africa, global warming has definitely been a contributing factor for its loss of one third of its ice within 12 years. (9) About 82% of its icecap surveyed in 1912 is now gone.
Melting glaciers pose multiple dangers: Initially, the increasing amount of meltwater can have a positive effect for hydropower. At the same time, emerging glacial lakes have the potential of sudden drainage that can cause devastating floods. In the long term, severe water shortages can be expected when there will be no or only very little ice left to melt in the summer. The time frame for this to happen varies greatly depending on the geographic location; it may be a matter of just a few years, decades, or, in the case of the Himalayas, several centuries.
Most worrisome is that the polar ice caps began melting as well. The accelerating speed of their melting has even surprised scientists who predicted the thawing. Between the 1960s and the 1990s, sea-ice depth in a large section of the Arctic Ocean declined by nearly 40%. (10) From 1979 to 2005, Arctic sea ice has shrunk roughly 250 million acres (1,011,714 km2), an area the size of New York, Georgia, and Texas combined. (11) For a European comparison, this is the size of Germany, Italy and Poland combined.
“The most dramatic loss of ice in recent years has been the decline of summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Between 1953 and 2006, the area covered by sea ice in September shrunk by 7.8 percent per decade, more than three times as fast as the average rate simulated by climate models. Researchers were further stunned in the summer of 2007 when Arctic sea ice extent plummeted to the lowest level ever measured, more than 20 percent below the 2005 record. This decline is rapidly changing the geopolitics of the Arctic region, opening the Northwest Passage for the first time in recorded history and triggering a scramble among governments to claim large swaths of the potentially resource-rich Arctic sea floor. Many now believe the summer Arctic Ocean could be ice-free by 2030, decades earlier than previously thought possible.” (12)
On 21 December 2010, large areas of open water persisted across much of the area between Greenland and Canada. While the US Northeast and Europe experienced a cold spell, a vast region in Northern Canada was extremely mild. According to David Phillips, a senior climatologist with Environment Canada, the implications for people have been widespread. “Last New Year’s Eve, the big story was ice breaking up,” says Phillips. “This year there was no ice to break up.” Worst of all, he adds, “it’s impossible for many people in parts of the eastern Arctic to safely get on the ice to hunt much-needed food for their families—for the second winter in a row. Never before have we seen weather impact a way of life in so many small and big ways.” (13)
The Greenland ice sheet is also melting. It holds enough water to raise sea levels worldwide by 7m (23 feet). (14) "If greenhouse gas emissions are not controlled, the total disintegration of the Greenland ice sheet could be set in motion in a matter of decades. Although the process could take centuries to fully play out, once begun, it would be self-reinforcing, and hence virtually impossible to stop." (15)
Even on the coldest continent, Antarctica, the effects of global warming have set in. The ice on East Antarctica still seems to be stable. But scientific research revealed that the temperature over West Antarctica has probably increased by 2°C (3.6°F) since 1950. Measurements on the much smaller Antarctic Peninsula showed temperature increases of up to 3°C (5.4°F). “The substantial warming on the Peninsula has been cited as a contributor to the dramatic breakup of a Rhode Island-sized portion of the Larsen B Ice Shelf in 2002.” (16) Then, on July 12, 2017, the New York Times reported the breaking away of an unprecedented large part of the Larsen C Ice Shelf on the Antarctic Peninsula: “A chunk of floating ice that weighs more than a trillion metric tons broke away from the Antarctic Peninsula, producing one of the largest icebergs ever recorded and providing a glimpse of how the Antarctic ice sheet might ultimately start to fall apart.” (16A) The size of the iceberg is larger than the island of Bali in Indonesia and comparable to the state of Delaware or four times the city of London. (16B)
The World Glacier Monitoring Service released this graph (16C) showing the glacial mass balance of 37 glaciers from 1980 – 2014. As you can see, 1983 saw the last slight increase in ice mass.
Why are the polar ice caps melting so fast?
Scientists explain this with three major reasons:
- A major reason is the albedo (reflectivity) effect: Snow and ice are the best reflectors of solar radiation. They reflect about 70% of the sun's radiation (and absorb 30%). Water on the other hand is a poor reflector. It reflects only 6% of the sun's radiation and absorbs most of the heat (94%). The intense thawing of ice and snow creates more water surfaces. The warming of the water contributes to the regional rise in temperature, which again causes more ice to melt. This ice - albedo feedback is believed to be the major reason why the Arctic is warming so rapidly. (17)
- As the volume of ice is shrinking, the surface is getting down to lower elevations where temperatures are higher.
- “Many marine-terminating glaciers have accelerated (near doubling of the flow speed) and retreated since the late 1990s. A consensus has emerged that these retreats are triggered at the terminus of the glaciers when a floating ice tongue breaks up.” (18)
Discussion: Why should we be concerned about the melting of glaciers and of the polar ice caps? What could be some of the impacts on local people and cultures, on local ecosystems and on the world at large?
Section 2: Sea Level Rise
There are two major reasons why sea levels have been rising: 1. When water warms up, its volume increases. This is called thermal expansion. 2.The melting of glaciers and of the polar ice caps adds huge amounts of freshwater to the oceans.
“Over the past 100 years, global sea level has risen by between 10 and 25cm (3.9 and 9.8 inches).” (19)
The rate of global average sea level rise has increased from 1.8mm/yr to 3.1mm/yr from 1961 to 1993. This trend of accelerating sea level rise is expected to continue for many centuries.
“Warming of 4°C (7.2°) will likely lead to a sea-level rise of 0.5 to 1 meter, (1meter = 3.3 feet) and possibly more, by 2100, with several meters more to be realized in the coming centuries. Limiting warming to 2°C (3.6°F) would likely reduce sea-level rise by about 20 cm by 2100 compared to a 4°C world. However, even if global warming is limited to 2°C, global mean sea level could continue to rise, with some estimates ranging between 1.5 and 4 meters above present-day levels by the year 2300. Sea-level rise would likely be limited to below 2 meters only if warming were kept to well below 1.5°C.” (20) The rising of sea levels will result in land and habitat loss in many countries. Bangladesh may lose almost 20% of its land area. Hundreds of coastal communities, Small Island states in the Pacific and Indian Oceans and the Caribbean would be inundated, forcing their population to relocate. (21)
The low-lying island nation of Tuvalu, midway between Hawaii and Australia, is already pursuing plans to evacuate. Some inhabitants of Kiribati have already left their country and resettled in New Zealand and other places. (22) The atoll-based nation of the Maldives is also significantly at risk to disappear into the ocean.
The Impact of Climate Change on the MARSHALL ISLANDS:
"What would you do if you knew that your country was to disappear in the next two to three decades, and together with your country you would also lose your home, your culture, your way of life? This is what faces the people who live in the four atoll nations in the world - Marshall Islands, Kiribati, and Tuvalu located in the Pacific Ocean, and the Maldive Islands located in the Indian Ocean. These atolls will cease to exist in the next few decades as a result of sea level rise.
The Marshall Islands is a country totally made up of atolls, which consist of more than a thousand individual islands. All these very small islands make up a total land area of only about 70 square miles spread out in an ocean area of over 750,000 square miles. Thus most of the country is the vast open ocean.
Atolls are formed from the coral reefs that grow in warm tropical ocean waters. The foundation of atolls is made up of dead coral skeletons. Their formation took many millennia: As old corals died their skeletons remained, and other new corals grew on top of them, ever reaching for sunlight through the ocean water. All atoll islands are flat and barely rise above high tide sea levels. Today the average elevation of the Marshall Islands is 7 feet (2.1m) above sea level, but in many places where people today are living the land surface at high tide is only one foot or less above the water line.
The people of the Marshall Islands developed a very close knit, cooperative, and community-oriented culture that has assured their survival for at least two millennia. They have developed fine-tuned ways of getting along in very small spaces with extremely limited resources, which could serve as a model for the rest of the world’s people.
As sea levels are rising because of climate change, the inhabitants of these islands will lose their home. What will happen to their language that describes so well this environment of an atoll, with numerous words describing in detail the various daily and seasonal phases of the ocean tides, or the stages of the development of a new coconut, or the detailed descriptions of the ocean currents, which are used to navigate around the vast expanses of ocean? What will happen to the people, to their way of life, their cohesiveness, their understanding of how to get along in such isolated circumstances? What about their cultures? And finally, what will happen to their enthusiasm for life, their laughter, their amazing generosity, their ways of being all inclusive towards everyone, their gentleness - their “spirits”?
Now put yourself in their circumstances: total devastation of your way of life, caused by the actions and life styles of others, and totally out of your control to change or stop this destruction! How does this make you feel? What are the spiritual implications? Where is justice?” (23)
Experts with the United Nations University estimate that rising sea levels and environmental deterioration have already displaced about 50 million people. The greatest cost of rising sea levels will not be measurable. It is the inevitable disruption of communities and cultures that cannot be replicated elsewhere. (24)
However, in the more distant future, that is later on this century and beyond, hundreds of millions of people will become displaced if sea levels will rise a few meters. Many important, historical cities around the world like Venice, New Orleans, Miami, and Amsterdam will be lost to the ocean. Many of the largest cities in the world will sooner or later share the same fate, including Shanghai, Manhattan, Alexandria, and Dhaka.
More recent scientific research includes the faster than expected ice melt and projects “that continued high emissions would result in multi-meter sea level rise this century and lock in continued ice sheet disintegration such that building cities or rebuilding cities on coast lines would become foolish.” (24A)
Discussion: What are the two reasons why sea levels have been rising? Which areas of the world are most at risk? What is the danger with continuous sea level rise in the future?
Watch this video:
Encroaching Seas - the Marshall Islands 8min.
Encroaching Seas are rapidly eroding away the 24 atolls of the 60,000 residents in the Republic of Marshall Islands. With an elevation of merely 10 feet above sea level, every inch of sea level rise is a major threat to life.
Section 3: Water Scarcity
“Water flows from high in the mountains,
Water runs deep in the Earth.
Miraculously, water comes to us, and sustains all life.” (25) Thich Nhat Hanh
In our physical existence, water is essential for life. That's one of the reasons why it is used so often in spiritual writings as a metaphor. In nearly all the world's major religions water plays an important role as a symbol and in ceremonies.
In the Baha'i Writings we often read about the water of life. It usually refers to the revelation of the Word of God to humankind. Our spiritual life depends on it. Read and meditate for a moment on this prayer by Baha'u'llah:
“My God, my Adored One, my King, my Desire! What tongue can voice my thanks to Thee? I was heedless, Thou didst awaken me. I had turned back from Thee, Thou didst graciously aid me to turn towards Thee. I was as one dead, Thou didst quicken me with the water of life. I was withered, Thou didst revive me with the heavenly stream of Thine utterance which hath flowed forth from the Pen of the All-Merciful.
O Divine Providence! All existence is begotten by Thy bounty; deprive it not of the waters of Thy generosity, neither do Thou withhold it from the ocean of Thy mercy. I beseech Thee to aid and assist me at all times and under all conditions, and seek from the heaven of Thy grace Thine ancient favor. Thou art, in truth, the Lord of bounty, and the Sovereign of the kingdom of eternity.” (26)
Now, let’s examine some issues of the tangible water: Globally, water is scarce and demand is growing. “Many millions of people around the world face water shortages and a daily struggle to secure safe water for their basic needs.” (27)
The amount of freshwater is finite while demand is increasing. “One billion people around the world don't have access to clean, safe water. In developing nations, waterborne illnesses like cholera, typhoid and malaria kill 5 million people each year -- 6,000 children every day. And global warming is exacerbating this crisis as severe, prolonged droughts dry up water supplies in arid regions and heavy rains cause sewage overflows.” (28)
In Africa, by 2020, 75 to 250million people are projected to be exposed to an increase in water stress due to climate change. (29)
"In Sana’a, the capital of Yemen—home to 2 million people—water tables are falling fast. Tap water is available only once every 4 days; in Taiz, a smaller city to the south, it is once every 20 days.” (30)
“People who fall ill from waterborne diseases can't work. Women and girls who travel hours, sometimes more than seven hours a day, to fetch clean water for their families can't go to school or hold on to a job. Without proper sanitation, human waste pollutes waterways and wildlife habitat. Global warming and population pressures are drying up water supplies and instigating conflict over scarce resources.” (31)
“In many parts of the world, lakes are shrinking or disappearing and rivers are running dry. Lake Chad, for example, has shrunk by 95% since about 1960. This had disastrous consequences for the local population. The main causes are the diversion of water for irrigation and less rainfall because of climate change. Many large rivers like the Yellow River, the Colorado River or the Nile don't reach the ocean anymore. (32)
Reduced water availability from glaciers
The most serious threat to water supply is the disappearance of glaciers which provide much needed melt water during the summer. More than one-sixth of the world's population will be affected. (33)
Ice and snow are huge water reservoirs, which feeds rivers during the summer. 80% of the South American Glaciers could disappear within only 15 years. The consequences for the water supply will be devastating. Lima’s 12 million inhabitants derive their water almost exclusively from the glaciers’ melt water.
It is estimated that 30 million people are at risk of losing their glacial water supply in the Andes due to climate change. The Chacaltaya glacier near La Paz has experienced 99 percent loss since 1940. With glaciers projected to disappear, and no other water sources available, millions of people will be forced to migrate. Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia are all affected by glacier melting. Conflicts have arisen in urban areas over privatized water, and a greater struggle exists between those seeking water for cities versus those needing resources for agriculture.
Outside of the polar regions, the Himalayas have the largest concentration of glaciers in the world and their melt water is the major source of water for the Indus and the Ganges rivers. Satellite images have revealed an “alarming recession” of glaciers in the Bhilangna basin of the Garhwal Himalayas since 1965. Its largest glacier, the Khatling, had receded 4,340 meters and had fragmented into multiple valley glaciers. “The alarming retreat and fragmentation of valley glaciers into smaller glaciers may have profound impact on the future sustainability of Himalayan glaciers and water availability.” (33A)
The following statement from the IPCC’s 2007 Synthesis report summarizes the vast reaching threat of climate change to water security: “Climate change is expected to exacerbate current stresses on water resources from population growth and economic and land-use change, including urbanisation. On a regional scale, mountain snow pack, glaciers and small ice caps play a crucial role in freshwater availability. Widespread mass losses from glaciers and reductions in snow cover over recent decades are projected to accelerate throughout the 21st century, reducing water availability, hydropower potential, and changing seasonality of flows in regions supplied by meltwater from major mountain ranges (e.g. Hindu-Kush, Himalaya, Andes), where more than one-sixth of the world population currently lives.” (34)
Water and Food
“The link between water and food is strong. We each drink on average nearly 4 liters (about 1 gallon) of water per day in one form or another, while the water required to produce our daily food totals at least 2,000 liters (528 gallons)—500 times as much. This helps explain why 70 percent of all water use is for one purpose—irrigation.” (35)
Aquifers are over-pumped in many countries. “There are two types of aquifers: replenishable and nonreplenishable (or fossil) aquifers. Most of the aquifers in India and the shallow aquifer under the North China Plain are replenishable. When these are depleted, the maximum rate of pumping is automatically reduced to the rate of recharge.
For fossil aquifers, such as the vast U.S. Ogallala aquifer, the deep aquifer under the North China Plain, or the Saudi aquifer, depletion brings pumping to an end. Farmers who lose their irrigation water have the option of returning to lower-yield dry land farming if rainfall permits. In more arid regions, however, such as in the southwestern United States or the Middle East, the loss of irrigation water means the end of agriculture.” (36)
The U.S. embassy in Beijing reports that wheat farmers in some areas are now pumping from a depth of 300 meters (nearly 1,000 feet). Pumping water from this far down raises pumping costs so high that farmers are often forced to abandon irrigation and return to less productive dry land farming. (37)
Changes in precipitation patterns are observed in many parts of the world. The timing and amount of rain are very important for crops. Farmers need to adapt and learn how to do things differently, for example plant different seeds, or different crops, or plant them at a different time of the year.
- Why is water so important?
- Summarize some of the reasons why water supply is scarce.
- Why does climate change exacerbate water scarcity?
1. Genesis 1,31
2. NASA, Five-Year Global Temperature Anomalies from 1880 to 2016, https://svs.gsfc.nasa.gov/4546
3. Climate Change 2013 - The Physical Science Basis, Working Group I Contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Summary for Policymakers http://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/wg1/docs/WGIAR5_SPM_brochure_en.pdf
4. How 2016 Became Earth’s Hottest Year on Record, Jugal K. Patel, The New York Times JAN. 18, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/01/18/science/earth/2016-hottest-year-on-record.html?emc=edit_nn_20170122&nl=morning-briefing&nlid=69120211&te=1
5. For more information, see the paper by J. Hansen et Al, Global Temperature in 2016, published 18 January 2017http://www.noaanews.noaa.gov/stories2015/071615-international-report-confirms-2014-was-earths-warmest-year-on-record.html
6. "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° Warmer World Must be Avoided", a Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, November 2012,
7. (Andermatt, 2005),(Haeberli, Wilfried, Hoelzle, Martin, Maisch, Max, Gletscher - Schlüsselindikatoren der globalen Klimaänderung, in: Lozàn, José L., Graßl, Hartmut, Hupfer, Peter, Warnsignal Klima -Wissenschaftliche Fakten, Hamburg 1998, p. 213).
8. Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert p. 13 Anchor
10. Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert p. 27
11. Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert p. 26
12 February 4, 2008, Ice Melt Accelerates Around the World, Frances C. Moore
14 Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert p. 52
15 Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Elizabeth Kolbert p. 55
16 “Antarctica and Climate Change” by Andrew Monaghan, published in World Watch Volume 22, Number 1, January/February 2009
17. Plan B 3 by Lester R. Brown p.58
18. "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° Warmer World Must be Avoided", a Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, November 2012
19. Small Island States Threatened by Sea Level Rise, Vital Signs 2003, pp. 84-45
20. "Turn Down the Heat: Why a 4° Warmer World Must be Avoided", a Report for the World Bank by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and Climate Analytics, November 2012
21. Small Island States Threatened by Sea Level Rise, Vital Signs 2003, pp. 84-45
22. (for more info, see http://www.pbs.org/now/shows/449/index.html click on Paradise Lost video)
23. Story written by Carol Curtis
24. Repercussions of a Melting Planet, Stephanie Kung – September 4, 2006
24A Dr. James Hansen, Disastrous Sea Level Rise Is an Issue for Today's Public -- Not Next Millennium's http://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-james-hansen/multi-meter-sea-level-ris…
25 Earth Prayers from around the World,p. 154, edited by Elizabeth Roberts and Elias Amidon, 1991
26 Prayers and Meditations by Bahá’u’lláh CLXXIII, p. 264/265
27 Kofi Annan, Un Secretary-General, 22 March 2005
28 Adapted from: Natural Resources Defense Council, http://www.nrdc.org/international/safewater.asp
29 IPCC Report WGII Fourth Assessment Report, Summary for Policy Makers, 2007
30“Antarctica and Climate Change” by Andrew Monaghan, published in World Watch Volume 22, Number 1, January/February 2009
31 Adapted from: Natural Resources Defense Council, http://www.nrdc.org/international/safewater.asp
32 Information from Plan B 2.0 by Lester R. Brown p. 41
33 Information from: IPCC WGII Fourth Assessment Report, 2007, Summary for Policymakers, p. 7
33 A Recession of Himalayan glaciers alarming: ISRO http://indianexpress.com/article/technology/science/recession-of-himalayan-glaciers-alarming-isro-scientists-4747260/?utm_content=buffer0d745&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer
Paper: Alarming recession of glaciers in Bhilangna basin, Garhwal Himalaya, from 1965 to 2014 analysed from Corona and Cartosat data Babu Govindha Raj K, V. V. Nageswara Rao, K. Vinod Kumar & P. G. Diwakar, Published online: 07 Jul 2017 http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19475705.2017.1339736
34 The Synthesis Report, the concluding document of the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (page 49)
35 Plan B 2.0 by Lester R. Brown p. 42
36 Plan B 2.0 by Lester R. Brown p. 42/43
37 Plan B 2.0 by Lester R. Brown p. 44
© Christine Muller and International Environment Forum