SCIENTIFIC AND SPIRITUAL DIMENSIONS OF CLIMATE CHANGE
A STUDY COURSE
More Impacts of Climate Change
Section 1: More Extreme Weather Events and Changes in Weather Patterns
It is important to know the difference between weather and climate:
“Weather is what the forecasters on the TV news predict each day. They tell people about the temperature, cloudiness, humidity, and whether a storm is likely in the next few days. Weather is the mix of events that happens each day in our atmosphere.
Climate is the average weather in a place over many years. While the weather can change in just a few hours, climate usually takes hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to change.” (1) Summarized in everyday language one could say “Climate is what you expect; weather is what you get.”
Many regional temperature changes have already been observed: Since 1950, in many regions of the world, records show a decrease in the number of very cold days and nights and an increase in the number of extremely hot days and warm nights. Spring starts earlier in the Northern Hemisphere than it used to a few decades ago. (2)
Although climate change is a reality all over the globe, the warming is not evenly distributed. At the poles, for example, climate change is occurring at an accelerating pace. In the Arctic, annual average surface air temperature over land is now 3.5°C (6.3°F) warmer than at the beginning of the 20th century. (3) The Arctic continues to warm at a rate about twice as fast as the rest of the world. The national Snow & Ice Data Center reported on March 6, 2017, that the “February air temperatures over the Barents Sea ranged between 4 to 5°C (8 to 9° F) above average.” (4) Scientists, as well as the indigenous people of the Arctic, have noticed dramatic changes that have affected ecosystems and wildlife, and the way of life of indigenous peoples. (5)
Abnormally severe heat waves are increasing in many parts of the world and are causing much human suffering. In 2013, Australian forecasters had to add new colors to their temperature charts to adequately show their record heat. (6) In early summer 2017, temperatures in Southern Italy exceeded 40°C (104°F). (7) Pakistan probably suffered the most that summer with temperatures up to 54°C (129.2°F). (8)
Changes in precipitation (rain and snow) are already occurring in many regions of the world. It has become significantly wetter in eastern North and South America, northern Europe and northern and central Asia, but drier in the Sahel, southern Africa, the Mediterranean, and southern Asia. There is less snow and more rainfall in northern regions. Widespread increases in heavy precipitation events have been observed, even in places where the total amount of precipitation has decreased. These changes are associated with increased water vapor in the atmosphere arising from the warming of the world's oceans, especially in the lower latitudes. There are also increases in some regions in the occurrence of both droughts and floods. (11) Europe, for example has been suffering from both droughts and floods in the past years.
Even on a warming planet we may still encounter some cold spells and hard winters. With more water vapor in the atmosphere, the occurrence of very heavy snowfalls is expected to increase.
The severity of extreme weather conditions is increasing. “As sea surface temperatures rise, particularly in the tropics and subtropics, the additional heat radiating into the atmosphere causes more destructive storms.” (12) “The number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes worldwide has nearly doubled over the past 35 years. The change occurred as global sea-surface temperatures have increased over the same period.” (13)
Increases of extreme weather events in recent years seem to be the first consequences of global warming. Australia suffered from an extremely severe drought over many years, and then in 2010 had to endure an extensive flood. Early in 2011, a terrible cyclone devastated the same region. Pakistan’s flood in 2010 was one of the worst in history. Many unusual floods throughout the United States and Europe were reported during the same year. The 2012 drought in the United States impacted about 80 percent of agricultural land, making it the most severe drought since the 1950s. (14)
Cyclone Haiyan (2013) was the strongest storm ever measured to make land fall. (15) And only a year later, typhoon Hagupity seriously set back the efforts to recover from Haiyan.
2017 may likely have been the worst flood year humankind has ever experienced. The flooding of the Gulf Coast by hurricane Harvey was unprecedented. The human suffering and the economic damages are impossible to take in. The flood in South Asia in August 2017 was even worse. More than 1000 people died and at least 41 million people in Bangladesh, India and Nepal have been directly affected by flooding and landslides resulting from the monsoon rains. One third of all of Bangladesh was under water. (16) That's an unimaginable catastrophe.
We shouldn't be surprised though. Scientists have warned that floods will become more frequent and more severe, because of global warming. More moisture evaporates from warmer soils and oceans, and warmer air can hold more moisture. So when it rains (or snows) there is much more water. Another important reason for the worsening floods is sea level rise, which we discussed in the last class.
As the Earth is continuing to warm, such devastating floods and storms will likely become much more frequent and even worse.
Discussion: Did you observe any changes in climate in your region? Or have you heard personal reports from people who were affected by a change in climate in another part of the world?
Watch this video:
The Human Impact of Climate Change: Personal Stories from Somalia, Ghana, and Kenya 7:55
This video shares the stories of real people affected by the impacts of climate change in Africa due to global carbon pollution. We tell the stories of Somali refugees affected by drought and famine forced to flee to Kenya just to survive. In Ghana, rising sea levels are driving residents of coastal villages further and further inland. And in Kenya, a lake that once provided fisherman with their livelihoods is rapidly drying up, driving political instability. (17)
Section 2: Soil Erosion and Desertification, Effects on Agriculture and Food
"The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." The Bible (18)
"The thin layer of topsoil that covers the planet’s land surface is the foundation of civilization. This soil was formed over long stretches of geological time as new soil formation exceeded the natural rate of erosion. As soil accumulated over the eons, it provided a medium in which plants could grow. In turn, plants protect the soil from erosion. Human activity is disrupting this relationship.
Sometime within the last century, soil erosion began to exceed new soil formation in large areas. The accelerating soil erosion can be seen in the dust bowls that form as vegetation is destroyed and wind erosion soars out of control. Among those that stand out are the Dust Bowl in the U.S. Great Plains during the 1930s, the dust bowls in the Soviet Virgin Lands in the 1960s, the huge one that is forming today in northwest China, and the one taking shape in the Sahelian region of Africa. Each of these is associated with a familiar pattern of overgrazing, deforestation, and agricultural expansion onto marginal land, followed by retrenchment as the soil begins to disappear. ...
The 2 to 3 billion tons of fine soil particles that leave Africa each year in dust storms are slowly draining the continent of its fertility and, hence, its biological productivity. In addition, dust storms leaving Africa travel westward across the Atlantic, depositing so much dust in the Caribbean that they cloud the water and damage coral reefs there. ...
Ethiopia, a mountainous country with highly erodible soils on steeply sloping land, is losing an estimated 1 billion tons of topsoil a year, washed away by rain. This is one reason Ethiopia always seems to be on the verge of famine, never able to accumulate enough grain reserves to provide a meaningful measure of food security.” (19)
Climate change will exacerbate soil degradation in many parts of the world. In drier areas, climate change is expected to lead to salinization and desertification of agricultural land. (20)
"By 2025, Africa could lose as much as two-thirds of its arable land compared with 1990, and there could be declines of one-third in Asia and one-fifth in South America. Migration – from the Sahelian regions to the West African coast, from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe, from Mexico to the United States – will be an inevitable consequence as poor people are driven off their land." (21) Africa is especially hit hard as agricultural yields are reduced.
Higher temperatures take a great toll on agriculture. “More people on the planet depend on rice than on any other crop. Rice plants react very quickly to temperature change: they show a 10 percent drop in yield for every 1ºC (1.8°F) rise in minimum temperature. In parts of the Philippines, farmers have had to stop growing rice completely during the droughts caused by the ‘El Nino’ years, and river delta and coastal rice production has already suffered badly across South-East Asia because of storms that overwhelm sea defenses and salt-water intrusion into paddy fields. An Asian Development Bank report warns that rice production in the Philippines could drop by 50–70 per cent as early as 2020.” (22)
Although higher harvests can be expected in some northern areas because of the fertilization effect of more CO2, world wide, agriculture will be severely affected and global food production will decline. And we already have a problem with hunger: “More than 800 million people worldwide suffer from malnutrition. About 24,000 people die every day as a result.” (23) Since 2002, when Kofi Annan made this statement, a global food crisis has started to emerge. There are many reasons for it: The diversion of good agricultural land to grow plants for bio-fuels, environmental degradation of agricultural lands, declining fisheries, and last, but not least, climate change impacts, especially droughts, heat waves, floods and unpredictable changes in precipitation patterns. According to Oxfam International “climate -related hunger could be the defining human tragedy of this century.” (24)
Discussion: Why is there widespread soil erosion and desertification? What are the consequences for agriculture and people? What’s the impact of climate change on soils and plants?
Forests play a vital role in maintaining the balance of the Earth's ecosystems. They provide habitat for more than half of all terrestrial species, help filter pollutants out of the air and water, and prevent soil erosion. Rainforests also provide essential hydrological (water-related) services. For example, they tend to result in higher dry season streamflow and river levels, since forests slow down the rate of water or rain run-off, and help it enter into the aquifer. Without a tree cover, the water tends to run off quickly into the streams and rivers, often taking a lot of topsoil with it. Forests also help the regional climate as they cycle water to the interior of a continent. The shrinking of the Amazon Rainforest reduces regional rainfall, which in turn threatens the health of the remaining forest and of the agricultural land in Southern Brazil. This also results in an increased fire risk.
Forests and their soils also play a critical role in the global carbon cycle. The level of CO2 in the atmosphere depends on the distribution or exchange of carbon between different “carbon pools” as part of the carbon cycle. Forests and their soils are major carbon pools, as are oceans, agricultural soils, other vegetation, and wood products: the carbon stored in the woody part of trees and shrubs (known as “biomass”) and soils is about 50% more than that stored in the atmosphere.
Trees continuously exchange CO2 with the atmosphere. The release of CO2 into the air is due both to natural processes (respiration of trees at night and the decomposition of organic matter) and human processes (removal or destruction of trees). Similarly, CO2 is removed from the atmosphere by the action of photosynthesis, which results in carbon being integrated into the organic molecules used by plants, including the woody biomass of trees. Thus forests play a major role in regulating global temperatures by absorbing heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and storing it in the form of wood and vegetation – a process referred to as “carbon sequestration”.
Unfortunately, the global benefits provided by trees are being threatened by deforestation and forest degradation. We use the term ‘deforestation’ as shorthand for tree loss. Forest ‘degradation’ happens when the forest gets degraded, for example due to unsustainable logging practices which remove the most valuable species, or artisanal charcoal production in which only a few trees are harvested. The Earth loses more than 18 million acres of forestland every year—an area larger than Ireland—according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). (27)
Deforestation is a major cause of global warming. When trees are burned, their stored carbon is released back into the atmosphere. As a result, tropical deforestation (including forest degradation) is responsible for about 12-15 percent of total annual global warming emissions according to estimates released for the climate change conference in Copenhagen.
The reasons for deforestation are complex. The most important factors are clearance for agriculture (including cattle ranching), poor governance (illegal logging, corruption, and ineffective law and order), insecurity of land tenure, the system of international trade, poor planning (e.g.building of major trunk roads in forest areas), and unsustainable logging.
“The tropical deforestation in Asia is driven primarily by the fast-growing demand for timber. In Latin America, by contrast, the growing demand for soybeans and beef is deforesting the Amazon. In Africa, it is mostly the gathering of fuelwood and the clearing of new land for agriculture as existing cropland is degraded and abandoned. Two countries, Indonesia and Brazil, account for more than half of all deforestation.” (28)
Agricultural clearance is overall the most important cause of deforestation – it is estimated to be responsible for up to three quarters of deforestation and degradation. While some of this is for commercial biofuel crops like oil palm and soybean, which grow very well in tropical forest areas, much of it is also due to the basic problem of how to feed a burgeoning world population. Also many of the ‘agents of deforestation’ are among the poorest people in the world, often without land, who are forced to clear forest areas to feed their families. Therefore the solutions are far from simple, and go to the roots of the problems of sustainable development, as will be discussed in Class 6.
At the same time, forests that have so far escaped deforestation are now threatened by climate change: In many regions of the world, more trees will die because of increasing insect infestations and forest fires. (29) (More insects are surviving milder winters.) “Wildfires have been on the rise worldwide for half a century. Every decade since the 1950s has seen an increase in major wildfires in the United States and around the world.” (30)
Tropical rainforests, rich in biodiversity, are suffering from warmer temperatures and less rainfall, both caused by climate change. In the past, rainforests were a sink for CO2. Now with hotter temperatures, their growth is impeded, and some are actually emitting CO2. (31)
If climate change is not mitigated, rainforests will not be able to survive. “If the IPCC's most severe projection comes true, much of the Amazon rainforest will transform into savannah.” (32)
Discussion: What is the significance of forests for the climate system? Besides their role of absorbing CO2, what other important environmental services do forests provide? How are forests threatened today?
Section 4: Loss of Biodiversity, Changes in Ecosystems
“Diversity of hues, form and shape, enricheth and adorneth the garden, and heighteneth the effect thereof.” (33) ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
According to the 2014 Living Planet Report by WWF, there was a 52% loss of populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish between 1970 and 2010. (34)
Until now, the major reason for species decline and extinction was the loss of habitat. Now, climate change poses an even greater threat. We can already observe how species are moving towards the poles or up the mountains. In Britain, the comma butterfly, for example, expands its territory northwards, about 80km (50 miles) per decade. (35)
Changes can be quite dramatic. In the Arctic, for example, suddenly robins and mosquitoes appeared that were previously unknown there.
Many plants and animals cannot move or evolve quickly enough to adjust to the new climate conditions; so they die out. In fact, climate change has already caused the extinction of some species: The Golden Toad, for example, disappeared when reduced precipitation in the Monteverde cloud forests dried out the shallow pools where eggs were laid and tadpoles developed. (36)
Approximately 20 – 30% of plant and animal species are at increased risk of extinction if increases in the global average temperature exceed 1.5 – 2.5° C (2.7 – 4.5°F).” (37)
We hope that we can prevent that much of a temperature increase. However, if we continue with business as usual, temperatures will increase even more than that, which could result in catastrophic species extinctions of between 40 – 70% by the end of this century.
Each extinct species is a loss for humanity. We will not be able to use these species for the development of new crops or for the research of new medicines and treatments. Furthermore, species extinctions create holes in the web of life, which disrupt the ecological balance and have far-reaching negative impacts on directly and indirectly connected species. Moreover, each species has intrinsic value that cannot be measured by a one-sided utilitarian approach. Our extermination of our fellow inhabitants of Earth raises strong moral questions.
Whole ecosystems can get out of balance. The ecosystems that are most threatened by climate change are wetlands, mountainous regions, coral reefs, mangroves, and tropical rain forests. In the long term, all ecosystems will be affected by climate change.
Discussion: Have you seen a species or an ecosystem that is endangered by global warming?
Section 5: Ocean Acidification
Oceans have absorbed at least a quarter of our carbon dioxide emissions. This absorption of CO2 has been very helpful for the climate because it reduced CO2 in the atmosphere and, as a consequence, reduced the warming we have witnessed so far. However, as the gas dissolves in the water it produces carbonic acid. “The acidity of ocean surface waters has increased by 30 percent since the 17th century.” (38) Such a change in ocean chemistry is significant and has long-term effects:
“Typically, seawater is heavily saturated with dissolved calcium carbonate from eroded limestone. This neutralizes any acid that forms from CO2 and leaves plenty of carbonate for marine creatures to use for shell- and reef-building. But as oceans absorb increasing amounts of CO2 from fossil fuels, their stores of calcium carbonate dip. Over time, this reduces carbonate available for marine creatures. Shell and coral formation slows.” (39) Existing shells can even dissolve. Many ocean creatures depend on calcium carbonate. The most spectacular ones are the corals, which will not be able to survive if the current trend of acidification continues. This problem may have even wider implications, because some zooplankton are also affected. They are at the basis of the marine food web. This means that many fish and other animals are also threatened by the increasing acidification of the oceans.
As with many other effects of climate change, scientists are extremely concerned to see that these changes progress much faster than anticipated.
Watch this video:
Section 6: Effects on Human Health
There are several direct and many indirect effects of climate change on human health. Most obvious is the threat of heat waves. During the European heat wave in 2003, almost 35,000 people died. (41) Such extreme weather events will become more frequent, prolonged and severe. Vector born diseases are becoming more widespread because more insects survive the milder winters. Lyme disease is spreading, and so is Malaria. Malaria transmitting mosquitoes are multiplying in areas that get more rain and floods, and they are spreading to higher altitudes and latitudes because of warmer temperatures. “It is estimated that climate change has contributed to an average of 150,000 more deaths from disease per year since the 1970s, with over half of those happening in Asia.” (42) Doctors say it's contributing to a rise in seasonal hay fever and allergic asthma in the USA, where the pollen season has lengthened up to 16 days since 1995. If carbon dioxide emissions continue to increase, they expect allergic conditions to worsen, adding to the discomfort of allergy sufferers as well as swelling U.S. health care costs.
Yet, the biggest effect on global health will most likely be the more indirect effects of climate change on water, food security, and economic and social instability. According to an Oxford University study on the future of food, "more than half a million people worldwide are likely to die annually by 2050 because of the impact on agriculture of a changing climate." (43)
Section 7: Multiple Stresses
Often, a plant, an animal or a whole ecosystem is affected by more than one problem. Let's look at the example of coral reefs: They have been suffering from chemical runoff from agriculture, mainly fertilizers and pesticides. Then marine pollution has been an additional burden. Now with global warming, water temperatures are increasing. Corals are very sensitive to temperature rises. On top of that comes the acidification of the ocean. All these factors combined have contributed to coral bleaching (dying of coral reefs). “Unless significant measures are taken to reduce the stress on coral reefs from human activities, 60% of the world’s coral reefs may die by the year 2050.” (44)
Not only plants and animals are affected by a combination of environmental stresses. Unfortunately, people are also suffering from multiple stresses in many parts of the world, for example from the combined disasters of soil erosion, water scarcity and poverty. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change stated, “Africa is one of the most vulnerable continents to climate change because of multiple stresses and low adaptive capacity.” (45)
Discussion: Do you know a country or a region where people are suffering from multiple stresses including climate change?
Section 8: Conflicts over Natural Resources
Degradation of freshwaters, decline in food production, energy issues, increase in storm and flood disasters and environmentally induced migration are all potential causes for conflict. (46) “A global population predicted to increase to about 9 billion by the mid-21st century, combined with stresses on water, land, and food resources could create the ‘perfect storm.’” (47)
According to a report titled “Insurgency, Terrorism and Organised Crime in a Warming Climate: Analysing the Links Between Climate Change and Non-State Armed Groups,” climate change does not “automatically lead to more fragility and conflict.” Rather, the authors see climate change as a threat multiplier, noting that it “interacts and converges” with other existing risks and pressures in a given context and “can increase the likelihood of fragility or violent conflict.” (48)
Many countries could face war for scarce land, food and water as global warming increases. More than 60 nations, mainly in the Third World, are likely to have existing tensions exacerbated by the struggle for diminishing resources. Others now at peace - including China, the United States and even parts of Europe - are expected to be plunged into conflict. Even those not directly affected will be threatened by a flood of hundreds of millions of environmental refugees.
The threat is worrying world leaders. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "In coming decades, changes in the environment - and the resulting upheavals, from droughts to inundated coastal areas - are likely to become a major driver of war and conflict." (49)
These conflicts could happen at the local, national, regional or international level.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon sees a direct link between the social and political unrest in Darfur and its roots in an ecological crisis, at least partly attributable to climate change. Thousands of people have died or been driven from their homes in the Darfur region of Sudan. Ban writes: "Two decades ago, the rains in southern Sudan began to fail. ... Scientists at first considered this to be an unfortunate quirk of nature. But subsequent investigation found that it coincided with a rise in temperatures of the Indian Ocean, disrupting seasonal monsoons. This suggests that the drying of sub-Saharan Africa derives, to some degree, from man-made global warming." (50)
Massive migrations and shortages of resources have the potential to cause political instability, which may overwhelm many poor countries and result in many more failed states. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there could be 200 million refugees by the year 2050.
Discussion: How does climate change contribute to scarcity of resources and to human conflicts?
Now that you are familiar with some of the impacts of climate change you will be able to understand the following general remarks on a deeper level:
"Climate Change is a real thing. It's not something dramatic now - that's why people don't really react. But it will be dramatic for our children and our children's children - the risk is too big not to care." (51) Konrad Steffen
"Climate change is no longer just an environmental issue, it is a looming humanitarian catastrophe." (52) Catherine Pearce
3. Arctic Report Card: Update for 2016, Surface Air Temperature, NOAA's Arctic Program http://www.arctic.noaa.gov/Report-Card/Report-Card-2016/ArtMID/5022/Art…
4. National Snow & Ice Data Center, Another warm month in the Arctic, March 6, 2017 http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/2017/03/another-warm-month-in-the-arc…
5. Pew Center on Global Climate Change, http://www.pewclimate.org/arctic_qa.cfm#1
7.Romans threatened with water rationing as Italy's heatwave drags on https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/24/rome-water-rationing-ital…
8. As Asian Scorchers Multiply, Records Fall and Attention Rises https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/17/world/asia/climate-change-asia-heat-…
10.Romans threatened with water rationing as Italy's heatwave drags on https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/jul/24/rome-water-rationing-ital…
13. according to a study by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology and the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), National Science Foundation: http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=104428
15. (for more information on cyclone Haiyan, see here: 2013 State of the Climate: Record-breaking Super Typhoon Haiyan https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/2013-state-climate-record-breaking-super-typhoon-haiyan
16. JEFFREY GETTLEMAN, More Than 1,000 Died in South Asia Floods This Summer, The New York Times AUG. 29, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/29/world/asia/floods-south-asia-india-b…
17.Published on Oct 23, 2013 (http://www.climaterealityproject.org) Hosted by Al Gore and The Climate Reality Project, "24 Hours of Reality: The Cost of Carbon"
19. Adapted from Chapter 5, “Natural Systems Under Stress,” in Lester R.Brown, Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006), http://www.earth-policy.org/books/pb/pbch3_ss2
24. Report by Oxfam International: Suffering the Science - Climate Change, People and Poverty” see also http://www.oxfam.org/en/pressroom/pressrelease/2009-07-06/millions-face-climate-related-hunger-seasons-shift-and-change
25. With thanks to the major contributor to this section: Michael Richards, natural resources economist, UK, Forest Trends www.forest-trends.org
28. Lester R. Brown, Plan B 3.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, Earth Policy Institute, 2008) From Chapter 8. Restoring the Earth PLANTING TREES TO SEQUESTER CARBON
38. “Rising Acidity Is Threatening Food Web of Oceans, Science Panel Says” by Cornelia Dean, published: January 30, 2009, The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/31/science/earth/31ocean.html?_r=3&emc=eta1
39. “World’s oceans turning acidic fast” by Peter N. Spotts, Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 19, 2008 http://features.csmonitor.com/environment/2008/12/18/world%E2%80%99s-oceans-turning-acidic-faster-than-expected/
46. Information from a new report, entitled Climate Change as a Security Risk, has been prepared by the German Advisory Council on Global Change drawing on the work of international experts and organizations including UNEP.
48. Report by the German Federal Foreign Office and adelphi, covered in Climate Change Addressed as Factor of Instability and Conflict http://sdg.iisd.org/news/climate-change-addressed-as-factor-of-instabil…
49. Secretary-General's address to UNIS-UN Conference on Climate Change, 1 March 2007, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/statement/2007-03-01/secretary-gene…
52. Catherine Pearce, the Friends of the Earth International's climate campaigner, https://www.alternet.org/story/50270/how_the_worst_effects_of_climate_c…
© Christine Muller and International Environment Forum