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We Have No Choice, but to Carry On

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 5:04 AM GMT on May 08, 2016

We Have No Choice, but to Carry On

The fire in Fort McMurray seems the script of some Earth-seeks-revenge horror movie. As I have mulled my climate blogging ennui for the past couple of weeks, I decided, last night, that I am about to have one of my climate-change transitions. Perhaps I am getting to the age of memoir. Even read a lot of the literature from the past year on the psychological state of the climate scientist.

The transition: A couple of blogs ago I recapped a series of papers from 2014 that made a compelling case that we were committed to significant melting of West Antarctic glaciers. When I read those papers in 2014, my first reaction was one of calming and clarity. Certainty had been defined.

My last climate-change transition came in 2011, when I felt I was teaching this impossible and incorrect mantra of avoiding dangerous warming. There was no evidence that we would avoid two degrees (C) of warming (global average surface temperature), and there was significant evidence that two degrees of warming was, in fact, dangerous to some, if not many. I went into the camp of those saying that four-degrees was more realistic. Two degrees would require us to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, a capability that I think we need to make happen.

I also took the position that four degrees of warming was not a hopeless situation. We, humans, have amazing capacity to adapt. We have knowledge of what the climate of the future will look like – knowledge that should be continually improving. In some sense, we have time, an assertion I will return to below. I feel that the future belongs to those who take the knowledge we have of climate change and use that knowledge – in planning, in business, in government, in education – climate change must become part of our essence.

Over the past five years it has become clear, that in many, many ways we can’t think of going back to the past or, even, conserving the present. What made this most clear, to me, was my work on climate change in Isle Royale National Park. As ecosystems are disrupted they recover in a different climate than they formed. Rather than restoration of what was, we need to plan and work towards best possible futures - a nice thing to say.

Along the way, I took exception to talking about a new normal of climate. Basically, my point was that there was no new normal. The new normal is that the climate will always be changing, that is, warming, over our lifetimes, our children’s lifetimes – our grandchildren’s lifetimes.

The Earth is accumulating heat and warming up, in fact, quite relentlessly. What we have been realizing with the research on melting ice sheets and glaciers is that this heat is infiltrating the oceans and melting ice at much faster rates than predicted a decade ago. As we document the storage and movement of this heat, we are left with the conclusion that it is not very likely that there is some yet unknown, undiscovered process that will lead to cooling. In fact, virtually everything we discover suggests that the responses to the warming will be more warming. This is true, likely, even if we ramp down to no fossil fuel emissions in the next fifty years – a policy goal that remains, still, evidence wise, difficult to imagine.

Why, then, can I find any calming aspect in the certitude of melting ice sheets? It is, surely, an unnatural feature of my psychology. It is because, first, I can imagine making real decisions about my family’s old cabin on North Carolina’s Neuse River. I can start to frame meaningful decisions on ten, twenty, generational, and longer time frames. I can make decisions on whether or not a property can be protected in isolation, how long I will have its use, and when to leave. Psychologically, I suppose I can imagine someway of taking personal control, of creating possibility.

It does not take long, however, for this feeling of possibility to be overwhelmed by scale. I think of my friend who spends her time rescuing sea turtles on the barrier islands. I know people working in Norfolk. As they do their calculations and look up and down the coast, I see what I saw at Isle Royale, it is not going to be possible to conserve and preserve. In many cases, the only choice is going to be to move, to evacuate. The challenges of planning, of policy – well, our current behavior suggests that the challenges of governance and behavior are more formidable than those climate change.

Last week I was asked about this article, Climate Exodus Expected in the Middle East and Northern Africa. The end of that article states, “ … that climate change can result in a significant deterioration of living conditions for people living in North Africa and the Middle East, and consequently, sooner or later, many people may have to leave the region.” I was asked quite specifically, what the U.S. can do to prepare.

Already, arguably, climate change accelerates migration from the Middle East. In my first month of blogging in 2007, I wrote of relocating Alaskan villages. On May 3, 2016 in the New York times, there was a article about the relocation of those living on Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana calling them our first climate refugees. (Difficult to really call them “first.”) By 2050, we, in the U.S., will not have to rely on the Middle East and North Africa for climate-change migrations; we will be relocating ourselves, sometimes with planning, and sometimes without.

People talk about the cost of climate change, like it is some external burden on our economy. We have buried ourselves in the notion that the cost of intervening today is too high. In the next decades, I expect that coping with climate change will become what we do. As what we do, I expect it will become a major segment of our economy. It will be why we build and rebuild. It is, surely, a more productive part of economy than war. It is not such a bad thing on which to anchor our economy and behavior. Since we are entering decades of warming and sea level rise, we will learn to plan to change, rather than planning to the average. We will manage and build and abandon over the time spans of generations. That is what I mean when I say we have time; the time span of change is on a time span that we can plan and spend. This will be a profound change in in our behavior, our psychology, but in reality, it is not so different than what we have always done.

Increasingly, this does, indeed, cause me sleepless nights. My response is to try to teach students enough to give them some advantage at the starting line. I am certain that technological, including, biotechnological, challenges are tractable. I am far less certain of our collective behavioral and political skills. However, I expect that behavioral and political evolution will reward successful practice, and brutally punish unsuccessful practice. (Vote well, dear readers.) In a collective sense, the world has always been nasty and brutish, the future always uncertain, disaster around the corner. The increasing certainty of climate change is in some sense defining, perhaps, calming; it allows playing the climate card.


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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.