The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) paints a picture that could certainly be interpreted as dire. It points to substantial evidence that climate change has significantly impacted natural systems on all continents and across the seas. The damage predicted as the situation worsens makes it clear that global warming will prove devastating to Earth’s natural ecosystems, but wait–there’s another side to the story.
The damage attributed to Earth’s warming trend is considerable. In many regions around the world, changes in rain and snow patterns are affecting the availability of water, while increased melting of glaciers and other ice features are affecting water sources in terms of both quantity and quality. This could have wide-reaching, damaging impacts on many different ecosystems. The IPCC report states that while only a few species extinctions have been attributed to the current ongoing climate change, historically documented climate changes in the past several million years–at rates far slower than those observed today–are known to have caused extensive shifts of ecosystems, as well as the extinction of many different species. They believe that even a two degree increase in global temperatures could result in irreversible damage to the world’s ecosystems, triggering a series of events that will take everything over a hypothetical tipping point. From this point, alterations and interactions between systems could fall into a sort of runaway chain reaction that could not soon–if ever–be undone.
However global warming is not just about the animals and the trees. There is definitely another side to this story–us. Changes in precipitation and melt rates affecting water levels and quality could have a disastrous effect on human living conditions, rendering fertile areas arid or flooding many out of long-established homes. Extensive flooding could result in mass epidemics of cholera and other water-borne illnesses. Crop yields would likely be severely diminished as regional conditions change. The availability of food would be limited, and prices would drastically increase. Widespread hunger, even famine, could result. The IPCC reports a documented increase in heat-related and cold-related deaths as a result of the overall warming trend. In addition, the devastating impact from climate related phenomena such as wildfires, heat waves, droughts, and floods have demonstrated that many of our society’s systems are poorly designed to withstand such an assault from the elements.
Climatologists and other scientists have collected a great deal of data about the changes in temperatures, precipitation, and countless other factors in order to create a climatological portrait of the Earth. But climate is a very complex and fluid system, and as such does not much like to sit still for the photographer. Many details are open to interpretation, even among knowledgeable experts. So what is sought after is a certain level of agreement from a reasonable segment of the scientific community. Still, some believe that climate change is not due to human behavior at all, but simply a result of normal atmospheric activity. However, Shaun Lovejoy, professor of physics at McGill University, calculates that there is less than a one percent chance that the natural-warming hypothesis is correct. And he is far from alone–97 percent of climate scientists believe that the global warming trends observed for the last century are caused by human activity. So, yes, it’s probably us.
Changes to the world’s meteorological patterns, ecosystems, rainfall and sea levels are one thing. Those, perhaps, you could shrug off and go about your day. But when you look at the other side of global warming–the side that affects us more directly, more obviously, the side that washes away your house and takes food away from your family–suddenly it quickly becomes a far more personal issue.
Commentary by Peter Barreda