Not too long ago, I was out walking in the park. It was a lovely spring day. The birds were singing, the flowers were starting to bloom, and everyone was playing tennis, walking, or riding bikes in T-shirts. Oh wait—that was last week, on Christmas Eve. In fact, here’s the temperature readings from around the country:
LA 58 | San Francisco 51 | Seattle 38 | Detroit 48 | Central Park 72
I do know it’s an El Niño year, and I’m not the sort to be tossing flowers out onto the floor of the Senate in a pointless gesture, or to be raving about the end of the world and life itself. Life itself will be just fine. In fact, if all multicellular animals were to keel over tonight, the bacteria would hardly notice. The steady and relentless rise in the average global temperature will mean changes, to be sure, but not the cessation of life.
So what’s actually going to happen? The most likely scenario is that a bunch of rare, delicate, and photogenic species who can’t adapt will disappear (we’ll call those “the wimpy species”). Species we don’t like as much will prosper (like flies and cockroaches).
Tropical and temperate zones will rearrange themselves in places they aren’t now, and a few areas of the globe may become functionally uninhabitable to humans, due to the fact that humans would overheat and die. I’m sure the scorpions will be just fine. Other areas, like Canada and Russia, will probably benefit (except for the hoards of climate refugees). Western Civilization itself? That’s more touch and go, but I think people will adapt somehow. Southern Florida will be gone, but Maine will be nice.
The problem is, this is the kind of problem that people find hard to understand. Not because of the science involved (which is pretty basic and the word “greenhouse” says it all), but because of the timescales. The time it takes to play out is so vast (for us human individuals), it’s hard to know what to do. Let me tell you a story. I once lived in an apartment that we roommates called “The Mouse House” because the little critters scampered about happily until we learned the secret of getting rid of them (steel wool and plaster in every crack and crevice). Anyway, the monthly rent for a 2-bedroom in those days was about the same as what it costs me to get a zipcar for a day of apple picking now. This was because the services were basic and the neighborhood was dicey.
We did get hot water in the shower, but there was a quirk…there was about a 7 second delay in shower-knob-turning activities by the shower-er and change in water temperature. Most showers, it’s less than 1 second. We’ve all learned to edge up the hot water a bit and wait a count to feel the results. No one goes into a cold shower and throttles it up to boiling immediately. But 7 seconds is a long time, so this is how it went: you’d turn up the heat. No heat. Turn it up. No heat. Turn it up. Maybe I feel it a little…ok, turn it up…now it’s getting better. Ah, that’s perfect. Stop turning. Wait, it’s getting hotter. I stopped turning! Ow! What the…? Woah! Yikes! Jump out of way! Turn down rapidly to cold! Still boiling! Yow! More cold! Wait…getting a bit cooler….ok…now It’s not lethal…ok, now it’s perfect. Stop turning. Wait, getting colder! Sh*t!!! Too cold! What the…? Woah! Freezing! Jump out the way! Turn up to hot!
If you were half asleep, incapacitated by party drugs, slow of reflex, or a first-timer, this cycle could repeat for a while. Although my roommates and I would warn new roommates and temporary house guests about this, it never made any difference. Someone telling you “There’s a 7 second delay in the shower response time” will make you nod and say “OK – who’s getting the coffee?” We’d then hear the cycle described above play out in all its glory. I’d modify the warning by adding “…so, just turn it up a little at a time because you won’t feel it change until you count to 7.” This helped somewhat, but it was just too hard for people to overcome their automatic responses until they’d lived with it for a while. I don’t thing there was one single person who got it right first time in.
And that’s the problem. We haven’t seen it this warm in about 12,000 years – which was before we started to build big cities along coastlines.
I’m talking about how warm it is right now, not how warm it’s going to get. Even if we stop emitting any and all carbon dioxide tonight, the warming trend won’t stop right away. Like my old shower, it will just keep on getting warmer for decades no matter what we do right now. And if we keep going, we could be matching the temperature that we saw 55 million years ago. We didn’t actually see it, because we weren’t around – but I think it was pretty cozy for the early mammals. Of course, sea levels were 80 feet higher, so that would be a change.
Like most people, the biggest question in my mind is…what’s this mean? For me, personally? Well, since I’m old, it probably means I may see some more big hurricanes flood lower Manhattan. It means that I shouldn’t retire to South Florida, since flooding due to sea level rise will be the biggest immediate problem in my life time. For my children, it means I’m telling them not to invest in real estate that isn’t well above sea level (current sea level, that is). South Florida is a goner, according to the New Yorker, so by all means rent and enjoy, but don’t be investing your nest egg in land that will be underwater in a few short decades. If you want to see some coral reefs, you could try Australia soon but no promises they won’t be bleached when you get there. Venice is sinking, but then again, Venice has ALWAYS been sinking. I suggest you see it sooner rather than later, though.
The good news is that places like Detroit and Ulan Ude may get a bit of a boost. The winters won’t be so cold, sea level rise won’t be a problem for them, and real estate is pretty affordable still. I’m telling my kids to try Toronto, or almost any of the old rust belt cities like Buffalo or Milwaukee. My beloved New York City will need to spend a bundle on things like storm plugs for the subway and possibly Venice-style flood gates. Places that don’t have a lot of water now aren’t going to be getting any more of it in the future, but if desalinization gets cheap that wouldn’t be a problem for California (hint, hint Arizona).
At this point, people get frustrated. Why can’t science just tell us exactly what is going to happen, where it will happen, and when? There are three good reasons why science can’t do that. First: we don’t have all the information, and we’re dealing with a big, complex system (sky, sea, world, etc.) Second: science deals in probabilities and statistics, while you and I (well, you anyway) don’t like statistics, and think there’s a good chance of hitting Powerball. Third: science is a method for finding things out, not a bunch of facts you have to memorize. I’ll let that sink in. Science is a method. Scientists are going to be seeing what happens to the earth and that will let them know if their models are accurate….not the other way around. For the rest of us, it may be a bit late.
That doesn’t mean you should panic. If I owned a house in Miami Beach, I’d sell it now and rent for a while, but there’s no need to flee New York City or Amsterdam (or London, or Sydney). This is not the kind of apocalypse that happens overnight. No need to live like a survivalist …anyway, do you really WANT to eat spam twice a week for the rest of your life and learn how to fry bacon by wrapping it around the barrel of a machine gun? In fact, if you’re over 40 and don’t live in Florida, you can probably just ignore the whole thing.
In the meantime, I’ll put my money on you youngsters. It’s your world now, so you’ll need to get busy about what to do about it. To help you along, here’s some good advice:
- Before you buy somewhere, check out the elevations. Avoid buying a house in low areas or on a floodplain (you won’t be getting insurance anyway).
- Rent but don’t buy a beach house. In fact, a houseboat would be a great option.
- Invest in smart alternative energy sources that people can install on their own (like solar panels – but there are others). Check out AngeList.
- Educate yourself here, here and here. You will see right away that the future isn’t set in stone yet.
- Embrace the change.
- Vote in off-year elections, and don’t elect idiots. (List of idiots here)