How climate change will kill us: Two things you might not realize

Lives close to the edge. Dying.

Lives close to the edge. Dying.pte

Climate is changing. I think we all get that it’s bad, but a lot of people don’t understand the statistical mechanics of just how it’s going to do us in. Fear not! I explain things very simply.

Climate change shifts the margins. A hotter climate doesn’t affect everything or everyone equally. It hits things, species, and places that live close to the edge.

Species that live in little mountaintops will suffer as their favored temperatures move up to ever smaller zones at the summits and eventually disappear. Sea creatures with shells are already suffering, from ocean acidification. Turns out they had gotten a bit too comfy with the slow-changing acidity levels of the last 300 million years. Little did they know that things could change more quickly, outstripping their ability to adapt. (As they say in South America, chau pescau!)

But maybe you’re one of the normal people who doesn’t care much about marmots and pteropods. So think about all the things that affect your life and that have a limited margin of climatic error. Remember Hurricane Sandy? The storm surge came up higher than anyone expected and just a few inches of water made it over the lip of the stairs into PATH subway stations in Hoboken and Jersey City. The entire system filled with water. This sort of thing gets more common with climate change.

It’s worse for coastal industries like oil refineries and sewage treatment plants. They are built safely out of the storm zones. But a wee bit of sea level rise can bring them well within striking range for big storms. So with just a bit of sea level rise, you can expect big industrial accidents that will make life very unpleasant for humans and other living things.

At least coastal places are thinking about this. But what about other places? Deep in the mountains, all over the world, we have mines with tailings dams designed for local water cycles. If you increase rainfall locally, or increase the speed of snowmelt upstream, or reduce the stability of the soil underneath, these dams can fail. A very small shift in climate, imperceptible to humans living in well built cities, can be catastrophic for machines built to withstand only their local-historic climate. So this sort of thing could easily become something we start to see every year:

And yet people keep pressuring me to have children

Mount Polley tailings pond breach

The second thing people often don’t understand is how greenhouse gases relate to temperature. Added greenhouse gases are like more blankets piled on top of you. Doubling the number of blankets on top of you doesn’t make you twice as hot right away. What it does is trap an increased amount of heat. Every additional blanket means that less heat can escape, so over time, heat builds up. That’s what we’re doing here.

If you pile up a whole bunch of blankets at once, it might take hours before you get uncomfortable. That’s what we’re doing. It will take at least 1,000 years for the climate to come into equilibrium with the carbon we’ve already put into the atmosphere.

The problem with this metaphor is that we can’t take the blankets off. We’re just piling them onto ourselves, our food crops, our weather systems, our fishes, everything. If this were a person in bed, knowing she could never take the blankets off, she’d be careful about not piling up so many that she’d get heat stroke. But we’re not like that. We’re grabbing them with two hands and saying, sorry kids! See you, wouldn’t want to be you!

ALSO SOME GOOD NEWS. Ozone layer recovering, thanks entirely to an international treaty that required signatories to suffer a little for the common good. Seriously, we can do it.

4 thoughts on “How climate change will kill us: Two things you might not realize

  1. Charly

    When people do not have much to say in a conversation they turn to weather small talk. Please leave climate change to specialists, especially the effect of climate change on hurricanes. Your articles about oil are so much more interesting.

    1. Steven/Setty Post author

      This entire blog is small talk about the oil industry. Climate change is pretty much the only thing we should be discussing. If it bores you, there are many other places on the internet to stimulate your dopamine receptors.

  2. metodex

    Thanks for this explanation Setty, a lot of people like me need these kinds of examples to improve our perception.
    And i find funny you thought of a woman in the bed.

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