It's the Climate, Stupid (Not the Deficit)

Time columnist Joe Klein has an excellent piece in the latest issue of the magazine condemning the hypocrisy and wrongheadedness of those currently obsessed with cutting the US deficit. Klein agrees that the federal deficit is a major issue of concern, but questions the priority given to "bloviating about long-term deficits" compared with the deficit hawks' disinterest in any serious attempts to untangle our immediate economic mess.

But Klein also misses a much larger point about the absurdity of the deficit hawks seemingly virtuous concern for the long-term health of US society.

One of these hawks is New Hampshire GOP Senator Judd Gregg, a member of President Obama's deficit commission. Sen. Gregg told NPR yesterday that "if we don't do something, basically, this country is going off the rails, and we're going to pass on to our kids a country which is significantly less prosperous and thus less secure and where they will have a lower standard of living." Today, two other commission members, Republican Senators Tom Coburn and Mike Crapo said that solving the debt crisis was necessary to "secure freedom for future generations."

Ironically the biggest threat to the well-being and freedom of the grandchildren of these politicos is not the US debt. It is the fact that if the anti-science, pro-pollution Republican party succeeds in its effort to prevent cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, their grandchildren (and yours, and mine) will live in a world of severe food shortages, deadly storms and heatwaves, retreating shorelines, widespread and rapid extinctions, raging epidemics and all the political and social instabilities and human misery that will result from them.

It's obviously extremely depressing to think through what might be the actual implications for our grandchildren if the Republicans are able to continue their mission to rip and suck every last fossil fuel from the earth. The gloominess of the task is likely one reason why few scientific papers have been published that try to assess what the world might be like through the end of the next century if current trends continue.

One effort to think of some of the likely features of the late 21st world has just been published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. This assesses the possible state of water resources, agriculture, coastlines and ecosystems with a rise in temperature of 4°C (7°F) from pre-industrial times. The international scientists writing in the Transactions predict this 4°C rise as likely to occur by the 2070s and possibly a decade earlier (when my grandchildren, if I ever have them, would probably be in their 20s).

Climate blogger Joe Romm quotes from the concluding Royal Society article:

. . . a 4°C world would be facing enormous adaptation challenges in the agricultural sector, with large areas of cropland becoming unsuitable for cultivation, and declining agricultural yields. This world would also rapidly be losing its ecosystem services, owing to large losses in biodiversity, forests, coastal wetlands, mangroves and saltmarshes, and terrestrial carbon stores, supported by an acidified and potentially dysfunctional marine ecosystem. Drought and desertification would be widespread, with large numbers of people experiencing increased water stress, and others experiencing changes in seasonality of water supply. There would be a need to shift agricultural cropping to new areas, impinging on unmanaged ecosystems and decreasing their resilience; and large-scale adaptation to sea-level rise would be necessary. Human and natural systems would be subject to increasing levels of agricultural pests and diseases, and increases in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events.

In such a 4°C world, the limits for human adaptation are likely to be exceeded in many parts of the world, while the limits for adaptation for natural systems would largely be exceeded throughout the world. Hence, the ecosystem services upon which human livelihoods depend would not be preserved. Even though some studies have suggested that adaptation in some areas might still be feasible for human systems, such assessments have generally not taken into account lost ecosystem services.

Hey grandkids! Feeling good about the world we've passed on to you!

And it could be worse. Joe Romm explains that "warming of 7°F is certainly not the worst-case in the scientific literature" with scientists from MIT projecting warming of 10°F by the end of this century. (By 2009 we'd already experienced around 0.8°C of warming -- and 2010 is likely to break the record for the hottest year recorded).

Climate scientists could all be horribly (wonderfully?) wrong and, as the denialists would have us believe, participants in the most sophisticated fraud of all time, all in the name of securing research grants. Sen. Coburn believes that climate science is "malarkey." But it seems to me that climate scientists are likely to be rather more knowledgeable and trustworthy about climate science than fossil-fuel industry funded Republican senators (Tom Coburn: contributions received from fossil fuel industries since 1999, $386,309).

So if you care about your grandkids' welfare, by all means be concerned about the deficit, but be very, very, very concerned about the need to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions.

Personal Note: After 17 years with International Rivers, I'm leaving at the end of January to become Executive Director of Black Rock Solar, a non-profit based in San Francisco and Reno that installs solar panels while also doing clean energy advocacy, art and education. So there's a vacancy for an ED at the leading NGO working to stop nasty dams and save rivers around the world. If you're interested, read this.