Natural disasters are as old as our planet. From asteroid impacts that caused major species loss, to floods and plagues of biblical proportions, to modern day hurricanes and wildfires, they have affected both plant and animal life. Past events were viewed as “acts of God” – random occurrences, with no known cause.
Today we know better. Astronomers with increasingly accurate telescopes can track and predict the paths of asteroids. Plate tectonics tells us where and approximately how frequently, but not when earthquakes will occur. Weather forecasting is increasingly precise, allowing accurate estimates of storm tracks and precipitation amounts. Major storms and seasonal droughts are no longer totally random events; they can be predicted weeks and even months ahead.
There is one important prediction that was made over 100 years ago, based on the observation that carbon-dioxide (CO2) is a greenhouse gas: the earth will get warmer if we continue to burn coal. It was not taken very seriously at the time, the amount of warming, due to 19th century coal production, seemed insignificant and far into the future. But coal consumption increased, automobiles replaced horse drawn carriages adding oil as a generator of CO2. Coal was also used to generate gas for heating and cooking, but as coal reserves became depleted, natural gas took its place and CO° emissions grew even more.
The world is now paying the price for the emission of all that CO2 – literally thousands of millions of tons (gigatons) per year. This has raised the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere by over 60% since the beginning of the industrial revolution. As predicted, the earth has warmed; currently the global average temperature is 1.2 °C more than it was 150 years ago and is rising at a rate of 0.18 °C per decade. This may not seem much, but it has huge consequences. Glaciers all over the world are melting, as are the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets. The Arctic Ocean is now virtually free of ice every summer. Thermal expansion as the oceans warm, combined with the added volume of melted ice is raising sea levels. Warmer oceans also result in more frequent and more severe tropical storms. Higher evaporation rates and warmer air carry more moisture inland where temperate zones suffer also from abnormally severe floods. Conversely, away from the normal storm tracks, warmer, drier air is causing longer and more severe droughts, deserts are expanding towards the poles, plants are stressed and dying. As a result, wildfires, too, are more frequent and severe.
These changes in climate directly affect our food and water supplies. Crops failures due to both floods and droughts are increasing. Farmland is being lost to rising oceans and saltwater encroachment. Coral reefs are dying because of warmer water, as well as acidification caused by dissolved CO2. This in turn causes collapse of fisheries. Himalayan glaciers that once were reservoirs, replenished by winter snows, of fresh water for much of South East Asia are no longer reliable; likewise, the snow-packs feeding the watersheds of the Caucasus, Alps, Atlas, Rockies, Sierra Nevada and Andes mountain ranges.
All this damage costs money to combat, repair and ameliorate. In the US alone, billions of dollars are spent building seawalls, creating more reservoirs, preparing for and fighting wildfires, building levees and other infrastructure strengthening. Adapting to the loss of crop yield, for example by planting more acreage, costs a similar amount. The price tag for hurricane and wildfire damage, in excess of natural historical averages, is many tens of billions of dollars annually. Overall, the cost of extracting, refining, transporting and burning fossil fuels in business-as-usual is projected to be tens of trillion dollars by mid-century.
We can continue to pay more and more every year, or we can invest now and reap the future rewards. There are readily available solutions at hand. Electric power generated by solar cells and wind turbines do not emit CO2, and the “fuel” is free. Power can be distributed largely over the existing grids. The cost is solely in installation and maintenance. Overall, the cost of clean energy is already less than that generated from fossil fuels. It makes no economic sense to invest further in, and even subsidize, coal, oil and gas. There will, of course, be job losses in these legacy industries with potential disruption of workers lives, but there will be ample new opportunities for safer, healthier jobs in clean energy, retrofitting buildings for its efficient use, electric vehicle manufacture and many other areas. The funds for retraining and relocation, if necessary, can be supplied from redirected subsidies, the enormous savings in the cost of energy and reduction of damages.
So, pay now, or pay much more later. The choice is clear.
J. Campbell Scott, PhD. recently retired after a 45-year career as an educator and research scientist. He is currently a volunteer with The Climate Reality Project and a member of the speakers’ bureau in its Santa Clara County chapter.