Tyee Books

Anthropocene Now! Two Projections of Global Warming

Two tough yet optimistic looks at our world, 35 and 100,000 years from today.

By Crawford Kilian 1 Oct 2013 | TheTyee.ca

Crawford Kilian is a contributing editor of The Tyee.

The recent release of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report has revived the tedious controversy between scientists and denialists. But these two books ignore the self-styled "skeptics"; instead they look hard at the immediate and long-term implications of global warming.

Laurence Smith, a UCLA geography professor, has spent years studying the present and future North -- not just the Arctic, but the whole area north of the 45th parallel. "My specialty," he tells us, "was the geophysical impacts of climate change." But after a 2006 visit to Fort McMurray in Alberta, Smith's focus shifted to the economic, environmental, and demographic consequences of a warming world.

His chief interest is in the NORCs -- the Northern Rim countries facing the Arctic Ocean. For good and ill, these countries will feel the effects of warming more than the rest of the world. And, posits Smith, climate change will be only one of four major forces they deal with: the others will be demography, demand for natural resources, and globalization.

In working out his mid-21st century scenarios, Smith uses four ground rules: no "silver bullets" like cheap nuclear fusion; no World War III; no show-stoppers like a protracted depression or a pandemic; and reliance on "good enough" computer models. Within those rules, he works conservatively, so his projections to mid-century are at least plausible if not persuasive.

His demographic analysis is thought-provoking. The NORCs, he points out, are mostly advanced industrial nations with relatively small, aging populations in huge national areas. They also tend to have aboriginals living in precisely the least-populated northern regions: Siberia, northern Finland and the Scandinavian countries, plus Canada and the United States.

Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has been in a demographic free fall, with deaths exceeding births -- and especially in Siberia, where only about six million now live. While Finland and the Scandinavian countries welcome immigrants, they can't absorb many. But Canada and the U.S. continue to attract immigrants in large numbers.

Needed: Arctic workers

That's important because climate change means a huge region is now opening to resource development, and that will require countless new workers for Siberia's gas fields, Canada's tar sands and diamonds, and Scandinavia's mines and forests (not to mention high technology).

Smith is optimistic that some aboriginal groups, like the Sami in Finland and our own First Nations and Inuit, will become key players in resource development. But he is also willing to consider that Russia will simply sell Siberia to the Chinese as Alaska was sold to the U.S.

He also argues that we will have no choice but to go on burning fossil fuels, even as they warm the world. So the oil and gas under the Arctic Ocean will be worth exploiting.

Smith is very aware, however, that warming could actually make many of the north's resources simply inaccessible. As permafrost melts, land transportation becomes impossible while air transportation remains far too expensive. He points out that some of our diamond mines are economically feasible only if they can be supplied by ice roads during the winter. Such roads now survive for shorter and shorter periods.

So an irony of global warming could be the re-wilding of much of the north as permafrost melts into mud, lakes, and mosquitoes.

Exporting water in food

Smith is in general optimistic about the effect of climate change on the NORCs. He's aware of the impending water shortage in many parts of the world, but he notes that water disputes rarely if ever lead to war. And he points out that countries that swear never to export their water are happy to do so if the water is in the form of grain or livestock. Mexico, coping with a long drought, imports a lot of American water as corn and other grains that it doesn't have the water to grow for itself. We do the same thing with Prairie wheat and Okanagan fruit, and we're likely to do a lot more of it.

All told, Smith seems to feel that the NORCs will do pretty well in the next half-century. But global warming won't stop in 2050. Curt Stager, a palaeoclimatologist, has a much longer perspective. He calls our present era the "Anthropocene," the period when humans affect the entire planet.

Based on what he's learned about earlier ice ages and interglacials, he confidently predicts that no matter how bad our current warming may get, the planet will eventually return to a 20th century climate... in 100,000 years or so.

Like Smith, he considers various scenarios, from moderate heat increases to extreme ones. In a moderate increase, he argues, "thermal maximum," with global temperatures two to four degrees Celsius higher than today's, will arrive no earlier than the 23rd century -- and maybe the 27th.

Sea levels would rise by several feet per century; Greenland would lose about half its ice, and the West Antarctic ice sheet would be greatly reduced as well. Carbon dioxide would remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years, keeping temperatures high long after the thermal maximum.

A super greenhouse?

Or we could see a "super greenhouse," with CO2 levels rising as high as 2,000 parts per million. At that level, the oceans would be acidic enough to destroy shellfish and corals. At the thermal maximum, maybe as soon as 2500 AD, global mean temperatures could be at least five to nine degrees higher -- with northern latitudes warming twice as much.

It will take until 100,000 AD to return to today's CO2 levels, "and full recovery in this extreme scenario takes at least 400,000 to 500,000 years," Stager says. "Believe it or not, this sketch of an extreme hothouse future is actually conservative." He cites a study suggesting that silicates will take up to a million years to absorb even a "moderate" 1,000-gigaton increase in CO2.

Stager doesn't abandon all hope: "If asteroids or other truly serious threats aren't likely to destroy the human race within the next 100,000 years, then the greenhouse effect certainly isn't going to either." He is not so optimistic about many other species.

He also argues that while the tropics will get hotter, they won't see the kind of tipping points like the disappearance of Arctic ice; people will acclimatize. The real question will be the temperature-driven shift of dry and rainy belts north and south of the equator.

Both books give us a useful perspective on what we've gotten ourselves into, and on our own responsibility for this mess. Neither Smith nor Stager foresees the end of the world, but we will determine the nature of that world for countless generations of our own descendants -- even after they have utterly forgotten who made that world.

"For better or for worse," says Stager, "we are both the products and the creators of this remarkable new Age of Humans, and we will be the ones to decide the direction it takes from here on into the deep future. Welcome, everyone, to the Anthropocene."  [Tyee]

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