Global Warming And You: Forget 2100 (We’ll All Be Dead By Then), Let’s Talk 2030 and 2050
“It’s alright, I’ve planned ahead. We’re just three miles from a primary target. A millisecond of brilliant light and we’re vaporized, much more fortunate than the millions who’ll wander sightless through the smoldering aftermath. We’ll be spared the horror of survival.” – Falken, old fatalist
“I’m only seventeen years old. I’m not ready to die yet.” – Jennifer, young optimist
The main thing people want to know about climate change is: what’s going to happen? This is a fair and eminently understandable question. The problem is that we won’t have an answer for at least a decade, and probably not until 2050.
The reason for the delay is simple: climate grinds slow. Even as each new year brings record breaking storms, floods, and wildfires, we are still only at the beginning of the global heatwave that will last the rest of our lives. How hot this heatwave gets and how long it lasts will depend on how quickly we cut carbon pollution to zero.
Because carbon takes a long time to settle, the faster that happens the better. If we stopped all pollution tomorrow the climate would keep warming for another thirty years anyway. Similarly, if we do nothing to stop pollution, the warming would accelerate only very gradually between now and mid-century (then it would take off like a rocket).
All we know for sure is that we’re already slated for twice the heat we have now, no matter what we do. That long lead time is what makes 2050 so important; it’s the soonest we can actually stop global warming and answer the question: what’s going to happen?
What we do between now and 2050 is the ballgame. If we reform our society and economy, then 2050 will see warming at or near its peak and the air beginning to cool down. If we do not reform our society and economy, if we let wealthy polluters continue to dump their garbage into the atmosphere free of charge, then 2050 will mark only the beginning of global warming and all the misery and death it brings.
Media outlets like to talk about 2100 because it’s a nice round number and allows them to get into theoretical but gory details of Mad Max outcomes where Florida is shriveled to nothing, major countries have collapsed, and millions of people die in heatwaves. Since it marks the finish line of our still young century, 2100 also seems like a bookend. But the heat we’ve trapped in the atmosphere is going to last for thousands of years.
If we end up in the bad place, by 2200 it will be even hotter than 2100, but that’s so far out that no one currently alive is going to be around to see it. The great-grandchildren of today’s infants might be there, but none of us will, so who cares?
The problem with 2100 is that most of the people alive today aren’t going to be there either. There are undoubtedly a few future centenarians among today’s pink cheeked high school students, but most of 2019’s kids aren’t going to be alive by then. Talking about the end of the century is good for speculative disaster porn, but bad for helping today’s adults understand what’s going to happen in our lifetimes.
In light of that, the primary deadlines this book is going to deal with are 2030 and 2050. Those years can seem abstract and far off as well, but that’s because we tend to think of the past as near and the future as far. So let’s start by situating ourselves relative to 2050.
From 2020, 2050 is as close as 1990. That’s not exactly yesterday, but it’s not forgotten history either. In 1990, Will Smith and Tom Cruise were stars, Madonna and Mariah Carey were topping charts, and Nintendo and Mario were already household names. In other words, 1990 is getting back there, but it’s not the ancient past. Kids who were in high school then are still only in their forties now.
Even nearer to hand is 2030, another date which looms large for climate and ourselves. Only ten years away, 2030 is as close as 2010, when Barack Obama was president, the deluge of comic book movies was well underway, and reigning pop stars like Beyoncé and Taylor Swift were already famous. This year’s boisterous second graders will be that year’s jaded high school seniors, and today’s high schoolers will be in their late twenties, pondering adulthood and discovering that hangovers are a real thing. So 2030 is really close and will be here before you know it.
From a climate perspective, both numbers are arbitrary. But they also mark important milestones. We have roughly the same amount of time until 2050 as has passed since James Hansen’s watershed testimony to Congress in 1988. And if we’re going to have any chance of stabilizing the climate within the lifetimes of anyone currently alive, we’ll know it by 2050.
The seas will still be rising and the weather will still be getting harsher, but if we’ve got emissions at zero or close to it, things should be basically okay. If, on the other hand, emissions are still significant and the world’s governments are entertaining harebrained ‘geo-engineering’ schemes in a last ditch attempt to stave off disaster, then things probably won’t be okay.
The 2030 deadline works the same way but with less certainty. If emissions are plummeting rapidly and we’ve begun to undertake the massive infrastructure improvements needed to keep most currently populated areas livable, the outlook from 2030 could be very rosy. If emissions aren’t plummeting and we’re kicking the can down the road on things like protecting New York and evacuating Miami, then things could be very bad indeed. Since it is so close and the changes needed are so huge, 2030 will probably be something of a mixed bag in terms of indications, but the overall trend toward either stabilization or disaster should be clear.
The great majority of people who read this book are still going to be alive in 2030 and 2050. Illness, cars, guns, and the like will take their toll, of course, but this is a book about what climate change is going to do within the lifetimes of people alive today; and that means you.
Location, Location, Location
“Half of you states are in the toilet and you’re not coming out! New York, you know what I’m talking about. California, kiss your smoggy butt goodbye!” – Duke Phillips, plutocrat and Presidential aspirant
As complex as climate change often seems, there are only two certainties about it, and they’re easy to remember:
- Rising oceans
- Wilder weather
Both are already affecting the world here in 2020, and both will be worse by 2030 and 2050. How much worse will depend on what we do in the meantime.
In a nice piece of symmetry, we also have only two tools with which to combat higher seas and more extreme weather (and they’re easy to remember as well):
- Pollution Cuts
- System Upgrades
Cutting pollution, often referred to as climate ‘mitigation’, means reducing carbon emissions and thereby limiting the total amount of warming. Upgrading systems, ‘adaptation’ in policy speak, means changing our civilization to better cope with the new, warmer world. This can mean simple adaptations, like driving less, all the way up to complex ones like completely overhauling the ways we grow food. The basic rule of climate change is that the more mitigation we do, the less adaptation we’ll need. The problem is that if we don’t cut pollution right now, no amount of upgraded systems will save us.
For example, the U.S. government’s official ‘intermediate’ emissions scenario predicts about six inches of sea level rise by 2030 and one foot by 2050.* That means cities like New Orleans and New York can be protected by sea walls and remain more or less as they are, including the restaurants, the tourist traps, and the underachieving NFL teams.
(*There is a ‘low’ scenario. But, for political reasons that will be explained later, it is an unscientific fiction included so that people can fool themselves into thinking climate isn’t as threatening as it actually is.)
If we whiff on mitigation and end up in the ‘high’ or ‘extreme’ official estimates, then we’ll get eight or nine inches of sea level rise by 2030 and two feet or more by 2050. That means large parts of coastal America would need to be abandoned no matter how many sea walls or other protections we construct. Huge chunks of New York, New Orleans, and other communities would go under regardless of any attempts we make to save them.
It is impossible to overstate the chaos that would cause, and not in some distant future. It’s happening in Florida right now. Some of the richest areas of greater Miami already routinely flood at what are called ‘king tides’. (A king tide happens twice per month when the Moon is lined up directly in front or behind the Earth.) Even at the lowest estimates of ocean rise, these regular floodings will get deeper and deeper until the well manicured lawns and gardens of Miami Beach are inevitably killed by salt water.
During a particularly high king tide in October of 2016, the City of Miami even released a map advising residents not to drive in designated areas, including most of the coast and the upscale downtown. That is the polite, civic minded way to say: no one should take out a thirty year mortgage anywhere near Biscayne Bay.* The Atlantic is going to foreclose a lot of those houses long before the final payment.
(*Sorry, Miami Association of Realtors, it’s true. Time to dust off that law degree and/or personal training certificate.)
The same mitigation-adaptation balance applies to wilder weather. If we don’t cut emissions rapidly, droughts become longer, storms become more violent, and heatwaves become hotter. Under those fugly scenarios that raise sea level two feet by 2050, the West could lose 20% of its rain and snow, which doesn’t sound so bad until you realize it means months and more without rain, followed by deluges that threaten massive floods.
Like Miami’s twice monthly storm drain uprisings, this is already happening. California underwent an historic water shortage in 2015 and 2016 because the inland mountains didn’t get their usual amount of snow. Then 2017 saw copious snowfall that promptly melted in above normal temperatures and nearly collapsed part of the Oroville Dam in February of 2017. Disaster was narrowly averted (albeit more through luck than design), but 180,000 people still had to be evacuated from the downriver area.
The Oroville Dam can be upgraded to cope with more water. There was even a proposal to do exactly that back in 2005. It would’ve cost a few million dollars but was rejected as unnecessary and too expensive, a mistake whose final bill is now at $1.1 billion ($1,100,000,000) and growing. (Whoopsie!) But as the atmosphere continues to warm, similarly unwanted precautions will need to be taken throughout the country.
America is riddled with places like these, already suffering from early onset climate disruption. There are beach towns in North Carolina that can’t bulldoze their sandbars fast enough to keep houses from falling into the ocean. There are villages in Alaska where the permafrost is melting and whole blocks have been swallowed by newly soggy ground. Arizona now routinely bakes to a crisp under summer heat that shatters local records.
The following table gives you a quick description of what each of the fifty states should expect from climate change over the next few years (plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, which should be states). As you browse the list, keep two things in mind.
First, climate vulnerability is wildly unequal. Florida is by far the state most immediately under threat from climate change, with Texas and Louisiana in a distant tie for second. After them but still far ahead of everywhere else comes the rest of the South and the hotter parts of the Southwest. On the other end of the scale, states that border Great Lakes of any kind are sitting pretty, with the interior Northeast and Pacific Northwest not too far behind.
Second, even the less dire areas are going to change noticeably. In general, dry climates will get drier, and wet climates will get wetter. And when rain does come, it’s more likely to come in buckets rather than gentle showers. Places that are already warm and dry will take this on the chin. But even the well situated Great Lakes area is gonna cook more in summer, get doused by heavier thunderstorms, and frequently see power lines turned to spaghetti by fiercer winds. Everywhere gets hit.
|Alabama‘s short coastline is under serious threat of both erosion and storm based flooding. Its intense summer heat is also going to get much worse, probably reaching dangerous levels several times per year by 2050. September is frequently gonna suuuuck, so football season will be less fun.||Alaska is going to become much warmer than it used to be, which is going to melt a lot of permafrost and cause all kinds of problems. Coastal areas are also going to be subject to much more frequent flooding.|
|Arizona is going to get even hotter, with long stretches of dangerous temperatures becoming routine in summer. Wildfires are also going to get a lot worse. The Grand Canyon, however, will remain majestic.||Arkansas is going to get hotter and suffer from more droughts, but the biggest local risk is from flooding on rivers, which are going to become a lot worse after intense rains.|
|California is so big that different regions have different worries, but more wildfires, more droughts, and more dangerous heatwaves are all on order. The computer, porn, and movie industries will all need to adapt.||Colorado‘s biggest threat is drought. The entire Front Range is already on the edge of water scarcity, and if the mountains don’t get enough precipitation, or if it melts as it falls instead of staying as snow, water shortages could become acute in dry years. Can’t be said enough: skiing will get worse.|
|Connecticut‘s coastline is relatively well protected from storms, but as sea level rises, coastal towns will inevitably deal with more flooding than they’ve ever experienced. Prep school kids will remain insufferable.||Delaware is a lot like Connecticut. It’s a small, Eastern state with a tax evasion problem that’s mostly worried about higher seas and a shrinking coastline. Too much erosion and people will have an even harder time finding it on a map.|
|Florida is – by far – the most climate vulnerable state. With its low elevation, warm climate, and extensive coastline, no part of the state is safe and every coastal city is in deep trouble if sea level rise isn’t arrested quickly, which it probably won’t be. Get out while you can.||Georgia is a lot like Alabama (much to the chagrin of both places). It’s gonna get hotter and its small coastal area is under immediate threat. Atlanta has already nearly run out of water twice, and conditions like those are expected to become much more common.|
|Hawaii is Hawaii. Lucky bastards.||Idaho is under the potato gun for both drought and wildfires. There will be years with historically low levels of rainfall when flames cover the map and smoke blankets the sky.|
|Illinois, like most Great Lakes states, is among the least vulnerable to climate change. Chicago will get more scorching summer heatwaves and bitter winter cold snaps, and the rivers will flood more often, but there aren’t any routine catastrophes on the way other than Bears home games.||Indiana is a lot like Illinois, just replace Chicago with Indianapolis and Bears with Colts.|
|Iowa needs rain to grow corn and maintain its self esteem, and hellacious droughts like the one in 2012 are going to become more frequent, possibly routinely putting big dents in yields. The rain that does come is likely to be heavy and concentrated, leading to repeated epic flooding.||Kansas is basically South Iowa.|
|Kentucky is gonna get hotter summers and more flooding along rivers, but the bourbon crops should mostly be okay for the next few years.||Louisiana is in serious contention to be runner up to Florida for Most Climate Screwed. Brutal heatwaves are in store, but the continuing disappearance of the entire coastal area is the bigger concern. New Orleans may or may not be salvageable, even without another Katrina.|
|Maine has a lot of short rivers, all of which are going to be at greater risk to flood their banks. Ocean warming is also going to make living off the sea an ever dicier proposition. Lobsters and cod don’t like warm water, and the Gulf of Maine is a pot ready to bubble.||Maryland‘s extensive coastline is going to erode and flood far more often. Whether or not the Chesapeake continues as a seafood basket is also an open question.|
|Massachusetts will remain difficult to spell and may see more flooding in both coastal and inland areas, but is mostly going to be okay in the short term.||Michigan will be fine. A few more towering thunderstorms and hotter summers, sure, but have you seen those lakes?|
|Minnesota is under some threat from drought, but, like most of the Upper Midwest, is pretty alright. They will happily tell you this in a very nice but subtly passive aggressive way.||Mississippi has the same problems as Alabama and Georgia, but lacks those states at least semi-competent governments.|
|Missouri will face increased flood risks from its many rivers but will otherwise be mostly okay. (Again: this is just until 2050. After that all bets are off.)||Montana has one big climate worry: drought. A few years of severe drought would do terrible things to the place, and that’s virtually guaranteed to happen at some point between now and 2050. Dry Sky Country just doesn’t have the same ring to it.|
|Nebraska, like its neighbors Iowa, Missouri and Kansas, is going to get hotter and have more dry spells that will in turn be punctuated by flood inducing storms. But overall it is under less threat than most.||Nevada has areas that will become more vulnerable to wildfires, but the big worry in the Gambling State is water. Las Vegas requires a lot of it, and if it becomes scarce, shoot, you can’t ask tourists not to take long showers, now can you? How else are they going to rinse the glitter off?|
|New Hampshire is under fewer threats than most from climate change. Perhaps the biggest danger here is that they will loudly and frequently attribute this to flinty, Yankee preparedness instead of pure luck.||New Jersey has a long coastline, basically all of which is vulnerable to higher tides and bigger storms.|
|New Mexico is a dry state that is going to get drier. Drought and wildfires will grow worse and possibly undermine the meth and turquoise harvests.||New York is divided in two on climate. Upstate is about as well off as anywhere in the country could hope to be. NYC and Long Island are under ever increasing threat from sea level rise and big ass hurricanes like Sandy.|
|North Carolina is in for a lot of coastal erosion. All those nice resort towns on the capes really need emissions to come down fast. Two feet by 2050 will be the end of them, though an unfortunate hurricane or two could do the job much sooner.||North Dakota is a lot like its neighbor Montana. Drought could pose significant problems, but sea level rise isn’t a concern in the middle of the continent.|
|Ohio, like most Great Lakes states, is in relatively good climate shape. Summers are going to get warmer, occasionally dangerously so, but the state’s aggressive inferiority complex towards its neighbors should be unaffected.||Oklahoma knows a thing or two about heat and drought. And while a return to the Dust Bowl isn’t likely just yet, conditions worse than anything since then are.|
|Oregon‘s biggest problem has always been reminding other states that it exists, but aside from the usual warmer temps and some extra fires, nothing terribly catastrophic is on tap.||Pennsylvania has enough rivers and valleys that intense rainfall can and will cause severe local flooding, but aside from occasional brutal heatwaves, it should be okay.|
|Puerto Rico already knows its climate fate. Hurricane Maria killed three thousand people and disintegrated the island’s power grid for months. Storms like that won’t come every year, but they might come every decade if emissions don’t fall.||Rhode Island (State Motto: “No, We’re Not Connecticut!”) is basically Connecticut when it comes to climate. Warmer temps, maybe some coastal flooding here and there, but no unavoidable catastrophes.|
|South Carolina is known for being hot and filled with irritable and improbably proud people. It will get hotter, and braggadocio cannot protect Charleston mansions from higher tides or prevent hurricanes from obliterating beach houses that never should have been built in the first place.||South Dakota – See: Dakota, North.|
|Tennessee, the South’s Hat, is going to get warmer and maybe see some floods in its many valleys but will otherwise be okay.||Texas is right there with Louisiana for second most vulnerable after Florida. There will be Texas sized heatwaves, Texas sized droughts, and Texas sized wildfires, plus the entire Gulf Coast will be subject to bigger and wetter hurricanes like Harvey. Yee-haw!|
|Utah is hot and dry. It will get hotter and drier.||Vermont is much like its buddy New Hampshire. It has few immediate climate threats and will probably find a way to take credit for this. Though in Vermont’s case it will take the form of liberal sanctimony rather than crusty declarations of self sufficiency.|
|Virginia has a lot of interior areas that aren’t going to do anything but get hotter. Norfolk and much of its coastal areas are nakedly vulnerable to sea level rise and will be in very deep trouble without immediate emissions reductions.||Washington state gets enough rain that inland flooding is a real concern, but most states would trade for that relatively minor problem in a microsecond.|
|Washington, D.C. was built on a swamp between two rivers in tidewater country. Both the Potomac and Anacostia are going to flood more often thanks to upriver storms. Plus the whole city is sinking as the Chesapeake rises. The Tidal Basin might get a little too real.||West Virginia is like the non-coastal parts of Virginia. Floods and storms will take their toll, but there’s no apocalypse on the horizon.|
|Wisconsin is Michigan Junior in a lot of ways, and, like the original Michigan, should mostly be okay. Keeping the beer and cheese cold is going to be more work (especially in summer).||Wyoming is home to approximately eight people, two of whom are U.S. Senators, and seven of whom will be fine. The last guy might want to worry about droughts (let’s hope it’s one of the Senators).|
That’s the lay of the land, the rough outline of our near term future with climate change. If we cut pollution quickly, we’ll get fair skies and lower seas. If we cut pollution slowly (or not at all), we’ll get higher seas and angry skies. The question is how hard we want to make it on ourselves.
To understand how we got to this point, where our actions in the next decade have such out-sized consequences, we need to start the story at the beginning. That means gazing millions of years backwards into the bizarre weirdness of the past and revisiting some grade school science.
Don’t get up! The next chapter takes boring chemistry and makes it fun with adolescent sex gags! Continue to Chapter 2 – The Wonderful World of Science!!
Endnotes for Chapter 1:
[1 – https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/12/]
[2 – https://twitter.com/CityofMiami/status/915941385345347585]
[3 – https://science2017.globalchange.gov/chapter/7/, Figure 7.1]
[4 – https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/02/13/officials-were-warned-the-oroville-dam-emergency-spillway-wasnt-safe-they-didnt-listen/]
[6 – Individual state data taken from http://statesatrisk.org, a project of Climate Central]