Those Least Responsible For Global Warming Will Pay The Highest Price For It, by Pete Dolack

Earth on Fire

Image by Cristian Ibarra Santillan via Flickr

by Pete Dolack
Writer, Dandelion Salad
Systemic Disorder
August 12, 2020

Is it already too late to stop global warming? That question is not asked with thoughts of throwing up hands in despair and giving up. Rather, that question must be asked in the context of mitigating future damage to whatever degree might yet be possible.

The context here is that the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere don’t magically disappear but will have effects that will persist for centuries. A ton saved today is a ton saved tomorrow.

There are the mass disruptions that humanity will almost certainly see from dramatic rises in sea levels and the disruptions to agricultural patterns and sea life. Then there is the human health impact. In what its authors say is the most detailed attempt yet undertaken to quantify what the future cost of global warming will be in terms of mortality, a new scientific paper predicts the future will see significant increases in deaths.

Sixteen researchers, collaborating on a National Bureau of Economic Research paper titled “Valuing the Global Mortality Consequences of Climate Change Accounting for Adaptation Costs and Benefits,” estimate that under “business as usual” — that is, Earth’s current trend of steadily increasing greenhouse gas emissions continues — there would be 85 extra deaths per 100,000 people annually by the end of the 21st century. To put that statistic in perspective, all the world’s cancers currently are responsible for 125 deaths per 100,000 people, according to World Health Organization data. Or to be put it another way, the 85 extra deaths represent a toll comparable to the global total of deaths from infectious diseases in 2018.

As would be expected, the increased deaths will be disproportionally suffered in the Global South. Although the financial cost of mitigation is predicted to be higher in the advanced capitalist countries than elsewhere, the easing of cold weather in winter months might actually cause death rates to decline in high-latitude, high-income locations. The authors put that possibility in stark terms with this comparison:

“The costs of climate change induced mortality risks are distributed unevenly around the world. Despite the gains from adaptation … there are large increases in mortality risk in the global south. For example, in Accra, Ghana, climate change is predicted to cause damages equivalent to approximately 160 additional deaths per 100,000 annually under [the business as usual scenario] in 2100. In contrast, there are gains in many impact regions in the global north, including in Oslo, Norway, where we predict that the equivalent of approximately 230 lives per 100,000 are saved annually. These changes are equal to an 18% increase in Accra’s annual mortality rate and a 28% decline in Oslo’s.”

And thus their conclusion that “Today’s poor bear a disproportionately high share of the global mortality risks of climate change, as current incomes (as well as current average temperatures) are strongly correlated with future climate change impacts.” In other words, those least responsible for global warming will pay the highest price for it.

To make these predictions, the authors gathered mortality statistics from 41 countries accounting for 55 percent of the world’s population, which they say enables them to have put together a more comprehensive analysis than previously attempted by earlier studies.

It won’t be pretty for our descendants

In a different scenario, under which greenhouse gases are stabilized in coming years, the expected number of excess deaths would be less, although still concentrated in the Global South. Under this scenario, the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent is presumed to stabilize at above 500 parts per million (ppm), and although that is far less than the “business as usual” scenario, it should be remembered that today’s carbon dioxide equivalent content is 407 ppm. And that is with the recent downward blip thanks to the pandemic. To use non-scientific terminology for what would happen in a 500 ppm world, our descendants will be screwed.

To have a hope of keeping the eventual total of global warming from the start of the Industrial Revolution to under 2 degrees Celsius, considered the outside limit before uncontrollable, catastrophic environmental disruptions are triggered, atmospheric greenhouse gases will have to be held to not much more than present-day levels and then brought down.

Without a drastic change, soon, in global output of greenhouse gases — and no such change is anywhere in sight — even the scenario of stabilizing greenhouse gases at 500 ppm seems out of reach. But even if we could suddenly convert to a carbon-neutral economy and cease adding net gains to atmospheric greenhouse gases, it may already be too late. More worrisome still, the effects of global warming are occurring faster than expected.

The Arctic is warming two to three times faster than Earth is overall. The resulting faster than expected loss of land ice contributes to a faster sea level rise and the loss of sea ice adds to global warming in a feedback loop. That’s because a dark ocean surface absorbs solar radiation up to 10 times more readily than the brighter sea ice surface. In a 2019 paper, “Radiative Heating of an Ice-Free Arctic Ocean,” published in Geophysical Research Letters, three oceanographers and atmospheric researchers calculate that if the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free, the loss of the ice’s reflective power radiating solar energy back into space would be the equivalent to adding one trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That would be roughly equal to adding 25 years of additional global COemissions.

Although an ice-free Arctic Ocean is still generally predicted to be well into the future, that future might arrive much sooner than expected. Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey, publishing this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, believe it is possible for the Arctic to be ice-free as soon as 2035, a possibility based on study of Arctic sea ice during the last interglacial period, when Arctic land summer temperatures were 4 to 5 degrees C. higher than the pre-industrial baseline. By one measure, current temperatures above 60 degrees north latitude have already risen about 3 degrees C. since 1900.

There’s plenty of bad news to go around

As it is, predictions of what the world will look like are increasingly dire. For example, a 2015 paper by nine scientists led by geologist Andrea Dutton at the University of Florida published in the journal Science found that when global temperatures in the past were between 1 and 2 degrees C. above the pre-industrial base temperature, sea levels rose six to nine meters. What that finding means is that humanity may have already committed itself to an eventual sea level rise of that magnitude.

Need more? A 2016 paper published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, authored by 19 climate scientists from the United States, France, Germany and China and led by James Hansen, predicts that the melted freshwater from melting glaciers will add to the other scenarios to create a feedback loop that could culminate in a sea level rise of “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

Still another paper, “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Effects and Consequences,” concludes that the mean global ocean temperature will increase by as much as 4 degrees C. by 2100. This 2016 paper states that Earth has tipped into a heat imbalance since 1970, and this excess heating has thus far been greatly ameliorated because the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the enhanced heating since the 1970s. This accumulated heat is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming. Dozens of climate scientists from around the world contributed peer-reviewed work to this report, research that in turn is based on more than 500 peer-reviews papers.

There is plenty more, but perhaps the foregoing is sufficient. And so what is the world doing? Very little. The December 2019 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 25) in Madrid concluded with the world’s governments saying the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” and “Decides to hold, at its twenty-sixth (2020) and twenty-seventh (2021) sessions, round tables among Parties and non-Party stakeholders on pre-2020 implementation and ambition.” The time for “noting” there may be a problem would seem to be well past. A year earlier, at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, the world’s governments agreed to a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. And at COP23 in Bonn, participants congratulated themselves for their willingness to talk and agreed they would talk some more.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut liked to say. We are fortunate that hot air from political leaders doesn’t add to global warming, however weighed down they are by the piles of corporate money that keep “solutions” at the level of talking rather than action. Our descendants are not likely to be amused.

From the archives:

Chris Hedges and Roger Hallam: Only Nonviolent Rebellion Can Now Stop Climate Breakdown and Social Collapse

Revolt or Burn, by Eric Schechter

The Democrats’ Disastrous, Militarist Climate Plan, by David Swanson

There Will Be No Social Or Racial Justice Worth Having On A Dead Planet, by Paul Street

Chris Hedges: The Prospect and Need For Ecosocialism

The Twisted Climate Equation of the Ruling Class by Rainer Shea

The Climate Apocalypse Is Accelerating–If We’re Going To Dodge Extinction, We’d Better Hurry by Eric Schechter

If You’re Not Busy Plotting Nonviolent Revolution for Peace and Climate, You’re Busy Dying by David Swanson

Cop25: Never Have So Many Governments Done So Little For So Many by Pete Dolack + Chris Hedges: Sustained Civil Disobedience Necessary To Respond To The Climate Crisis

21 thoughts on “Those Least Responsible For Global Warming Will Pay The Highest Price For It, by Pete Dolack

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  18. Sorry, but I think it’s much worse than that. I wouldn’t worry about the injustice of killing the poor — the rest of us will die soon after.

    The article seems to blame global warming chiefly on greenhouse gas EMISSIONS. I would agree that emissions triggered the warming, but they are no longer its sole cause. The article hardly mentions feedback loops, and mentions tipping points not at all. Feedback loops will continue even if we somehow completely stop our emissions. The Arctic is already gradually becoming ice-free, and thus gradually reducing its reflection of sunlight into space; don’t think of that as an all-at-once event happening sometime in the future (as the article seems to suggest). And an immense amount of methane is frozen under the Arctic — it has begun leaking out, and will leak out faster and faster as the Arctic warms up. The smoke and soot from forest fires all over the world is traveling to many places, including ice sheets, which thus melt faster.

    I’m not worried about sea level rise by the year 2100. I’m worried about worldwide famine in 2030, and extinction of our species by 2040.

    And although climatologists and climate activists never mention it, these problems CANNOT be addressed under capitalism. Under capitalism, we are ruled by the rich. And although they will die shortly after the rest of us, they are unable to concern themselves about that. This is because the capitalists are all competing against each other for short-term profit. Any capitalist who concerns himself with anything else will quickly fall behind his rivals and will lose his position in the ruling class.

    Thus, it is a waste of time for scientists to petition governments. (The article at least mentions the fact that governments are doing nothing.) What we need to do is spread the truth to the masses, and explain to them the need for a global ecosocialist revolution. And quick.

    • I’ve written more than two dozen articles on global warming in the past eight years, repeatedly making the point that global warming can’t be solved under capitalism. And you are entirely correct that feedback loops add to greenhouse gas emissions, another point I’ve made repeatedly. I’d add the de-forestation of the Amazon as another major contributor.

      We should be loudly sounding the alarms as you are doing. Nonetheless, claiming that humanity will be extinct in 20 years is silly and counter-productive. What is happening and what will happen is plenty scary enough; there is no need to exaggerate. Humanity, sea life, land animals, plant biology, agriculture, the environment as a whole are going to be undergoing severe stress, and it is our duty to explicate that as best we can and to make the case for what must be done, including putting an end to delusions that “green capitalism” will save us.

      If you care to read some of what I’ve wrote discussing some of the issues you believe were not sufficiently addressed in the above article, you may be interested in this representative one:

      • I’ll take a look at what you’ve written. But I don’t think there’s anything “silly” about my predicting human extinction by 2040. Perhaps I should have mentioned this: Feedback loops cause EXPONENTIAL acceleration. [ p'(t) = kp(t) ==> p(t) = p(0)exp(kt). ] Most people don’t understand what that means; in our society the word “exponential” has been misused so much that perhaps its meaning has been changed by sheer force of popular usage; people seem to think it merely means “big.” But I taught calculus dozens of times, and it’s right there in second-semester calculus. A process that is growing exponentially starts off so small and slow that it’s easy to overlook or deny, unless you have special measuring instruments and know where to look. And maybe you get used to the idea that its growth is slow. After all, most processes in our everyday lives are “linear” — i.e., their graphs are approximately straight lines; next year’s change is about the same size as last year’s change. But the exponential process slowly gets bigger, and after a while it becomes large enough to be visible to the unaided eye. (I’d say Superhurricane Sandy was visible in 2012 to anyone who didn’t have their eyes tightly shut.) And the bigger an exponential process gets, THE FASTER IT GROWS. A short time after it becomes visible, it is enormous, and growing explosively. If the temperature continued rising exponentially, after a while Earth would be the hottest object in the universe. Of course, that’s absurd; exponential growth is only a good model until it isn’t. It will cease to be a good model when the causes of feedback cease — when all the phytoplankton and forests and ice are gone and all the Arctic methane has been released. But by then I think all the vertebrates will be gone too.

        • I am quite familiar with the concept of exponential growth, versus linear growth. It’s just that upward slope is not going to cause Earth to become uninhabitable in 20 years.

          During the past 100 millions there were two periods when the Earth was far warmer than today, perhaps a planetary average 15 degrees C. hotter than today. Life obviously did not end and Earth did not become uninhabitable, although undoubtedly there were mass die-offs of species. If global warming were to become completely out of control and raise the global average temperature by 10 degrees C., that would be catastrophic. Certainly there would be regions, including the U.S. Southwest, that would have to be abandoned. The carrying capacity of Earth would drastically decline and the population of humanity would have to fall by billions.

          Even in such a dire scenario, humans would not become extinct, and such a scenario, even with exponential cascading effects, is far into the future — certainly far more than 20 years. It is more likely that feedback reinforcements would halt the rise in temperature before such an increase could happen, although the disastrous rise in sea levels from even, say, a 4 degree rise would persist for centuries, itself a source of huge displacement.

          If we tell people humanity will be extinct in 20 years, we won’t be taken seriously, and we need to be taken seriously if there is any hope to ameliorate the causes of global warming to the extent that may be possible. Earth is not going to become Venus in the foreseeable future.

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