The winners and losers of climate change

One of the most tragic “PR mistakes” of the past several decades was to choose to call climate change “global warming“. Global warming was easy to dismiss; in colder countries, you almost welcomed any such notion and in warmer countries a single cooler-than-normal year was enough to discredit the whole concept in the minds of all but the scientists for a number of years. Now, after losing some decades of time, the discussion is more appropriate and centres on the real impacts – namely the emergence of more frequent and more severe weather extremes of all kinds.

The tragic part is that I believe it is too late; catastrophic climate change is now the track we’re on, and one which there is little hope of deviating from (hence this post).

However, as with any shift of system states, there will be winners and losers – at least in relative terms. For unsurprisingly personal reasons, I care more about the fate of three places than others; Australia, Finland and USA. You may selfishly, like me, want to think what place would have the best long-term potential (acknowledging fully well that climate is just one part of the whole). Your options may cover the globe, or they may cover one country. You may only care about the macro-level impacts, not so much your personal choices. You may want to invest in the winners and reap the benefits. Regardless, for any number of reasons, it’d be very useful to know which countries will end up “winning” in climate change – and up until recently, that seemed like a simple enough task.

Back when people thought only about the warming aspect and not so much the extreme weather driven by the warming, it was relatively easy to conclude that cold countries like Canada and Finland would be winners – they could soon grow stuff like corn in vast quantities and other crops previously unthinkable; something like outlined in this, one possible depiction of the world +4C warmer. In this scenario, clearly the countries up north are winners – as well as Tasmania and New Zealand down south. Other than that, pretty much everyone else loses. Some projections called (and call) for Sydney to become uninhabitable by 2050.

But then the Arctic happened. Turns out that the Arctic sea ice is melting far, far faster than anyone dared predict just a few years ago. Summer ice in the Arctic is now going to be completely gone in just a few years. None of the climate models predicted anything like that, which tells me they, in technical terms, suck at predicting feedback loops. The Arctic has hit its tipping point, and it’s just one of many the climate is loaded with; there is little reason to believe the models would predict them any better than the Arctic sea ice.

And those – the Arctic event itself and the realization the predictive models are useless – made the whole equation much more difficult. As the models fail, it’s uncharted territory to even the scientists – and trust me, they dislike nothing more than not having a clue on what’s going to happen next. It’s already becoming evident that the disappearing Arctic sea ice causes significant modifications to the jet-stream configuration; in short, it causes weather patterns to get more “stuck” for weeks or months on end – and they can get stuck at either end of the spectrum. Unprecedented droughts – or floods -, prolonged cold spells – or heat waves that refuse to die and give rise to massive wildfires; sound familiar to anyone? Expect more of where that came from. [See e.g. this].

As the weather patterns change and become ironically both more extreme and more stable at the same time, it’s suddenly not so easy to call places like Finland a “winner” in climate change. For one, this could mean that both the winters AND summers end up sucking in Finland (above-freezing, wet winters with no snow, paired with cold summers) if you get a bad hand in the jet-stream poker.

On the other hand, things aren’t great the other way around either. If you end up having a long, dry summer in Finland the people may like it – until it turns out that the forests there are not equipped to cope with that kind of extremes and either just die out of water stress or burn. Here in Australia, bushfires are a fact of life and considered more or less a normal part of a forest life – the trees often recover remarkably quickly. In Finland, if your forest burns, it’s dead. You start from scratch. If it burns every 20 years, you will never have a forest.

And then you add the uncertainty of the Gulf Stream and its potential slowdown and you really don’t know what’s going to happen. Or all the other climate tipping points I alluded to, covered well in this book.

And that brings us to the core of the problem; while places like New Zealand & Tasmania may be relatively safe bets as habitable places in the long run, overall the changes are coming too fast and are too unpredictable to be able to pick winners and losers – both anymore and possibly yet, until the models can catch up to reality (if they ever will).

The lesson? The lesson is to do what you can to make wherever you happen to live more resilient. You’re going to need it. Picking winners and losers is, aside from a few obvious bad choices, suddenly more like Russian roulette than a matter of analysis.

In the long term – and I’m talking ten generations down the road-long-term, if we make it that far – everyone will be losers. Melt the Antarctica ice sheets, raise the sea levels by a cool 200m and you can kiss the majority of the 7B population goodbye. After all, a mere 200 years ago there were approximately one billion humans; I have yet to hear a compelling argument why we couldn’t return to those levels.

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5 Responses to The winners and losers of climate change

  1. Jukka Aakula says:

    Thanks. I pretty much agree.

    Interesting book by a leading conservative intellectual in UK on climate change:
    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0807085774/ref=as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=390957&creativeASIN=0807085774&linkCode=as2&tag=kansankokonai-20

    I think it is very positive Scruton disagrees with conservatives in US. Especially when the writing of the book happened during a one year visit at a neocon institute in UK.

  2. Jukka Aakula says:

    Sorry “at a neocon institute in US.”

  3. sim says:

    Did you notice that one link in the article was to my review of the said book? 🙂 Yes, an interesting book – and quite scary in that there are so many of the said tipping points, and we hardly know anything where the points of no return are.

  4. Jukka Aakula says:

    Maybe I am just tired. I do not understand what you mean.

  5. sim says:

    Jukka, I was just saying that that book you recommended – With Speed and Violence – is one I’ve already read and reviewed last year. A good book, yes.

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