Let’s think about the effects of global warming

I enjoy speculating about the future, but I don’t take much interest in most of the future-talk I find on the web and TV.  Most of it has to do with the effects of climate change, which is okay because climate change is a really big deal, but it doesn’t address the really interesting consequences of our changing climate.

The main thing people talk about is all the suffering that will be caused by global warming.  At the risk of dwelling on the obvious, I think it’s worth remembering why we assume a change in the Earth’s climate would be a bad thing.  Let’s take what most consider to be a realistic to pessimistic scenario:  the average temperature of the Earth, call it <T>, is going to increase by about 5 degrees, and there’s nothing we can do about it.  Naively, this doesn’t sound so bad; I might actually like it to be 5 degrees warmer most days of the year where I live.  What’s more, it seems a bit odd that five degrees should make such a difference.  After all, the range of <T> under which humans can thrive can’t be that narrow, or else it would be a rather astounding piece of good luck that it happened to have just the right one now (plus we wouldn’t expect to find humans living comfortably at most altitudes and for many millenia during which <T> was different).  Of course, things aren’t that simple.  Human beings have gotten used to exactly this climate, and they’ve built their civilizations around it.  Our cities are concentrated near coast lines, so they have pretty high stakes in the water level being precisely where it is.  Our farmers plant different crops to suit different climates, and this ends up having profound effects on their cultures.  Every culture is built around assumptions about its environment.  That’s why, from a conservative point of view, climate change is bad.  It’s not that the current <T> is ideal in some absolute sense; it’s just that we’ve built up our civilizations around one assumed <T>, and the disruption of changing <T> would be very painful.  If the Earth had long been 5 degrees cooler, we would not want to warm it up 5 degrees to its actual temperature, for the same reason.

So let’s say <T> increases by 5 degrees in 2050 and then the atmosphere settles to a new equilibrium (just as a thought experiment).  Human organization finds itself out of alignment with the new climate:  cities are underwater, agricultural peoples find themselves living in deserts, etc.  Much suffering follows.  This is obvious, but ultimately not very interesting.  What is interesting is that soon thereafter, humanity will adapt itself to the new climate.  What sort of cultural, political, and religious effects will this adaptation have?  I’ve never seen this discussed.

Remember, climate change will not affect everyone equally.  Equatorial regions will become less hospitable, while more polar regions will become more so (except to peoples, like the Eskimo, who are specifically adapted to the cold, but in such a scenario these cultures would quickly die and be replaced by others better able to utilize the warmer weather).  This represents a real shift of wealth and power.  Who lives near the equator?  Who lives near the poles?  Glancing at a map, it looks like the ex-Christian civilization fares far better than the Muslim one.

Then there’s the fact of mass migration as people flee the equator.  Add to this the changes in dress and local crops for those who don’t leave .  Although they stay, climate change will make it as if their familiar environment had left them.  This mixing of peoples and rapid structural change will put strain on every local culture and will almost certainly benefit liberals everywhere.

Where we’re going culturally seems at least as interesting to talk about as how much discomfort we’ll have to go through before getting there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: