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Welcome to the Climate Apocalypse

Welcome to the Climate Apocalypse

If we don’t stop burning carbon the polar bears will die. Or glaciers will disappear. Something will happen to the birds. Something sad. Miami is going to flood someday. New York will become Venice and Venice will become Atlantis. 

These far off threats of climate cataclysm have become so familiar we hardly hear them. That’s changing. We’re going to miss the era when climate change was a vague, distant threat rather than a day to day reality. It looks like the only thing climate scientists got wrong was the promise that this would be my grand-childrens’ problem. 

Since late last century scientists have been pressing policymakers to contain global heating beneath a 1.5C target. Climate researchers had reached a consensus that 1.5C was a threshold beneath which civilization could persist in a more or less continuous form. There would be losses. By limiting warming beneath 1.5C, scientists hoped we might lose only half of the world’s glaciers. Sea levels might rise by only a couple of additional feet by 2100, small enough to provide time to protect many low-lying areas. At that level, some portion of the Arctic ice sheet might survive. In short, by containing global temperature rise beneath 1.5C through 2050, we might not see widespread ecological catastrophe of a kind that even your dipshit Uncle Larry would notice.

That hope didn’t pan out. Global warming has accelerated in recent years, right in line with Al Gore’s famous hockey stick graph. We missed our chance to limit warming to 1.5C. What comes next is not pleasant. 

Our world spent 60% of 2023 above the 1.5C threshold, a significant jump in heating from 2022. This year has started with heat beyond anyone’s expectations. Here it is on a chart:

Conditions have been particularly dire in the oceans. Over the past year, every single day has been the hottest day on record for our oceans, by a wide margin. Take a look at this jaw-dropping graph of ocean temperatures from the BBC.

We live in the world Al Gore warned us about. There’s no going back to the planet our grandparents enjoyed. Ever. Everything we do now to reduce carbon emissions aims to leave as much of the earth as possible suitable for human life.

Until the past year or so, our physical, observable experience of climate change has been limited. It’s been a little hotter than usual. Storms have been stronger. But that’s about it. We still see the same foods at the grocery store. We still travel to the same places. Relatively few people have died. Visible impacts have been significant only in places remote from the core of civilization, like tropical rainforests, Arctic communities and glaciers. Over the past two years that has changed. Global warming is accelerating – a lot

Humans don’t experience climate. We experience weather. Our bodies don’t warn us that the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is above normal. We notice that it’s hot. We notice it’s raining or it’s dry. Climate change is starting to impact weather in our time in ways we can perceive. 

Over the past couple of years, temperatures have soared. Austin, Texas endured 69 consecutive days of triple digit temperatures in 2023. Memorial Day reached 98 degrees, with a heat index over 110. Miami experienced a frightening May heatwave, with heat indices topping 110 degrees. To the south, Mexico is recording its hottest temperatures ever. Dozens of deaths have been attributed to the country’s worst heatwave and the summer hasn’t properly started. All of this is cranking up temperatures in the great swirling bathtub we call the Gulf of Mexico. 

This sentence is becoming tiresomely repetitive: the Gulf of Mexico is experiencing a never before seen wave of warming that smashes previous trends. Check our Gulf water temps in May 2024.

High Gulf temperatures usually produce an active hurricane season, but the coast isn’t waiting. Houston has endured a series of apocalyptic storms across May. The city experienced wind damage on 23 of May’s 31 days. Frequent power outages meant that the sweltering gaps between rain produced miserable, even life-threatening heat with few options for relief.

The age when climate change was a distant, uncertain threat has been replaced by a tree through your bedroom window. It’s extremely hot. Now. Your weather, wherever you are, is now being influenced by climate change in ways that are mostly catastrophic. 

A European heatwave in 2022 marked the first in what will be a series of mass death events from climate change, killing an estimated 70,000. However, it’s probably not the climate related deaths that will define this era as much as the climate related changes to our lives. Humans are endlessly adaptable. We’ll find ways for most of us to survive most of the change that’s coming, but our lives and our world will be unfamiliar.  

In a few years, grandparents will tell their grandkids that people used to ski in Wisconsin and Michigan. The kids will respond with, “what’s skiing?” Coffee and chocolate may be the first food products to be transformed by warming. Both depend on unique climate conditions that are disappearing. Both plants need many years to get established. We could see serious supply disruptions in coffee as soon as next season as this year’s Central American and Southeast Asian heat waves have completely destroyed production in many areas.

Insurers are on the front line of climate change. Choices by insurers are delivering the first round of major lifestyle adjustments from warming. Politicians can lie their way past climate related impacts, but insurers have to write checks. They’ve made up their minds, rendering large swaths of formerly attractive real estate unmarketable.

Floridians are being forced to move away from vulnerable areas as insurers balk at the cost of repeated, climate-related disasters. Californians who live in the areas most vulnerable to wildfires and mudslides are facing the same fate. Louisiana’s insurance market has been gutted in the past few years as the state reels from a series of climate induced disasters. 

States are stepping in to cushion the blow, but if insurers have given up on your house, you probably should too. State-level stopgap measures have been hastily constructed and under-funded, leaving massive holes in coverage. Homeowners who defy the inevitable will likely find themselves ruined in coming disasters as their insurance policies either fail to cover key elements or lack funding.

As hot days get hotter, storms get more intense, and winters get weird. We’re going to lean more and more on infrastructure to stay alive. As Phoenix adjusts to nighttime temperatures in the nineties, people will stay indoors more, dependent on air conditioning for survival. Those kinds of adaptations will work well, until they fail spectacularly. 

A tipping point will be reached where these countermeasures fail, either because of the load on utilities, impact from storms, or the heat just overwhelms ACs. When that happens in Phoenix, a study has estimated that about 12,000 people would die in a few days. Perhaps more importantly, almost a million people would need hospitalization and not be able to get it, leading in many cases to lifelong impacts from heatstroke. By the time we see that first major heat disaster, it will be too late to avoid the next ones. In fact, the next one might be expected to follow in just weeks. Followed by another, and another.

By that point we will also likely have seen our first round of synchronized crop failures. Farmers are in the weather business. Every year they make guesses about what to expect from the weather and plant accordingly. A certain percentage of them find themselves on the wrong side of a wet season or a drought every year, but the system works because those bets are spread across the globe. The time will come any day now when local arbitrage fails globally for a particular crop. Losing chocolate will be sad. Losing a year of corn or soybeans is going to change how we live, and who lives.

There is some good news. Our accelerating switch toward renewable energy and electric transport is yielding rewards. Last year the US produced roughly the same volume of carbon emissions per capita that we did in 1909. US carbon emissions peaked a few years ago and have entered a period of steep decline.

California now produces so much solar energy that it often goes unused. New battery storage facilities are coming online to store the excess while the state rolls back homeowner solar incentives that are no longer needed. 

It appears that China’s carbon emissions may have peaked last year. Free from the Republican climate denial that burdens the US, the Chinese have embarked on a frenzied mission to dominate a post-carbon world. They already dominate wind and solar production, now they’re poised to produce the first affordable mass market electric vehicles. The carbon age is coming to an end. Unfortunately, this end is coming too late to avoid irreversible and catastrophic climate damage. 

If humans pull off a stunning coup, for example, reducing carbon emissions by 90% over the next decade, overall levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to climb for some time, perhaps decades. And reductions in atmospheric carbon levels necessary for a return to pre-industrial climate might take additional decades. Maybe centuries. Maybe millenia. Frankly, we don’t know yet. 

Getting to zero emissions will just be the beginning of this campaign. There’s no relief coming soon. Replacing carbon based fuels will have to be followed by a determined campaign to remove carbon from the atmosphere, otherwise we risk warming on a scale we’d rather not discuss in detail. 

What am I supposed to do with this information? Supporting climate-friendly politics is important and it’s helpful to embrace a lifestyle that reduces one’s personal carbon impact. But this is fundamentally a collective problem. Nothing you or I do alone, on our own initiative, is going to turn down our planet’s thermostat. At this point, we have to start thinking about how our families are going to weather this storm.

The most important personal responses to climate change involve mitigating the impact on ourselves and our communities. If you live in a low-lying, hot coastal area like Miami, New Orleans or Houston, it would be smart to find a way to leave. Build all the flood control you like, Houston will not be liveable at 115 degrees. At this pace, Houston’s first 115 degree day could arrive any day. The next one will be close behind. Then we’ll be debating whether the city will ever see 120. And then it will happen. Imagine what it will be like to try to sell your house and move your kids then. 

Low lying coastal cities farther north like New York will need massive public works to protect them from rising seas. Maybe don’t buy that beach house, unless you can afford to watch it float away.  

Look for ways to gain more independence from carbon fuels. If you can afford solar power at home, make the switch. Explore ways to get a hybrid or electric vehicle. Make these moves not solely from an altruistic desire to help, but because these technologies are cheaper and more resilient than carbon based energy. That’s going to matter a lot.

It’s been 35 years since James Hansen showed up to Congress to warn about climate change. We had plenty of time, plenty of money and plenty of technology to do what was necessary to prevent this disaster. Our opportunity to prevent the permanent transformation of our planet has faded. It’s time to start thinking about how this looming disaster will impact us personally, and how best to survive a warming planet.

12 Comments

  1. While Project 2025 is an absolute horror show, one of its worst aspects (which isn’t getting anywhere near the amount of bad press it deserves) is the proposal to gut funding for NOAA. Conservative thinking is firmly in death cult territory- let’s hamper the ability to study and monitor hurricanes in a year when the oceans have record amounts of hurricane fuel, and more people than ever live in vulnerable areas. That will make America so great.

  2. A couple of technical points.

    This statement is incorrect.
    “Last year the US produced roughly the same volume of carbon emissions that we did in 1909.”

    If you look at that graph, you’ll notice it’s labelled *per capita*. So the US’s per capita carbon emissions have gone back to the early 20th century, but there’s a lot more of us. It’s still pretty good progress, just not quite as good as your statement made it.

    The famous “hockey stick” graph is Michael Mann’s. Al Gore probably used it though, and he’s more well known, so no big deal.

  3. I studied climate change in 1998 in a 101-level Geology course at a decent state college. We specifically went through the multiple reasons why climate change deniers used to excuse humans digging up the earth and setting it on fire for profit. Each and every excuse was studied and shown to be wrong based on science. 26 years ago.

    Two years later, a very serious Vice President ran for President and made climate change a part of his platform. He lost, because George W. Bush was a dry drunk a lot of alcoholics wanted to get drink with, or whatever. Whatever anyone says, 2000 and the 2000 election was the pivot point that has led to almost everything since.

    I’m not going to give people shit for not voting Gore in 2000 even though he was the obvious best choice for anyone who wasn’t fucking insane. That said, I will just briefly say that if you didn’t vote for Gore, you sure did fuck up way back then. Just saying.

    As you say Chris, humans don’t experience climate as much as weather, and I don’t think humans really had a chance of preventing man-made climate change, all we really had was an opportunity to mitigate it. And we failed.

    There was too much profit to be made by the usual suspects, and of course, Conservatism had already decided that because libtards “believed” in climate change, they were opposed to any constraints on digging up more of the earth and setting it on fire, so the richest people in the solar system could have a little extra money sitting in their bank accounts.

    Unlike the majority/consensus, I don’t see humanity mitigating climate catastrophes, and instead I can point to dozens of other coming crises that are going to cause the global collapse of human society as we know it. I am not predicting it within a year or 5 years or 20 years, but 100 years from now, humanity will not be anywhere near 8 billion people, and it won’t have excess wealth the way it does now. Taking for granted that your gas, electric, and clean running water today will seem absolutely fucking absurd to the people still alive 100 years from now, which won’t include me even though I’m still “young”.

    There is a finite amount of resources that are economically viable to be mined, refined, and used, and we’ve burned well past the point of billions of people getting to live like Americans have for the past 80 years. That ship sailed, sank, and isn’t even going to be a useful habitat for water life as we’re cooking the oceans while turning it acidic from CO2 and filling it with man-made poisons.

    Imagine if we had the foresight to dig up resources but instead of allowing money hoarders from demanding those resources be burned and turned into profit now, we still had those resources available for later people. Just kidding, we can’t imagine that, because that’s communism or socialism or something that isn’t capitalism, and it’s just inherently evil. I know this because even now most people will bark-like-a-seal that capitalism isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the alternatives…even though the people barking that nonsense couldn’t even being to describe what those alternatives actually are…which is a feature and not a bug of capitalism.

    This isn’t a doomsday post, it’s an objective observation of the world we currently live in.

    Sure, the US may have peaked with its CO2 production, but there are billions of people who are going to ask why they can’t live like Americans, and imagine having the gall to tell them that it’d be bad for the planet. Just look at Brazil burning its rainforest down now. Sure, it’s bad, but who the hell are we to tell them that they have to continue living as a third world country so that we can continue living like a first world country? That they have to remain impoverished so that we can use their trees to hoover up CO2. It ain’t going to happen unless you’re willing to kill those people to protect those trees…and that’s even worse than burning down the trees.

    That’s the main problem. Even with gains in clean energy, there are billions of people who by merely existing are going to cause CO2 production to increase for the foreseeable future. A reduction of 90% in a decade is a dream, and even that isn’t even remotely useful in avoiding societal collapse.

    Allowing Republicans here and conservatives in other countries to continue passing policies that will make societal collapse more abrupt and more deadly is the largest problem living and future living people have. Unfortunately, as you state, people are real fucking stupid when it comes to long-term investments that they may not gain immediate benefits from. It’s why global societal collapse isn’t an if, but a when.

    And again, this isn’t a doomsday post. Most of the people reading this are going to live semi-regular lives, It’s the people being born today who are truly going to see shit hit the fan.

    Reduce, reuse, recycle, sure. I’m continually doing my part by not creating more human beings that need to dig up the earth and burn it to survive and make an oligarch more money. Buy a hybrid or electric car if you can afford it. Plant some trees, live sustainably, etc. But there’s no escaping the societal collapse that is all but certain.

    One last thing, for anyone actually reading this far and wondering just how full of shit I and others like me are, give this wiki a quick read.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Limits_to_Growth

    That’s from 1971. 54 years ago.

    None of this was destined. Instead, it is a direct result of the inherent delusions of conservatism.

    To paraphrase conservatives of a few years ago, “we built it”. We’ve turned the entire earth into a garbage and pollution machine, and that machine is finely tuned and adequately operated by engineers who know how to maximize garbage and pollution. The receipt for all that garbage and pollution is also known as GDP…the main parameter human societies have as a measurement of success. We are killing the habitat intentionally so that a few people now can live a very high life now at the expense of future people.

    Go listen to a podcast called “Breaking Down Collapse” for the other 40 crises currently coming down the barrel and heading straight for global society if you’d like to be ahead of the curve. Or, ignore it and go with the flow. It’s worked so far, right?

    1. Well I made the mistake of listening to the first couple episodes of that podcast. Jesus.

      I totally get Cypher now. I reaaally wish I would have taken the blue pill. This is… a lot to contend with.

      I’m still working though my thoughts but I have a feeling that I’m somehow changed. Kind of hard to care about the things that I thought were so important. Reminds me of the experiences Michael Pollen wrote about in his book on therapeutic psychedelics.

      1. Listening to that podcast was not a mistake at all. In fact, keep listening! Don’t let it get you down, knowledge is always knowledge. You’re already ahead of the curve. By having knowledge, you can do the most important thing for yourself/family/community – prepare. And no, I don’t mean doomsday prepping or whatever.

        The podcast you’ve started listening to is great at getting you to realize that it’s not just climate change that’s coming, it’s 40 other things that are going to prevent the status quo from continuing on permanently.

        There is a “sequel” podcast, called Building Up: Resilience. It’s a sequel in the sense that the first podcast was about what is objectively observably happening. The follow up is what you can do to prepare for it.

        Believe it or not, you might feel despair or depression, but if so, you’ve already shot through a lot of the grief stages, which is great. Don’t waste any more time believing the status quo is even relatively permanent. If anything else the 2020s should be displaying how the status quo no longer exists.

        So, accept what is objective and observable. And start building up resilience. The first bit of resilience is the acceptance part.

        I’m not selling anything and this isn’t a cult. it’s a way of thinking about the world and what might be around the corner, whether it’s 5 months, 5 years, or 50 years from now.

        It’s possible that like Wile E. Coyote, we can continue running in mid-air after we’ve already ran off the cliff, through sheer determination and will power for another 20-30 years…I don’t think it’ll be that long, but maybe, who knows, not me. If you have another 20 years before your life is going to drastically change, that’s a lot of time to start making any transition a little less bumpy and potentially deadly.

        Do you live in a community? Not just a neighborhood or on a street, do you know your neighbors? Do your neighbors know you? One of the simplest ways you can prepare for upheaval is fostering a community that you live in and/or surround yourself with.

        Once you accept that 1946-2000 was just a small blip of time that cannot be perpetuated permanently, you can start to figure out what things are going to be your largest problems if/when society collapses at a level where there won’t be anyone coming to help you, so you can be slightly more ready to help yourself and your community.

        Stoicism is a natural result of knowledge and acceptance of objective observable reality. Use both podcasts as a way to get to acceptance and resilience.

        Again, my other posts and this one are not doomsday posts. Your life isn’t about to end and while society is collapsing now, it’s probably better described as crumbling instead of collapsing given the common understanding around those words. Don’t freak out, learn more and get resilient.

  4. Sobering, but unsurprising, to those who have been watching the many warning signs of climate change inexorably advance with little acknowledgement and intervention. Thank you for sharing the good things that are happening and the possibilities that exist.

    My son purchased property in WA state years ago in WA state adjacent to the last remaining rain forest in the continental U. S. He recognized the inexorable threat of climate change and the appalling disregard for meaningful, timely intervention. Who knows how long this haven will survive.

    In today’s Washington Post, there is an article that presents steps that scientists are taking to protect critical research in anticipation of a T administration staffed with climate deniers This effort began in the first T term and remains necessary.

    Humans are on the fast track of self-imposed extinction. Our remarkable planet has been wasted by mankind.

    1. I feel this is going to be one of the big challenges for people who really see what’s coming: where to go.

      I’m in Los Angeles, a desert which is only possible because was can import food and water from somewhere else. It doesn’t feel like a viable long term option.

      But where? The billionaires are building bunkers – do they know something? Where are climate scientists moving?

      OTOH, I’m getting older and have no kids. Maybe just live the best life I can now without worrying too much about the future?

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