by Matt Owens January 21, 2013
If greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere continue to follow current trends, the graph above will be just another typical year for Dallas by 2100.1 Would that be livable? Imagine daily highs hitting 90°F in late February, then 100°F in April, and then staying above 100°F consistently through the end of September. What would that air conditioning bill look like? And an average low temperature in August of 95°F? How would you sleep at night?
Compare the above graph to one of the hottest US cities today - Phoenix, Arizona (the dashed lines are Phoenix's temperature record for 2012):
This future Dallas is much hotter than the present Phoenix. And the extremely hot low temperatures would be especially difficult. Imagine a night where temperatures only drop into the upper 90's. Now imagine every night is that way for over two months. Below, highlighted areas are where the future Dallas temperature exceeds the Phoenix 2012 temperature trend by a great deal, either in the lows or highs:
With temperatures this hot, civilization could only continue with major changes for Dallas and the surrounding area. Perhaps Dallas daily life will become like Death Valley (with a population about 500) daily life today. If so, then just about all typical-modern activities will come to a halt during the day, for at least 3 or 4 months each year. Imagine business, travel, and leisure activity happening after dark, and a whole lot slower. Is this possible - could such a city go on?
From an article in the LA times about living in Death Valley, a quote from one of the residents:
"My body has adjusted. I feel perfectly comfortable at 100 to 105 degrees.
"But 115 to 120 is a whole new magnitude of pain," he continues. "At 120 degrees, it becomes physically painful. . . . The fluid in your eyes begins to dry out. You adjust. And then, when it drops down to 115, you say it's a nice day."
Outdoor water reservoirs dry up in such heat - limiting city-scale drinking water supplies to sources that are either piped in from a distance (like oil is now by pipeline) or very carefully recycled (i.e. sewer water carefully reprocessed into drinking water). The city would become like a space colony.
Such a bizarre existence shouldn't be ruled out - just think about what Dallas was like 87 years ago. But other scenarios may be more likely. A few different options come to mind. Dallas could simply be abandoned to the sand dunes and a few eccentrics who haunt the empty buildings and streets. Or a less extreme but similar path: the city could just dwindle to perhaps 10% of its original population; in doing so, it could take on advanced technology to make life easier (and cooler), or it could take the laid back, frugal way of today's Death Valley residents. Regardless of what pace of life eventually is adopted, a reduction of population by so much would tend to drop real-estate prices to rock bottom. In fact, they could reach far below construction costs for new equivalent structures.
But imagining what life would be like, or if it would even be feasible is complicated by uncertain future technological changes. It's unwise to rule out major advances in insulation, water recycling, and perhaps even means of commerce. With major advances in those fields, Dallas would be able to continue living in a reasonably similar way to other less-hot parts of the future US. At the same time, it's also unwise to expect technology to save the day.
What can be said for certain is that most other areas of the US do not face the same climate threat of extreme heat as faces that Dallas and much of the southwest. More northern areas of the US face their own problems which are specific to their area, region, latitude, and industry vulnerability; more about this later.
It's therefore worth considering that areas of the US with the least destructive side-effects of climate change will experience an influx of residents from places like Dallas. It's also worth considering the nature of an ongoing year-over-year climate change, and impacts of such an ongoing process. With continual warming, some years will still be colder than the previous year or years. Most people today still do not believe the true gravity (pun intended) of the situation (even if it is because of self-deception), and the gradual change when viewed on typical human time scales of one year or less means that few people are waking up to the climate change reality on their own. So this human perception of climate change will constitute one of the largest variables in how climate impacts economies and human response.
Without community recognition of the extent and severity of the issue, resolution by the community is impossible. If this were a dictatorship, then the dictator could in theory do whatever he or she wanted, regardless of what the people thought. But, at most this is a dictatorship of the majority. Even if widespread awareness of climate change does spread into the society, it is far from certain that the awareness will include an adequate level of appreciation for the problem's severity.
Accepting new fundamental realities is very challenging, like driving on the opposite side of the road. But driving on the other side at least builds on an already familiar habit of driving. When it comes to fighting climate change, there isn't much to build on as far as human societies and societal habits go. Most people have a very limited understanding of science and a very small knowledge base to draw on regarding the natural world. Anecdotal evidence indicates that people (in the US at least) are increasingly unfamiliar with basic relationships between soil, water, and plant life. Given such rudimentary levels of comprehension, the difficulty and cross-disciplinary nature of climate change, and the enormity of the change forecast to happen around us, it will be quite a feat if the public majority somehow does in fact come to accept climate change's reality and potential severity. Just because it is happening before our very eyes doesn't mean we see it for what it is. Now, many bright and determined people are working on achieving public awareness, so all hope is not lost on this front. But it is an exceedingly complex and challenging task; probably even many times more challenging than understanding the science.
What's more, very complicated or very new ideas are often hard to remember and otherwise integrate into one's working mind. This is why an alcoholic has a moment of clarity, realizes they've got a big problem - but, then goes on to have a drink anyway after some time passes. After all, life doesn't stop and other things come up; working memory gets taken up by other concerns, and the brief but dramatic moment of revelation is stored away in the back of the mind like a dream upon waking. Perhaps this ease of forgetting is why the Alcoholics Anonymous program works so well: it requires participants to write down many negative aspects of their drinking habit. Acceptance of the problem alone is insufficient if that means a brief moment of awareness - the new understanding must be completely integrated into one's world view in a coherent and organized way.
Thus, writing is an immense help when trying to understand, accept, and ultimately retain radical changes in perception of reality - such as is required when dealing with climate change. Writing, the ancient but still brilliant technology which enables a person to put their thoughts into a physical, accessible, re-readable format is like a level, a pulley, a gear ... essentially a huge time and energy saver - for the mind. But for the writing to be re-accessible, it must be coherent and organized. However, about half of the US adult population, according to national literacy surveys, cannot write well. What's more, of those that do write, how many are in the habit of writing their own thoughts down? Some children keep journals, but is this a common adult practice?
So, if climate change is fully acknowledged by the public, it will likely not be a result of logical arguments that individuals incorporate into their world-view on their own time. Rather, it will be the result of a persistent campaign of public advertising, much like cigarette ads in decades past. Or rather (because climate change is not addicting), more like the war effort ad campaigns of WWII - which were much larger than any cigarette ad campaign ever was.
A large ad campaign instills strong automatic emotional and coherent memory in the mind of the public majority. It makes the public adopt a coherent story about the issue. And just as important, it enables the individual to connect in their mind how their daily activities connect with the story. During the WWII advertising campaign, the message was coherent: "Axis = evil bent on world domination; we must stop them and you must help: buy war bonds; enlist; use your ration book; and, be proud because you're on the right side - the side of good." This message was repeated over and over myriad ways in practically all media types. There was some version of this message on the radio almost every few minutes, it was always in the paper, it was in all the magazines every issue, and it was even in the money - the penny which was switched to steel instead of copper. That last change reinforced the message of recycling for the war effort. Rubber and certain metals were needed for bullets and tires. All this established and reinforced a positive shift in mind among the public, allowing a radical shift in behavior. When people saw an old, unused rubber tire, they were reminded of the penny and the need for raw materials. When they heard news about the war and thought, "how can I help?" all they had to do was turn on the radio or open a paper to see a message telling them to "buy war bonds" or "enlist."
To achieve such a campaign would require money, and lots of it. But climate change, unlike cigarettes or the government, has no revenue stream to fund such a campaign. And future economic losses or human misery and suffering are not accepted as payment by billboard owners, magazine publishers, or broadcast companies.
Some climate activists3 have suggested that a fire-side chat type of speech by the President could achieve the same results of raising awareness. Or perhaps a declaration of war type of speech. Some sort of national address with urgency and conviction. However, looking back on declarations of war, they were usually followed by a well-funded message campaign that involved the entire backing of the congress and various branches of government. Indeed, returning to the WWII ad campaign, private industry actually ran their own ads, using their own funds, to echo the government's message. Such a complete backing today is impossible when the vast majority of people in Congress, the bureaucracy, and private industry either don't accept climate change outright, or don't accept how serious it really is. Given today's views on the issue, any ad campaign would likely be met with resistance and public disobedience like that seen during the Vietnam War.
It's never too late to hope though, and perhaps one final strategy could work for the President. A recent announcement that a climate change discussion between the white house and a meeting of US mayors will be behind closed doors, actually opens some doors. Namely, this could be an opportunity for the president to brow-beat, threaten, and otherwise tear open the minds of other elected officials in a way that isn't publicly acceptable. Perhaps in this way he can convert enough political firepower to allow for a true mobilization. But he would have to meet with a lot of people and convince enough of them. Time will tell.
Now, if I can force myself back to the topic at hand, all this is to say (and many more angles could be said about this, and to the same conclusion) that there stands a definite possibility that public perceptions of climate change risk will lag far behind scientific revelation on the issue. It is conceivable that even in the face of a major calamity, like a meter of sea level rise over a few months (as a result of a sudden ice shelf collapse), a high percentage of people would still not accept the full scope of climate change risk.
For Dallas, and other cities likewise experiencing a steady change in climate conditions from livable t0 hostile, the consequence of this human-mind-social-dynamic is profound. Americans living in poverty are the most likely to have poor reading and writing proficiencies - and so it is likely these who will trail farthest behind the curve in responding to local climate risks. What's more, they're the least likely and the least able to follow the news. And, they are also the least able to relocate or change careers or otherwise adjust their lives.
At the same time, strong evidence indicates that among those with higher educations, a "belief" or "denial" of climate change is strongly associated with political party affiliation more than it is with any actual understanding of the issue.4 The most disappointing conclusion of the research is that "believers" and "deniers" are really just using the issue as a proxy for their own political war. Thus, neither side appears to have much of an honest or deep conviction about the issue. And, as said before, acceptance must include accepting the severity of the problem. Treating a blood infection with a cup of hot tea won't make a lick of difference.
But, awareness, and full acceptance will grow. right? right!? Ah, there's the rub! Just look at the last 10 years. Actually, look at the last 20 years. Actually, look at the last 30 years! This issue is not a new issue. The impacts are getting closer and with every day of inaction guaranteed to be worse than they otherwise would have been with action.
So, perhaps there will be no action. Not in the foreseeable future anyways. Perhaps not even by 2100. It's hard to write that and believe it's possible. But there it is. [Again, the power of writing.] Most projections into the future of climate change have assumed that society will curb emissions. Only in the past year or so have more scientists changed their scenarios to place more emphasis on higher emissions rates. And even these higher rate scenarios are limited, eschewing the most severe positive feedback scenarios where natural stores of greenhouse gases commence to release into the air via any number of mechanisms, such as enhanced microbial activity in the warming northern latitudes.
And so it seems that a reluctance to accept difficult realities also exists in the scientific community - the reality that the public doesn't get it and isn't able to absorb and incorporate the scientific reality in the way described above.
In fact, it's clear that even in the scientific community, many aren't able to fully accept the severity of climate change. Many a specialist can be heard on record saying something to the extent of, "oh that won't happen for a long, long time." The most notorious category for such statements is sea level rise. The issue is very complex and one of the more cross-disciplinary ones. Perhaps the underlying cause of so many "oh that will take a long time" statements traces back to the reluctance to accept that human action may not happen anywhere fast enough.
If awareness does not grow, then on a voluntary basis at least, the general public will change none of their behaviors. They will choose to live in places and work in fields regardless of the climate risk. And it would seem at the present time that education is not correlated with likelihood of acceptance. Thus, Dallas and similar climate change bulls eyes will see a continuous change in conditions, increasingly making living and working under the old way harder and less rewarding, but the population only reacting after the fact to incurred climate costs. This will result in two trends: exodus, and slow adaptation. As with the financial and housing collapse of 2008, when a good number of Las Vegans picked up and left, so will happen in climate hot-zones like Dallas. But it will be continual.
Eventually (or perhaps quickly), a point will be reached when an area like Dallas sees so many people leave that something of a self-sustaining downward economic spiral will kick in. For example, a constant steady exodus would lead to falling housing prices and reduced total commercial spending. Both trends exert downward pressure on the economy by lowering the net worth of homeowners and decreasing business revenue. Both retail employees and service employees would see less business come their way, and thus lower wages would follow as they themselves would be spending less while their homes loose value and their income shrinks.
But as workers get laid off, wages fall, and housing prices drop, a bottom would arrive, partially mediated by any stabilizing fundamental economic force beneath the area's economy (such as an export industry). The bottom will arrive when rents drop, lowering costs for tenants and luring others back to the area again - or for the first time. However, this will cause housing costs to stabilize and the influx of new workers will suppress wage growth via standard supply and demand mechanisms. So the economy will recover from its brief dip, but only recover to a point of quasi-stability - in the sense that a gradual downward trend reestablishes itself: stagnant wages and gradually rising costs. And the grinding down by climate change will not go away.
This climate change grind will raise the costs of cooling in Dallas and likely mean that many people just stop using air conditioning in their homes. A picture of the deep south, decades past, comes to mind. People sitting lazily during the day, waiting for the heat to pass. Such activity is not economically productive.
Driving, walking, and public transport all become more challenging in extreme heat. Cars experience more mechanical problems in high heat and underlying problems can become exacerbated. Walking becomes life threatening without adequate sun protection and water. Eventually, a point comes where the distance to be travelled for a given temperature requires more water than the person is able to carry - similar to the ratio of fuel to payload of space rockets. And public transit is notorious for breaking down in the heat of summer; plus after arriving at the end station, there is usually a walk of at least several blocks to an office or other work site. All these factors make life more difficult, less productive, and more costly in time, if not money. Savings from reduced consumer spending will be offset by cooling bills, cooling repair, and mechanical fixes. From an absurdist perspective, this could be net-neutral economically, if spending on keeping cool were defined as the litmus test of progress (i.e. the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness cooling).
While a steady exodus from Dallas, an alternate and simultaneous trend will emerge: adaptation to the increased difficulty and costs of everyday life. More people will live in the same housing unit. People will share high-barrier-cost-to-entry items, like cars. Fewer people will go to college, or opt for cheaper college options over more expensive ones.
Culturally, expectations about spending habits will change. The younger generations in particular may be the ones to pick up on this the quickest, for example, buying used goods and re-using or re-purposing found items.
Other cultural changes include work expectations - both on the part of the employer and employee. Neither expects the other one to keep paying, or keep working for too long. This is because there's an understanding that housing situations are tenuous: if one roommate (who may be a family member) leaves, everyone may have to leave - possibly to a different town, or at least outside of an economical commuting distance. Or, if the local economy experiences another fall from the stability of gradual decline, layoffs will be required.
And on the issue of commuting, employers who adapt will accept employees who ride bikes, walk, or take public transit to work. Increasingly, public transit is unreliable across the US as infrastructure ages without major overhauls (and as budgets get cut). All this translates to more flexible work start time expectations by the adapting employer. After all, the employer is likely paying just a touch above what the employee can accept and still pay bills with, so they may be working 1 or 2 other jobs, and that means that spending an extra hour or more in commuting time just to make sure they arrive on time just isn't feasible. That may mean that the employer or boss has to be the one who is on site or at least on site until the employee(s) show up.
But commuting by bike or walking also means that weather becomes a bigger factor. And when climate is becoming increasingly hostile, that translates to increased lost days or at least lost hours because of weather. In some areas, there could be the opposite effect however, even if it is for just a transition period. For instance, in a northern city that usually sees snow may see none all winter, thus allowing an employee to more easily commute by bike. In Dallas, commuting by bike would not be possible in summer daytime hours.
In fact, there will soon be days when it is too hot to go outside in Dallas, and commuting by bike, or even walking to a bus stop is life-threatening for many. Recent high temperatures in Australia led to some employers giving staff the day off. This could lead to a shift in work hours for some industries - working by night. It could also lead to the adoption of after-dark shopping times on select days of the week during summer. Only adopting some days as after-dark hours however would lead to shift-work disorder among many employees and shoppers, creating additional costs and losses.
Now to the parts of the country not so harshly impacted by climate change - these areas could expect to see a fluctuating, but net positive flow of incoming job-seekers over the years. This would stimulate housing construction, retail and service expansion, and push prices up for housing, goods, and services. This in turn would pressure local wages higher - but that would be countered by the incoming job-seekers. Thus, local wages could rise or fall, depending on the flow rate of incoming workers. And, as housing prices rise, the flow of incoming workers will be countered by an outgoing flow who can't afford to live there anymore. That outgoing flow will largely end up in nearby suburbs or neighboring communities (i.e. smaller cities, towns or suburbs outside of the city).
As housing costs reach that elevated level which starts driving residents out, the real-estate market will stall. Incoming highly-mobile job-seekers will leave as soon as they see the rent prices. Thus, on net there will be a period of neutral growth or stagnation for the city, but at the same time net positive population growth for the immediately surrounding areas that have lower rents and home prices.
This period of net neutral population growth will mean that business growth levels out or stalls too. But, because the neighboring areas will be taking more people in, those areas will see increased economic activity and some of that will spill over into the city's economic zone. Thus, on the whole, in these periods of stalling growth for the city, wages will stall instead of rising as would typically be expected in response to a shrinking labor pool. The income stream of the businesses will be to uncertain to justify increasing wages and the high labor supply will discourage employees from seeking raises; simultaneously, stagnant wages and housing-price-mediated net worth will prevent significant increases in profit margins.
Eventually, there will be a brief period of declining rent and housing prices in the city. This will be quickly ended as people who were living in the suburbs and neighboring communities move in; and perhaps more powerfully, as a higher number of the incoming job-seekers find just-barely affordable rents and houses to live in. This will give the housing sector a small boost for the city's economic zone while also boosting the retail and service sectors. Thus the city's economy will be pressured back onto an upward trend. But, at the same time, the previous increase that was seen in the surrounding areas will see a cut back.
On the net, it appears that a stable economic situation will develop for such cities in climate-neutral zones, where growth in population alternates between the central city and surrounding areas. This growth in population will however not be matched by a growth in wages, and thus a constant stabilizing pressure will be exerted on prices, which in turn will prevent profit margins from rising and prohibit rapid growth. This increasingly applies to everything but housing, transport, and home entertainment - all of which can be shared to significant and increasing extents. But, while margins on those items can rise, if they are increasingly shared, then total unit-demand will fall, exerting a downward pressure on prices.
On the occasion that other economic factors come into play, the cities in climate-neutral zones could see their own exodus start. Those driving factors will be things such as internal economic variability or internal variability of resource exploitation and industry; or, external factors like global economic variability or locally destructive climate events (i.e. hurricanes, floods, severe storms, ice sheet disintegration, wildfires, or drought).
Therefore, for the country as a whole, there will be two types of areas: those undergoing steady losses of population as climate makes living more expensive and difficult; and those undergoing constant gains in population as climate change has a neutral or even a temporarily/regional positive effect. [In the long run, it is morally indefensible to argue that climate change will have anything but a negative overall impact on the net worth of everyone, and so this positive effect is largely in the relative sense.]
The areas that see population gains will also see modest economic growth, but stagnant wages; the areas with population losses will see economic decline and stagnant wages.
To the extent that underlying resource exploitation makes up the local economy, some stability or counterbalancing force will operate in any region and may supersede climate impacts. Climate change however, will make resource exploitation more expensive in many of the same areas where living becomes more expensive. Even for areas where living is not significantly more difficult (or perhaps even easier, as in the case of less snowfall for commuting), climate changes will still cause increasingly large disruptions to resource extraction operations and associated industry and transport.
In the case of sea level rise, the northeastern seaboard (which would be considered to be in a climate-neutral zone compared to Dallas) will be especially vulnerable. A rapid collapse of the West Antarctic ice shelf, or even part of the shelf might raise sea levels by a meter or more in as little as months. Such a rise could shut shipping facilities downs that haven't prepared for such a scenario - and none have so far. Even if ports are prepared, the ships themselves will have to deal with icebergs reaching possibly as far as the equator, and possibly in significant quantities. The nature of ocean circulation is such that icebergs would likely tend to get concentrated in drifts. These drifts could be too dense for large ships to be able to pass through. Depending on the rate of ice sheet disintegration, it is possible that such iceberg drifts alone could reach a level of severity to prevent trans-oceanic shipping. Icebergs are enormous and powerfully destructive, it is not clear that technology exists now to fortify ships against them, or what the cost would be of such a technology.
The chaos that would ensue from shutting down international shipping would be large. It would mean that many goods and services relying on said goods would no longer be available in many areas. Entire industries would shut down. Opportunities would arise as the need for domestic (or at least continental) production arose. But uncertainty about the nature of the iceberg threat - its duration mainly - would hamper efforts to attain commercial loans. Governments would likely step in to provide loans as the public cried out for access to familiar products and services however. Frictional costs of transitioning so many workers and industries would be large without preparation - and again, there has been no preparation for such an event.
And this brings up the ultimate conclusion. No one industry or region stands out as a clear winner thus far, but all areas and people stand to lose quite a lot in the way of wealth, freedom, and opportunity. Some areas, like Dallas, can already be identified as leading losers because of the climate changes already well underway. Social adaptation and population movement is already clearly underway.
What is unclear however, is if these already occurring changes of increased mobility, stagnant wages, sharing of cars and housing, increased biking, and increasing work schedule flexibility have been triggered by climate events or other reasons. For example Hurricane Katrina and the severe Texas drought which spread 2012 to most of the plains in 2012 and continues at the time of this writing in January of 2013.
Did these events and other more subtle climate change induced events (rising food prices, increased costs of resource extraction, increased costs of living due to rising heating and cooling bills, etc...) trigger the collapse of 2008? It seems unlikely from the perspective of how housing prices rose so much faster than wages in the preceding period; but from another perspective, it appears that wages were suppressed and housing prices were just following their underlying trend of appreciation in value.
Perhaps the answer is closer to a slower reaction for housing prices than for wages in response to climate change damage, and thus prices of housing separated from wages to the extreme extent that a bubble formed and pooped.
It does appear unavoidable - whatever led the US to the current economic state - that climate change will act as a constant downward influence on growth by the underlying mechanisms of involuntary population adaptation and relocation described above. Areas hard hit, like Dallas, will see a steady loss over the years as they move down their path into the future (Death Valley for the case of Dallas). Meanwhile other more climate-neutral areas will see steady total gains, but little gain on a per-capita basis. And all areas will see punctuations of severe economic upheaval when climate catastrophes like ice shelf disintegration occur.5 Economic frictional costs will rise everywhere, but be especially high in the constantly degrading areas like Dallas. Just as wealth can be created in the American economic system, it is now being destroyed, and with no clear end in sight, to 2100 and beyond. However, by accepting the severity of the climate crisis, it would be possible for individuals and society as a whole to begin meaningful action to fight climate change while also adjusting expectations for the future and thus enabling a pro-active adaptation that would possibly be much more pleasant.
If there are tigers lurking in the night, do you want to forget they even exist, or find them and kill them?6
1The numbers I use here are from model runs with the GISS Model II that I've conducted which replicate other widely cited model results based on the RCP 8.5 scenario. RCP 8.5 stands for representative concentration pathway (to 8.5 W m-2 by 2100). The 8.5 term is how much radiative forcing there is projected to be by 2100. Radiative forcing is a term that summarizes how much more energy is entering the Earth's climate system from space than is leaving it.
When climate is stable, radiative forcing is close to zero. When radiative forcing falls below zero, climate cools. When it rises above zero, climate warms.
In the past, the Earth's climate has seen very slight moves above or below zero of radiative forcing over tens of thousands of years to millions of years which have led to major changes in climate over similar time scales.
The current change in radiative forcing is rapidly exceeding the most severe changes the Earth has ever seen for such a short time scale. The are no known periods in Earth's past geology when radiative forcing has risen so fast, so quickly.
The RCP 8.5 scenario does not include a permafrost carbon feedback, a methane hydrate feedback, a wildfire black-carbon feedback, a warming wetland methane feedback, or an ice sheet disintegration feedback. All these feedbacks but the last are positive and will lead to accelerated warming.
The reason for excluding the above feedbacks is a very good one (which I'll return to) and should not be taken to negate the value of the models. It is necessary however to have a deep understanding of the models before assuming that they are strictly intended to be forecasts. In many ways, because of the exclusion of the positive feedbacks, the models can be taken as something of a baseline projection. In other words, things will be this hot or hotter by the date of the model if emissions follow the given parameters of the model.
Now, keeping the models free from the above feedbacks greatly simplifies what would otherwise be an exceedingly complex tangle of data output. Most of the feedbacks are poorly understood except in very broad contexts, so inputting them into the model would mean giving huge ranges of possible impacts. Results would then come out with warming by 2100 under the RCP 8.5 scenario of something like between 4ºC (7.2ºF) and 20ºC (36ºF). Such results would certainly have value for defining limits, but until just very recently, climate models were run exclusively on supercomputers, and including so many positive feedbacks would have made the process exceed budgets (in time and money). More importantly from a scientific perspective, keeping these complex models as simple as possible has allowed a refinement, corroboration and improvement of the models. Also, in order to tease out which aspects of the climate are doing what, it is important to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. However, now that computer power has improved so greatly, and now that models and the modelers themselves are able to sort through all the complexity, more feedbacks are being incorporated.
To be quite honest, not enough research has been conducted on the feedback processes. On-site data needs to be gathered about conditions across large areas of the Earth. Experiments on-site and in labs need to also happen to simulate warming and thus observe reactions. These experiments in some cases need to be large-scale and well funded, as the on-site data collection does. For example, it may be necessary to thermally insulate a wide and deep column of soil or sediment and apply a warming to the surface, thus simulating future warming. This would enable the assessment of variables like microbial response in various substrates to warming trends. In fact, it stands to reason that at least one entire research facility should be constructed and devoted to such soil warming experiments. The sooner such projects are started, the better.
2When I first compared Dallas by 2100 to Death Valley, I was quite surprised and went back to recheck the results. This has been the case time and again as I've worked with the General Circulation Model (GCM) GISS Model II.
As another example, my results indicate that a warming by as much as 21ºC (37.8ºF) on an annual basis for the minimum average surface temperature over northern latitudes by 2100 under the RCP 8.5 scenario. Unfortunately, my results are in good agreement with the RCP 8.5 results of other models and it's hard to see how that much increased greenhouse gas forcing would do anything besides warm the planet to such massive extents.
My surprise has been most pronounced when looking at interpolations of individual cities - and it probably arises from the same mental resistance I discuss in this article. Being familiar with the 20th Century climate of many US cities and regions, it really blows me away when I see the data for the first time of how a given city will change. Even though I've looked at the temperature change on a regional and global scale, zooming into the city level is when it really hits.
3This includes myself. My views on moving climate change perception has changed over time - and while I have not given up on the idea of changing the public's mind, I have quantified the obstacles preventing the desired outcome: significant time and energy is required to achieve the results on a broad scale. As of now, that time and energy (and/or money) is not available and a pre-requisite mobilization of awareness of future mobilizers is underway, this is about as much as I can help do at the present time.
4This may be changing ever so slightly - and truthfully, perhaps insignificantly. Some republicans, like David Dreier, have recently come out and said that climate change is real and a problem. But they've done so very quietly and discretely - Dreier made his statement as he retired from office. Mitt Romney in fact said through a written statement that he believed climate change was real. Another headline-maker was Meghan McCain, daughter of John McCain. That's a pretty far stretch - although considering that Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter was out many years ago when Bush was running for re-election, and now gay marriage rights are being widely adopted, perhaps the daughter-trend is reason for hope on the climate issue.
5Many people will disagree that such climate catastrophes are inevitable. They may be right, but usually people with that view are vastly overestimating how fast the public will respond and how serious the problem really is - in other words, they have no idea what they're talking about. The fact is such catastrophes are already starting at low volume. I don't look forward to seeing any of them at full volume, and I expect them to be quite painful and costly. Nevertheless, I believe that by facing them now, I afford myself and others the greatest chance to make it through with most of the important pieces still attached!
More from Fairfax Climate Watch:
Sea level rise could crimp GDP; US direct losses could top 1/4 trillion per year during 2040 to 2050 - December 30, 2012 - a more in depth article that examines James Hansen's sea level rise projections and what they would translate to for the US economy.
Surprising feedback could mean epic disaster - January 11, 2013 - a follow up of the sea level rise article, with a more detailed view of the nature of sea level rise from year to year given negative feedback mechanisms.