The long end times


When I think about global warming, I think about India. Summers in India were brutally hot even before global warming began to manifest itself; temperatures in the north would regularly reach 110 F; temperatures in South were slightly lower but often with nearly 100% humidity. I remember backpacking in India in the early summer, shortly after grad school; walking in the streets during the day was an exercise in masochism. The combination of the heat, humidity, air pollution, and city heat, from asphalt roads and tall buildings and air conditioners, made the air heavy and stifling. We would walk outside until we were completely miserable, before retiring to an air conditioned restaurant and gulping down chilled bottled water and Indian sweets to re-equilibrate.

We were wealthy (by Indian standards), foreign, and had no work to do. My heart aches for those not similarly situated.

Farmers, street vendors, the homeless and indigent — these people had no choice but to brave the heat and humidity. There was a New York Times article recently about how global warming threatens to make India “literally unbearable”, and it talked about them:

It is already making [Indians] poorer and sicker. Like the Kolkata street vendor who squats on his haunches from fatigue and nausea. Like the woman who sells water to tourists in Delhi and passes out from heatstroke at least once each summer. Like the women and men with fever and headaches who fill emergency rooms. Like the outdoor workers who become so weak or so sick that they routinely miss days of work, and their daily wages.

Indeed, a recent analysis of climate trends in several of South Asia’s biggest cities found that if current warming trends continued, by the end of the century, wet bulb temperatures — a measure of heat and humidity that can indicate the point when the body can no longer cool itself — would be so high that people directly exposed for six hours or more would not survive.

In many places, heat only magnifies the more thorny urban problems, including a shortage of basic services, like electricity and water.  

A woman named Abeeda told Mr. Magotra that she helped her husband cope during the summer by stocking glucose tablets in the home at all times. Her husband works as a house painter. Even when he is nauseous and dizzy in the heat, he goes to work, she said. He can’t afford not to.

Ratnesh Tihari, a 42-year-old electrician, said he felt it getting hotter year by year. And why would that be surprising? He pointed his chin at the freeway extension he was helping to build. “It’s a fact. You build a road, you cut down trees,” he said. “That makes it hotter.”

The cruel ironies abound. Global warming disproportionately affects those who have the least resources to do anything about it. And the same economic development that might make India rich enough to stave off, or at least mitigate, global warming’s effects, is also exacerbating the phenomenon itself. Trees are being replaced by highways; the steel to build those highways is made by burning coal. Economic development might eventually bring air conditioning to the 240 million Indians who lack electricity, and make summers tolerable, but the energy needed to power those units will make summers feel even worse.

Perhaps the greatest irony, though, is this: India and other third world economies are following the well-trod path for becoming economic powers — burn cheap, dirty energy. (The Industrial Revolution was in large part an energy revolution.) But the nations who have already undergone this transformation, like America and the U.K. and France and Japan, were so profligate with energy consumption that they have created an environmental catastrophe that might make India’s economic goals unattainable. In other words, in a strange way, global warming is the West’s way of pulling up the ladder of economic growth up behind it. A recent report from the World Bank mentioned that

Rising temperatures and changing monsoon rainfall patterns from climate change could cost India 2.8 percent of GDP and depress the living standards of nearly half the country’s population by 2050.

These weather changes will result in lower per capita consumption levels that could further increase poverty and inequality in one of the poorest regions of the world, South Asia.

It is increasingly obvious that the West lacks the political will to do anything substantive about global warming. (If you remember, Trump once called global warming a “hoax” concocted by the Chinese to kneecap our economic growth.) Scientist James Hansen declared an atmospheric CO2 level of 350 ppm the upper limit to avoid global warming’s catastrophic impacts. We’re well past that mark, and our only hope of returning to it, according to Hansen, is to stop burning coal by 2030 (lol). And in case you believe that Hansen is being unduly pessimistic, remember that he has a long track record of being right:

When Hansen began his modelling work, there were good theoretical reasons for believing that increasing CO2 levels would cause the world to warm, but little empirical evidence. Average global temperatures had risen in the nineteen-thirties and forties; then they had declined, in some regions, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties. A few years into his project, Hansen concluded that a new pattern was about to emerge. In 1981, he became the director of giss. In a paper published that year in Science, he forecast that the following decade would be unusually warm. (That turned out to be the case.) In the same paper, he predicted that the nineteen-nineties would be warmer still. (That also turned out to be true.) Finally, he forecast that by the end of the twentieth century a global-warming signal would emerge from the “noise” of natural climate variability. (This, too, proved to be correct.)

Later, Hansen became even more specific. In 1990, he bet a roomful of scientists that that year, or one of the following two, would be the warmest on record. (Within nine months, he had won the bet.) In 1991, he predicted that, owing to the eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, in the Philippines, average global temperatures would drop and then, a few years later, recommence their upward climb, which was precisely what happened.

If we proceed on our current trajectory, and Hansen is correct, then what happens? Sea levels rise, storms and hurricanes become more intense, the ocean acidifies, mass extinction events occur, arable land declines, famines ensue, and millions of people are displaced or go hungry. We will see all of those things happen in India. India is predominantly a coastal country, and 40 million Indians are at risk from sea level rise. India is predominantly a poor country, and the stresses of drought and famine will be difficult for it to cope with. And India is still a fractious country; if our white Republican governments were unwilling to help the brown and black victims of Hurricanes Katrina and Irma, can we expect India, the land of seven-odd religions and dozens of cultures and hundreds of languages, to do better at dealing with increasingly deadly typhoons and monsoonal storms and heat waves?

I mentioned previously the ironies of global warming, which have to do with the interconnectivity of different large scale systems. The economic system is intertwined with the environment, and events in either system can manifest as shocks to the other. The same is true for politics. There was fascinating (if hotly debated) research that global warming has contributed to political instability in the Middle East, and in particular Syria.

The bloody conflict in Syria—which enters its fifth year this month—has killed almost 200,000 people, created 3.2 million refugees, and given rise to the murderous extremist group known as the Islamic State. The roots of the civil war extend deep into Syria’s political and socioeconomic structures. But another cause turns out to be global warming.

When violence erupted in Syria during the Arab Spring in 2011, the country had been mired in a three-year drought—its worst in recorded history. Government agricultural policies had led to an overreliance on rain, so desperate farmers had to turn to well water—and they ended up sucking most of the country’s groundwater reserves dry. What happened next upended the country. “A lot of these farmers picked up their families, abandoned their villages, and went en masse to urban areas,” says Colin Kelley, a climate scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara and author of a new paper on the conflict. Add 1.5 million refugees fleeing the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the population of Syrian cities grew by 50 percent between 2002 and 2010. The influx led to illegal settlements, rampant unemployment, and inequality. But the government hardly did anything in response (corruption didn’t help, nor did the fact that the hardest-hit areas were populated by Kurdish minorities, who have long been discriminated against and ignored). Soon, frustrations boiled over.

The drought didn’t cause the violence—it just made Syria susceptible. But what’s more important here is that the drought, Kelley found, was severe likely because of human-caused global warming.

We have the following set of facts. Global warming contributes to instability. It will displace millions of people, largely in the third world, by making their homes literally unlivable. The governments of the third world, like that of Syria, will surely be too weak or poor to respond effectively. Their people, like those in Syria, will face the decision to die in place or seek refuge elsewhere. And then the West will face a corresponding decision, of whether to turn them away or accept them instead. If it turns them away, millions will die. And if it accepts them (and, perhaps, even if it doesn’t), then its politics will likely become reoriented around the issue of immigration, even more than it has been, and right-wing, xenophobic, anti-democratic politics will likely become resurgent, even more than it has been. If it is ironic that India tried following the West’s strategy for economic success only to be confounded by the environmental effects of that strategy, it is even more ironic that the Industrial Revolution, which made possible great wealthy democracies and robust welfare states, might, through a series of butterfly-like effects too complicated to be envisioned three hundred years ago, effectuate those democracies’ and welfare states’ demise.


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