Regional Climate Change: Who Pays The Biggest Price?

Thursday, March 03, 2016

As greenhouse gas emissions grow and the planet gets hotter, another even more disturbing conclusion is becoming evident. Those regions in the world which had the least impact on climate change are being affected the fastest worldwide – and may become inhabitable by the end of the century.

In a new paper just published online by noted climatologists James Hansen and Makiko Sato, this pattern is both painful and obvious.

They begin by providing new versions of their now famous “bell curve” studies of how fast the once only occasional extremely hot summers or warmer winters have become commonplace. In each case they include the original baseline data showing the temperature distributions in the 1951-1980 period, followed by data on how it has changed since then.

In these summary graphs, the top line shows the summer data for the entire Northern Hemisphere. The bottom set of graphs covers winters for the same region.

In those one can see how cooler-than-normal summers may still happen (to the delight of those claiming there IS no climate change) but instead of happening often they now only appear around 19% of the time. More extreme heat – defined by the authors as 3X the standard deviation from the 1951-1980 temperature average – also now happens around 7% of the time. It almost never happened 50 years ago.

That is bad enough but now the authors dig deep into the issue of regional variations of climate change.

To set the stage, they first note that the U.S. and Europe, those early adopters of fossil fuels in large quantities and they drove the industrial revolution forward, are accountable for around 25% of all total greenhouse gas emissions to date. China is coming up to speed quite fast as a contributor and overall produced around 10% of all such emissions. India is the fourth biggest polluter to date, with a tally of 3% worldwide. (For the record, China is currently the highest annual emitter and growing, the U.S. a strong number two but holding more steady in its damage, and India the third highest emitter annually by country.)

How those countries have been affected versus other regions is perhaps the most difficult part of Hansen’s paper to take. Because unlike the line about those who “live by the sword” being “doomed to die by the sword”, the exact opposite appears to be true when it comes to climate change. Metaphorically, at least.

The following graphs from the paper explain that quite well.

In the top line, the U.S. can be seen as having to live with a bell curve shift of just over one standard deviation of temperature in summer and less than half that in the winter. Both are small enough so your average senator or congress person could probably live with cranking up the air conditioning a little or running the heater longer at the appropriate times.

In China the shift is also quite small as well.

Europe’s problem is a little higher than the U.S. with almost 1.5 standard deviations in the summer and one standard deviation in the winter. That is already becoming evident as a major change, especially for those elderly who remember “the old days”.

The shift becomes more drastic as the data looks at the Mediterranean and the Middle East, where the bell curve shift in summer runs 2.5 standard deviations from normal. This already puts the temperature range in some regions where it is almost physically impossible for human beings to be outdoors in some places, just because they cannot sweat enough to cool down as their body needs.

The last curve shows Southeast Asia with a shift of 2.15 times the standard deviation from normal. And though the sweltering heat of the Middle East makes more headlines, the likelihood that large portions of the tropics will begin to be unlivable looks highly likely in less than a few decades from now.

It is possible the trends could be reversed with real and drastic measures to curtain greenhouse gas emissions around the planet now. But if the so-called developed countries keep doing what they have been doing, we are doomed.

Instead we may be doomed to see a world where the high heat drives even more country conflicts. And where the fight gets even worse for the new precious commodity of fresh water, coastal flooding drives people inland, and critical fisheries and croplands stop producing.

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