Scholars from the human geography tradition examine the political, economic, demographic, and cultural implications of climate change. For centuries, explorers have attempted to find a Northwest Passage that would shorten the sailing distance between Europe and Asia. Explorers such as Henry Hudson believed that a route existed through the Arctic Ocean along Canada's northern coast. He failed to find it, as did dozens of other explorers of note. In fact, severe weather and thick pack ice proved to be an impenetrable barrier to commercial shipping through the 20th century.
However, there is evidence to suggest that rising temperatures will melt the pack ice in the Arctic Ocean, allowing the Northwest Passage to become a viable commercial navigation route. However, there are serious geopolitical issues to resolve as Canada has declared that the passage exists entirely within Canadian waters. Other countries, such as the United States and European countries, claim that the route is an international channel independent of Canadian sovereignty. While nation-states quarrel over who has sovereignty over northern seaways, the plight of Inuit cultures goes largely unnoticed. However, many of the traditional hunting rituals and life-ways depend on frozen sea ice. However, rising sea levels and a lon ger ice-free summer season are causing coastal erosion that is forcing indigenous communities to relocate and adapt.
Global warming will also have economic impacts that vary regionally. Panama is currently investing hundreds of millions of dollars expanding its famous canal. However, if the Northwest Passage does become commercially viable, this might undermine the ability of Panama to recoup its investments in an enlarged canal. Other cities that depend on oceanic trade, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, may suffer economically as trade is diverted away from Southeast Asia northward through the Arctic Ocean.
Global warming may have profound impacts on where people live. Rising sea levels may force millions of people to relocate to higher ground. Changing patterns of precipitation may affect the livability of inland cities such as Phoenix, Arizona; Denver, Colorado; or Las Vegas, Nevada. These are rapidly growing cities located in arid and semi-arid environments. Phoenix and Las Vegas depend on water that is diverted many hundreds of miles. If water sources decline, this will limit the economic and demographic growth of these cities.
An important aspect of understanding geographic variation is how seemingly meaningless regional differences can become a basis for deep social inequality. Hence, a geographic perspective can help to understand, and possibly remediate, the social and regional injustices that could occur from global climate change. Hurricane Katrina and the fate of the residents of New Orleans have already given us a foretaste of how regional differences get translated into social inequalities. In the case of New Orleans, the people most severely affected were poor and from minority neighborhoods. Public health will also be affected by climate change, because a changing climate will likely cause diseases to shift into new regions. It will be the wealthy people and countries that will be most able to adapt. Global climate change will likely worsen existing inequalities. This dynamic may be repeated at different scales in different regions unless a geographic perspective is used to implement policies that promote a more egalitarian policy response to climate change.
SEE ALSO: American Geophysical Union; Detection of Climate Changes; Geospatial Technology; International Geophysical Year (IGY); Land Component of Models.
BIBLIOGRAPHY. Gregg Easterbrook, "Global Warming: Who Loses—And Who Wins?" Atlantic (v.299/3, 2007); European Space Agency, www.esa.int (cited November 2007); Gary Gaile and Cort Willmott, eds., Geography in America at the Dawn of the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2003); Gregory Goodrich, "Multidecadal Climate Variability and Drought in the United States," Geography Compass (v.1/4, 2007); Andrew Goudie, "Global Warming and Fluvial Geomorphology," Geomorphology (v.79, 3-4, 2006); Andrew Goudie, The Human Impact on the Natural Environment: Past, Present, and Future (Blackwell Publishing, 2005); George Johnson, "Here They Are: Science's 10 Most Beautiful Experiments," New York Times (September 24, 2002); David Livingstone, The Geographical Tradition: Episodes in the History of a Contested Enterprise (Blackwell, 1992); Jay Malcolm, et al., "Estimated Migration Rates under Scenarios of Global Climate Change," Journal of Biogeography (v.29/7, 2002); National Aeronautical and Space Agency, Goddard Institute for Space Studies, www. giss.nasa.gov (cited November 2007); William Pattison, "The Four Traditions of Geography," Journal of Geography (v.63/5, 1964); Philip Porter and Eric Sheppard, A World of Difference: Society, Nature, Development (The Guilford Press, 1998); Mark Roseland, Toward Sustainable Communities: Resources for Citizens and their Governments (New Society Publishers, 1998).
Christopher D. Merrett Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs Western Illinois University
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