Catastrophic Climate Change over the Next Hundred Years

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Sharon E. Burke

Twenty years we've had the drought / And our reservoirs have all dried up I take my baths now in a coffee cup / I boil what's left of it for tea.

-Urinetown, The Musical

Two years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still not a fully functioning city, despite the expenditure of billions of dollars and the attention of a nation. As of November 2007, population levels were only 70 percent of the pre-hurricane levels and nearly 47,000 families continued to live in FEMA trailers. Sixty-two percent of the schools and 38 percent of the day care facilities had reopened, and only 19 percent of public buses were running. Only 36 percent of the people who had applied for "Road Home" grants to help them rehabilitate their properties had received funding.1 With social, public, and criminal justice systems in disarray, long-standing criminal and corruption problems have exploded, making New Orleans the murder capital of America.2

Now imagine another scenario: Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans as a category 5 storm, instead of a 3. Or consider the possibility that another hurricane could have made landfall in the years since. How many more people would have perished in the storms? How much more of the city would have been destroyed? Would communities such as Baton Rouge and Houston have been able and willing to absorb larger numbers of storm victims, on a permanent basis? It is hard to speculate exactly what would have happened, but it is very clear that any progress made in reconstructing New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina would have been seriously damaged by any subsequent storm. Perhaps the city would have remained uninhabitable.

In the catastrophic climate scenario that this study analyzes, that could be the future for Jacksonville and Houston, and also for New York City and Washington, D.C. It could be the future for cities all over the world, if not from a hurricane, then because of massive sea level rise or prolonged drought, or relentless summer heat waves, or any number of other consequences of unprecedented climate change.

In this long-range scenario, intense hurricanes may become increasingly common, and droughts, floods, wildfires, heat waves, and churning seas certainly will. Hundreds of millions of thirsty and starving people will have to flee or perish, leaving the globe dotted with ghost towns. The abrupt and sudden nature of many of these phenomena will challenge the ability of all societies to adapt, including the United States. Persistent conflict—civil, communal, sectarian, regional, and between nations—will be the norm in this plausible scenario. Indeed, even this scenario may be too conservative.

It is very difficult to imagine such a grim reality. A world 5.6°C (10.1°F) warmer has not existed for more than 40 million years, and sea level 2 meters (6.6 feet) higher has not existed for more than 100,000 years. Today, the world has entered the Information Age, which may reshape the foundation of societies around the world as profoundly as did the Industrial Age. There certainly are grave threats in this increasingly decentralized, engineered, and networked world, but at the same time this is overwhelmingly a time of hope and bright horizons as millions of people are lifted out of poverty and empowered. Moreover, this is a transition in its infancy—where it will take human society in the years ahead and how fast is unclear.

Over the course of the next century, however, if the catastrophic scenario described in this chapter comes to pass, these hopes will be eclipsed as all nations on the Earth struggle to meet the challenges of profound climate change. In this scenario, by the end of this century, the world will have entered the Age of Survival.

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