Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Climate change or just another hot spell?

North Carolina is toasting under a heat wave that is forecast to remain blistering for another couple of weeks. Inevitably, we find ourselves wondering whether this is climate change or just another major heat wave. We've seen heat waves before, and eventually they come to an end, usually several days or weeks after our patience has given out.

But suppose this is something more than a run-of-the-mill heat wave. What if future Junes will always feature temperatures at or near triple digits? What if the unrelenting solar radiation cooks our lawns and our shrubs to a crisp? What if the lush regions of the East Coast grow increasing arid until the region is no longer able to support the dogwoods, azaleas, oaks and magnolias native to the region? What if our rivers and lakes dry up? What if our green lawns and hills turn dry, brown and windblown, a creeping desertification of our world?

That's a scary scenario, and I know of no one (not even Al Gore) who is predicting such devastation in the near future. But climates have changed before. Species have disappeared in great die-offs in past millennia. An ice age that subsided only about 10,000 years ago had kept North America and northern Europe frozen solid for thousands of years, but then the planet warmed, and northern regions could grow crops, and humans could tolerate the winters. Some other species did not survive the warming climate.

Putting aside the controversial argument over whether the climate change we are witnessing in the 21st century is man-made or caused by some other source, if humanity is facing such an abrupt shift in our world, we should prepare for it and strive to limit its impact. Assuming that we cannot halt or reverse climate change, how can we adapt to it? Unlike songbirds and butterflies, we can't simply alter our migration patterns. Humans tend to build permanent housing, not temporary nests. Property rights, which are central to western democracies, would be lost in a migratory world. Once nearly uninhabitable regions, such as northern Canada, Siberia, and Greenland, might become the great developments of the future. The Sunbelt cities of Miami, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Los Angeles might become unbearably hot and underpopulated.

This hot spell, even if it's not proof of climate change, reminds us of what the human race might be facing as it tries to survive the future.

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