Climate Change according to Girl in Gumboots

Much of the reason why the topic of climate change is so messy is because it’s secretly quite subjective. I say “global warming” and I somehow illicit a more visceral, emotional response than if I’d said “all the rum is gone”.

This response differs largely on where one lives in this global village, and how one operates within it. Yet, as a budding researcher, I’m supposed to put up a few graphs based on relatively basic science showing you irrefutable evidence and expect you to ‘see’ what I see? Well, that’s not going to happen here because I just don’t think it works. In my humble opinion, the topic of climate change makes us a little too emotional to assimilate the science rationally. Perhaps because it will require us to make compromises to our lifestyles that we don’t want to make. Perhaps because we’re stuck in that mentality of “it’s just me, what change can one person possible affect?”. Or, more simply, perhaps the term ‘climate change’ forces us to be more afraid of what the future holds than we’re comfortable with.

Climate sceptics get their claws in so deep because they do something I cannot possibly do – they tell you that the wolf at the door is a fairytale. Their story is infinitely more seductive because it soothes away fears that the world you’re handing to your children is going to be a frightful, unpredictable place marred by collapsing food stocks.

So if you want the hard science, ask me and I’ll send you solid, peer-reviewed journal articles. What I’m NOT going to do in this post is show you loads of graphs. Except this one from xkcd, because it’s my favourite:

Ballmer Peak (xkcd)

What I am going to do is tell you what climate change means to me. Just little ol’ me.

I reckon I say “Cape Town” about a hundred times a day now. That’s not just because I’m homesick – objectively, Cape Town is an amazing place. It’s also an unusual place because it’s the only spot in Southern African that receives most of its rainfall in winter. Last year, very little, but usually between 1000mm to 2000mm (source). Because it’s so dry in summer, winter flooding isn’t an unexpected occurrence and yet, every year, there are news reports about people’s homes and children and chickens being washed away because they built on a floodplain.

Did I just catch you wondering what kind of idiot builds on an active floodplain? Are you having this thought from the comfort of your home or office? The one with internet and electricity and running water? Right. The person who builds in the path of an almost-guaranteed wall of water does so because they have little choice.

Khayelitsha Township; Western Cape. Photo by Jose Cendon (www.msf.org.za)

To the average South African wondering how they’re going to put food on the table TONIGHT, climate change is not worth thinking about. Neither is the threat of floods next winter because when life is that hard and that unpredictable, ‘a year away’ is just too far away.

The social discount rate is defined in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) survey as a reflection of a society’s valuation on ‘well-being’ today versus ‘well-being’ in the future. In other words, if you’re worrying about putting food in bellies now, you don’t exactly have the luxury of fretting about some imagined future that you may not be around to enjoy. Or not enjoy very much at all.

Look that person in the eye and tell them they can’t cut down trees or hunt.

Once upon a time, when I was a grown up running my very own environmental compliance agency, I was given the responsibility of rehabilitating wetlands in and around Johannesburg. This involved juggling government inspectors, some CRAZY activists, a few developers and also teams of workers. It also involved going into grasslands to evict people who were just trying to eke out some sort of life. Because that field was Giant Bullfrog territory, and they’re a protected red listed species, don’t you know? These people were living under cardboard sheeting and surviving off god knows what… fish from the water, the odd scrawny guinea fowl, and possibly a big fat giant bullfrog if they were lucky enough.

Eat meeeeee?! (http://www.crystalkiss.com/five-of-the-best-animal-fathers)

Life in the balance versus life in the balance… I don’t have what it takes to tell people not to cut down delicate forests and not to eat protected species if it means that I take away their warmth and their dinner. So that’s me as one South African trying to understand climate change on a small scale. At the very least, I can use this in a court of law if I throttle the next person who tries to tell me that developing countries are as guilty as America when it comes to emissions because of overpopulation or deforestation or dirty coal. Right now, Cape Town can’t even deal with predictable seasonal perturbations that wash away homes every year… how are we supposed to start grappling with the bigger picture? And boy oh boy, that bigger picture is big.

Photo by Schalk van Zuydam for AP

I’m going to borrow the outline I used when I lectured on Climate Change in Namibia and list my top 3 “I’ve been cornered by a person who once read an online article on global warming and wants to make small talk” pet hates:

  1. This climate change thing is a ‘fad’
    In 1965 President Johnson said in a special meeting to congress:

“This generation has altered the composition of the atmosphere on a global scale through… a steady increase in carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.”

In 1979 the National Academy of Science issued a report stating:

“A plethora of studies from diverse sorces indicates a consensus that climate change will result from man’s combustion of fossil fuels and changes in land use.”

Concern about climate change is not a fad, okay? It is a subject that scientists have been working on for longer than I’ve been alive. And I’m really, really old.

  1. Earth’s climate is ALWAYS changing
    This one is complicated because now I’m supposed to talk about Milankovitch cycles and maybe even put up a graph or two. Sorry.
    Temperature Fluctuations over Millions of Years (http://www.aos.princeton.edu/WWWPUBLIC/gphlder/philander-web.html)

Current conditions on earth aren’t exactly the norm. More like a lucky break. See that massive peak at around 50 million years ago? At that time in Earth’s history, sea surface temperature estimates suggest mean annual temperatures ~16 °C warmer than today (Speelman et al., 2009). From then, there’s a trend of global cooling but notice how the line always oscillates? You can actually see that these wobbles were modest in amplitude up to ~3 million years ago (evolution of African Hominids) but then they started amplifying. The big recent oscillations are the Milankovitch cycles and they represent dramatic fluctuations between ice-ages that persisted for like 100,000 years, and brief happy warm Earth interglacials.

Temp and CO2 over Thousands of Years (http://www.aos.princeton.edu/WWWPUBLIC/gphlder/philander-web.html)

We’ve taken advantage of the current interglacial, which only started around 10,000 years ago, and advanced rapidly from cavemen to witch-burners to Hummer drivers. Now that we’re smart and modern, just about all of our favourite activities are helping to cause a rapid rise in the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases. The current rise (represented by the sickeningly vertical red bar at time 0) is occurring at a time when those concentrations are already at a natural maximum.

NOTE: I’m going to pause here for a minute to ask anyone who believes that carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas is NOT in any way related to temperature to please go read something else instead. Earth’s climate is forced by a number of things – tilt of the axis, wobbles and continental drift – the thing forcing it today is an unprecedented rise in CO2. Okay? Okay.

Right, so the thing is, even during the most rapid temperature rises within the Milankovitch cycles, carbon dioxide levels only rose by about 2ppm (parts per million) every 10 years. Now? Ha! Now we’re burning fossils fuels so efficiently that we’re adding 2ppm of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That rate is unprecedented.

Before your eyes glaze over, let me explain what “rate” means Girl in Gumboots style. Say I hand you a 250ml glass of gin (it’s a pleasure) and tell you you have 24 hours to drink it as you go about your daily routine. No big stress, right? 250ml of gin is gonna be enough to make you feel a little fuzzy around the edges, but you’ll still be able to bang out your work, have coherent conversations and maybe, if you line your tummy and give it enough time, be under the legal limit to drive home. Okay. Now, I’m going to give you the same challenge BUT you have to drink 250ml of gin every hour. I challenge you to do this without getting fired, slapped or arrested. Not even Tony Stark or your average Rhodes student could pull that off (but if you do try, please send photos).

  1. Carbon Dioxide is natural
    Gin is also natural.

Right now, Earth is too drunk to drive.
I don’t know how we’re supposed to fix everything, I just know that we must. I also know that the day I accept Geoengineering is the day I lose whatever shred of faith I have left in our species. Can we at least TRY be better custodians of our beautiful amazing wondrous planet? Can we maybe start by looking after our fellow man? I like to think we have it in us.

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One thought on “Climate Change according to Girl in Gumboots

  1. Lauren, great post. Your passion on this topic is evident and I would hate to be the ignoramus on the receiving end of your knowledge at a dinner party!

    I don’t for one second doubt the link between mankind’s CO2 generation and global warming.  I think it is both admirable and the moral imperative that we try to reduce our footprint as individuals, try to educate others to do the same, and strive to understand the phenomenon and potential solutions scientifically.

    But, as you point out with the Khayelitsha townsfolk, those operating at the thick end of the needs hierarchy can’t afford to pay any attention. And those that threaten to make the biggest addition to energy consumption over the next few decades, the new middle classes of the emerging markets, for the most part are driven by materialistic goals and see it as their right to enjoy the same access to goods and services that we in the developed countries have.  This is most likely just a symptom of the recency of their escape from poverty, but this attitude will probably take longer to change than the window of opportunity we have.

    Realistically, the demographic reality means that global CO2 reduction is not achievable without a change in the way we create our energy, right? We have to trust in technological change.  Any savings the developed world makes will be more than squandered by the millions of developing countries climbing up the consumerist ladder.  Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight it, any more than you shouldn’t help the old granny next door on the basis that you’ll never be able to eradicate global loneliness or suffering.  It’s just the right thing to do.

    But I think we have to be realistic about what we can achieve.  The problem is, with necessity being the mother of invention, we will almost certainly have to suffer a further escalation of global warming and its consequences (and/or a significantly higher oil price) before the world at large really takes this seriously.  Sounds pretty gloomy doesn’t it, and it is for many species that may be extinguished over the next couple of decades, but I’m optimistic about the ability of mankind’s ingenuity to find a solution to our energy generation problem. Talking of which; what do you guys know about Liquid Flouride Thorium Reactors? They seem genuinely to offer a viable solution (not a perfect one, agreed) to this issue, and yet there is zero discussion of this topic in the mainstream.

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