Opinion: Dire warnings — Hell on Earth

On Monday, the United Nations issued a grim report on climate change that forecasts a certain future of increasing heat waves, forest fires, rising oceans, and irreversible degradation of the earth’s environment. I doubt that most people will read it. After all, we’ve been hearing the same thing for the past three decades. And, that’s my point. We’ve been hearing the same thing for the past three decades!

After the fourth edition of the sociology book that I wrote with the late Elbert Stewart was published and our editor told us that it would also be issued in an international edition, I started thinking about the fact that all existing textbooks on the domestic market were about U.S. social problems. However, even back in those days, it was obvious that there were many social problems that were not confined to national boundaries.

That’s what motivated me to talk with my old partner Elbert and my new partner Chuck Hohm (then chairman of the Department of Sociology, San Diego State) about writing a college textbook about “Global Social Problems” (New York: HarperCollins, 1996). The trends that we reported 25 years ago are the same trends discussed in this past Monday’s publication.

Same old, same old

Like the scientists who study weather, oceans, ecology, environmental degradation as so forth, sociologists study trends. More than 25 years ago, my partners and I relied on reports from the United Nations as well as research conducted by many non-governmental organizations for the data that we included in our text.

I read Monday’s report alongside our book, the first U.S. textbook to examine social problems from a global perspective. What concerned me was that the forecasts made nearly three decades ago have not changed. However, they’ve been amplified and are more critical now. When we wrote our book, time was running out; Monday’s report makes it clear that time has now run out in several areas crucial to the earth’s continued survival as a habitat for humanity.

Here are the five most troubling findings of the United Nations’ IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).

• Global warming — In “Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis,” the IPCC developed five scenarios based on continuing trends. Let’s look at the most optimistic scenario of expected levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The best estimate for a 1.5-degree centigrade increase in temperature is between 2021 and 2040. Previous projections of climate change did not account for this level of warming so soon.

• Hotter, wetter, drier — Every region of the globe has been affected by the impacts of climate change. The world, as a whole, can expect “climate extremes,” such as extreme heat, heavy precipitation, and longer periods of drought.

The report states with virtual certainty that extreme heat has become more frequent and more intense since 1950. It also reports that the changes have been either caused by or accelerated by human activity.

• Extreme weather — The report found a positive correlation between increasing temperatures and extreme weather events. Each time that the world experiences an increase as little as 0.05 degrees centigrade, there are “clearly discernible increases” in extreme heat waves, heavy precipitation, and more intense droughts.

The report states, “Each incremental increase in global temperature also would lead to lower levels of Arctic Sea ice, snow cover, and permafrost.”

• Irreversibility — Greenhouse gases have already created irreversible damage to many key areas, from tropical rain forests to polar icecaps. Regardless of what we do now and in the future, ocean acidification, ocean temperature increase, polar ice melt, and sea-level rise will continue for hundreds of years. Even we can keep the increase in global temperature to 1.5 degrees centigrade, the sea level will rise between 1 and 2 feet during this century and 2 to 3 meters during the next 2000 years. That would put a huge part of the continents as we now know them under water.

Ice loss for the rest of this century is also unavoidable, and that loss will increase cumulative emissions of carbon dioxide.

• Extreme water cycles — The earth’s “carbon sinks,” like forests and oceans that “drain off” excess carbons, including carbon dioxide, will store increasing amounts of the substances and become less effective at doing so. As a result, carbon emissions will continue to increase in the atmosphere. In turn, natural water cycles will reach extremes, causing wetter wet seasons in some areas and drier dry seasons in other parts of the world. The report states, “Increased variability in rainfall tied to El Niño is also very likely under three of the global emission scenarios.” That could mean permanent drought for our valley and worse floods for coastal cities like New Orleans and Houston.

Unanticipated consequences

In essence, there is nothing new in the U.N. report. These trends started early on during the Industrial Revolution, but scientists became seriously concerned about them roughly 60 years ago. Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” (1962) drew attention to the overuse of pesticides; Paul (and Anne, who wasn’t credited) Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb” (1968) warned about the effects of overpopulation; Sandra Postel’s “Pillar of Sand” (1988) examined the world’s shortage of potable water.

When we wrote “Global Social Problems,” one of the things that we did not anticipate was how quickly the world would witness certain phenomena. In 2020, the world had a record number of storms and hurricanes (30 named storms and 13 hurricanes along the Atlantic states, alone).

In 2021 we will likely set a record for the number of days of triple-digit heat in the Central Valley, and unprecedented heat waves have been experienced throughout the western U.S. as well as in European countries from the Mediterranean to the North Sea.

If the world’s nations act with determination now, perhaps we can stall further degradation of the environment. Unfortunately, that’s the best that we can expect.

• • •

Jim Glynn, Professor Emeritus of Sociology, may be contacted at j_glynn@att.net.