Climate action now needs the medical mindset
Climate’s Big Picture, Part 1
The focus here will be on 21st-century surges in the global weirding now occurring atop the creep in global warming. Future climate change is not merely a matter of more hot summers and more weeks of stay-indoors wildfire smoke. Indeed, extreme weather surge-and-stay may collapse our civilization before the creep up in temperature does.
When global overheating paused between 2001 and 2013 — what we hope to achieve with our net zero strategy — extreme weather did not pause with it. Instead, five types of extreme weather surged, including two mega heatwaves that killed 126,000 Europeans during the global overheating pause.
Yes, that’s right: during the global overheating pause, there were, nonetheless, two regional mega heatwaves of a size never seen before. Has this changed our thinking about our climate strategy? Not yet.
We need a new climate strategy. Forget those end-of-the-century projections that assume smooth change; they never were more than an argument that “It will be at least this bad, even if there are no surprises along the way.” So far, the 21st century has been full of unpleasant surprises. Climate instabilities will shorten the time remaining before an inattentive civilization collapses — or, at least, becomes sufficiently disorganized that climate repairs are abandoned.
Too late may arrive even before a tipping point is reached. That is because of the lead times for doing something that is sufficiently big — and quick enough to head off a profound economic collapse. That ‘something’ must also be surefire on the first try, as there will be no time for a second try before we have a broken civilization incapable of saving its citizens.
Widespread institutional collapse, in the manner of failed states, is likely to be followed by a messy population crash featuring famines, resource wars, pandemics, and genocides. That is what collapse looks like. Pervasive gang warfare and protection rackets are just the start.
“Do we really need to be talking about that, already?” Yes, and it is because of fifty years of denial and delay. The new 21st-century climate history has changed in sustained steps, not just gradually. There were five extreme weather surge-and-stays (steps in numbers or intensity to triple or more) between 2002 and 2010. Unlike storm surges, none have retreated.
Though more extreme weather was expected with overheating, the sudden steps were a surprise. The winds discovered new modes of operation, analogous to when the failure of the trade winds flips us from La Niña conditions into the El Niño mode. Anything that sends the rain elsewhere is likely to promote both droughts and wildfires — and unleash flash floods in unfamiliar places.
Blocking highs often spell trouble. They stall the eastward drift of the polar jet stream’s snake-like footprint; the backup squeezes those loopy meanders. This produces tight hairpin turns that reverse the jet’s direction. They can prolong heat waves or make hurricanes stall for days. That’s a good setup for high winds, hailstorms, flash floods, and fire weather.
Furthermore, the turnaround is sometimes detached by shortcutting, in the manner of river channels that become an abandoned meander. In the atmosphere, this “isolated high” or “isolated low” ring need not drift eastward with the rest of the jet stream, producing a stationary heat wave or prolonged precipitation inside the ring until it spins down by friction over the next week.
We currently have no means of foreseeing the next big surge-and-stay. We do not understand the atmosphere’s fluid mechanics well enough. Chaos theory being what it is, we may never.
Also missing from the public discourse about climate threats is the professional engineer’s focus on analyzing ‘failure modes’, which is how they determine what safety margins are needed to avoid structural collapse. Such failure mode considerations are important for our society’s planners to think about; they would also allow experts to speak to the public and legislators in more familiar terms than those fractional degrees of global overheating, which allow many readers to put off serious climate action.
We medical-school professors are likely the largest occupational group that teaches about collapse. And some of the distinctions we make would be useful in the public discourse about climate action. Preventative actions (say, diets and vaccines) differ from treatments and they in turn differ from actions that merely “buy time” by relieving symptoms of a worsening disease. Limiting intake (a diet) differs from cleanup of an accumulation (dialysis, draining an abscess, liposuction). Halting progression (as in net zero emissions) differs from repair; it in turn differs from restoration and redesigning for next time — or boosting regulating feedback to enforce stability.
Stable is not just a measurement that varies little. Something that currently appears unchanging may prove fragile if pushed. Stabilizing, however, implies bracing to prevent wobble that is threatening collapse. (Think of ladder outriggers or the deep keel on a sailboat.) In medicine we speak of “stabilizing the patient.” This involves increasing blood volume via a saline drip and adding drugs that elevate blood pressure. Both are aimed at moving back, in advance of need, from danger zones such as a slippery slope. Something similar is now needed for climate.
How are we doing? Currently, more than 80 percent of the world’s energy production still comes from fossil fuels. In the 21st century, annual emissions are still increasing, faster than ever. Time for stronger medicine?
There was a 13-year hiatus from 2001 through 2013 when, despite rising CO2 levels, global temperature stayed flat without major volcanic eruptions to blame. SST varies year-to-year less than land; on continents, evaporative cooling varies with that year’s drought acreage. Though I understand the 1970s energy budget reasons for talking of a global average temperature, most of us live on continents that are heating up 3–4x faster since 1985. It no longer makes much sense to dilute our chosen temperature index with several parts of slower-rising sea surface temperature, especially when so many people underestimate the climate problem when it is presented as a change of only a fraction of a degree in some future decade.
But then surface temperatures, diluted or not, turn out to be a poor index of climate troubles.
William H. Calvin, Ph.D., is Affiliate Professor Emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle.