My interest in climate change came about in an unusual way. For most of the last decade, I had been paying peripheral attention to the warming of the world. It was interesting to read about ice caps, polar bears and greenhouse gases. But as a reporter specializing in the developing world, I didn’t see a connection with myself or my work.
Then I visited the refugee camps just outside of Darfur. It was 2004, and I was on assignment with Time Magazine to cover the beginnings of a conflict the U.S. State Department would call genocide. The stories the refugees told me – of torture, rape, murder – were threaded through with a common theme: the land envy of their attackers.
Even then it was clear to me that the conflict had environmental roots. The schism on which the combatants broke had its origins in the long drought that gripped the area in the 1970s and 1980s, when the degradation of the region sparked fighting between farmers and nomadic herders.
But it was only later, while researching an article for The Atlantic magazine on the subject that I discovered that climate scientists had traced the drying of Darfur to warming in the tropical and southern oceans. The same temperature pattern that some were saying was contributing to strong hurricanes off the Gulf Coast of the United States had disrupted the African monsoons — with terrible consequences.
I started to pay more attention to global warming. If the emissions from our cars, factories and power plants had contributed to the violence in Darfur, what else were they responsible for?
Last summer, the international community officially conceded the fight against climate change. When the planet’s most powerful economies met in Italy for the meeting of the G-8, they agreed to accept 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 C) of warming, far more than we’ve every experienced as a civilization. As negotiations ramp up ahead of an effort to hammer out a successor to the Kyoto treaty in Copenhagen later this year, talk is starting to switch from how to stop climate change to how to minimize it. Global warming is happening. What I’ve tried to do is understand how it’s playing out.
In the time I’ve spent researching its impacts, I’ve discovered that climate change is about much more than the environment. It will directly affect our lives. Even a modest rise in global temperatures, of the kind we can expect in the coming decades, can have the power to set off dramatic changes—with surprising implications.
If mild fluctuations in the global climate were enough to set off tragedy in Darfur, what other regions could be similarly vulnerable? The conflict in Darfur has already spilled over into Chad and the Central African Republic. Are there other areas we should be worried about? If the conflicts roots are ecological, what are the implications when crafting a solution to the problem? The negotiations for peace have revolved around the idea of allowing people to go back to their home, putting things as much as possible back as they were. But what if one cause of the conflict is that there simply is no longer enough land to go around?
The final implication is a moral one. If the violence in Darfur was to some extent caused by the emissions from our cars, our factories and our power plants, then we bear some responsibility for the dying. We no longer have the luxury of being good Samaritans, choosing whether or not to be involved. We’re already involved.
It’s worth spending a moment trying to understand just how the impacts of climate change will play out. One subject I’ve explored may seem trivial at first, but it provides lessons on how global warming will make itself felt. The accumulation of greenhouse gases is changing the taste of fine wine.
This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, the primary factors in the way wine tastes are variety of the grape, the soil in which it’s growing and the climate in which it grows. Generally, warmer weather means faster ripening, and the art of winemaking lies in controlling the conditions so that the grapes reach maturity at just the right moment.
Of course, climate is the only one of those factors that changes over the course of a year. Thus the difference between a prime vintage and one that’s only mediocre doesn’t lie often in the variety or the soil. Unless something really dramatic has happened, the difference depends on the weather that year.
According to Gregory Jones, a climatologist at Southern Oregon University, climate change so far has actually made wine better. After examining wine-growing regions from around the world he concluded that most had warmed in the second half of the last century, and the vintages being produced were improving. A rise in temperatures of one degree Celsius generally boosted ratings by about 13 points on a 100 point scale.
But when Jones used his data to estimate the best temperature for a given region, he found that by the 1990s, most had warmed so that the quality of wine being produced was either at—or past—its peak. As the world warms, growers will begin to find their grapes are ripening too early.
So what’s going to happen? At first growers will try to adapt. They’ll change the way their vines are trellised. Perhaps they will start planting on the cooler parts of their properties. They’ll tinker with the wines, remove sugars. But eventually, what they’re doing won’t work anymore. Things will have to change. Some growers might try putting in new grapes, varieties that do better in warmer climates. But others—say Cabernet growers who really want to grow Cabernet—will have to look elsewhere, move north or uphill, in search of the climate they once had. Jones has speculated that within 50 years, the best place to grow Chianti, which is a Tuscan wine from Italy, will be in Germany. The best Champagne could come from southern England.
If only it were so easy. Infrastructure, property rights, marketing—winegrowers have built their businesses on where the way grapes are being grown now. Were starting from scratch it might not make a difference whether Chianti grapes grew best in Tuscany or Bavaria. But we’re not. In a few decades, England might produce an exquisite sparking wine, but what’s the land there being used for now?
The wine industry is just one example—and to most people a fairly trivial one—of a part of our lives that will have to change. But its plight highlights the fact that we’re adapted to the world we’re living in now. Climate change will be moving us away from that.
Nor will the changes always be so predictable. In Nigeria in 2002, I caught malaria twice. I cured it early both times, before it had time to gather strength. But it knocked me down. Walking to the clinic for a blood sample during the second attack, I vomited on the road. That night I shivered on my friend’s couch. My bones ran cold. My shirt changed color with sweat. I lost two days before I was ready to work again.
A mosquito larva matures more rapidly when the water in which it grows is warm. Female mosquitoes digest blood faster and bite more frequently when the mercury rises. Malaria transmission begins when a mosquito bites an infected person. Once inside the mosquitos’ guts, the parasite splits into male and female and reproduce, sending their offspring into the mosquitos’ salivary glands, ready to be injected when the mosquito bites again.
The biggest challenge, from the point of view of parasite, is that the malaria mosquito only lives a few weeks. The parasite’s survival depends on it being able to reproduce while its host is still alive to bite. The strain of malaria I caught is called Plasmodium Falciparum. In temperatures of 68 degrees Fahrenheit, the parasite takes 26 days to complete its cycle. At 77 degrees, it’s ready after just 13 days.
But the simple relation between temperature and transmission masks a more complex picture. After all, in areas such as Florida or Italy that were once malarial, the parasite has been beaten back through mosquito control and the implementation of simple infrastructure like screen windows and air conditioners. If malaria and other tropical diseases spread gently north, similar measure will often be able to contain them. What’s more worrying is what we can’t predict.
In the summer of 2007, residents of a small town in northern Italy named Castiglione di Cervia, came down with unusual symptoms: fevers, rashes, crushing pains in their joints and bones. It turned out that an Italian tourist had visited India and contracted a tropical disease called chikungunya, and then he brought it back. In a normal year, the epidemic would most likely have ended with him. He would have recovered and that would have been it.
But the previous winter had been unusually mild, allowing a mosquito called the Asian tiger mosquito to breed early and in large numbers. So instead, when the Italian tourist returned with the virus, he was introducing it to an area that was literally swarming with carriers. That summer, 100 of the town’s 2000 villagers came down with the virus. World Health Officials have speculated that it was the first outbreak of a tropical disease in Europe caused by climate change.
Health care is again just one example, but it illustrates a larger worry. Health officials rely on past experience when deciding how to allocate their resources. As global warming churns the world’s weather, our systems will come under stress from unexpected directions, and that’s what’s going to be hardest to handle.
In short, we’re exchanging the world on which we’ve built our civilization for one in which things will not only be different, but much less predictable. Yet to some extent, the impacts discussed in this article are an exercise in optimism. In its history, the Earth has undergone wild swings in its climate, with ice sheets extending over much of Europe and North America. But for the past 10,000 years, a time period that correlates nicely with the entire history of our civilization, temperatures have been remarkably stable. We haven’t experienced temperature swings of more than about a half a degree Celsius.
The two degrees of warming agreed to by the major economies last summer in Italy is four times what we’ve experienced as a civilization, enough to bring about all the disruptions discussed here. Yet that same amount of warming could also be the threshold that some worry might be the point of no return, beyond which the Earth starts to undergo changes that perpetuate the thermometer’s climb. Warm soils decompose faster, releasing carbon dioxide and methane. Hotter oceans absorb less. Melting permafrost unleashes millennia’s worth of methane trapped in frozen bogs. At the North Pole, white ice is already giving way to black water and the seas are absorbing more sunlight.
Should these feedback effects start to build, we would be committing ourselves to a dramatically different world—one as far removed from the conditions we know today as we are from a planet where ice covered much of the northern hemisphere.
Stephan Faris is the author of Forecast: The Surprising and Immediate Consequences of Climate Change