Food-system collapse, sea-level rise, disease. In his new book “Falter,” Bill McKibben asks, “Is it Too Late?”
Excerpted from “FALTER: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” by Bill McKibben. Published by Henry Holt and Company April 16th 2019. Copyright © 2019 by Bill McKibben. All rights reserved.
Oh, it could get very bad.
In 2015, a study in the Journal of Mathematical Biology pointed out that if the world’s oceans kept warming, by 2100 they might become hot enough to “stop oxygen production by phyto-plankton by disrupting the process of photosynthesis.” Given that two-thirds of the Earth’s oxygen comes from phytoplankton, that would “likely result in the mass mortality of animals and humans.”
A year later, above the Arctic Circle, in Siberia, a heat wave thawed a reindeer carcass that had been trapped in the permafrost. The exposed body released anthrax into nearby water and soil, infecting two thousand reindeer grazing nearby, and they in turn infected some humans; a twelve-year-old boy died. As it turns out, permafrost is a “very good preserver of microbes and viruses, because it is cold, there is no oxygen, and it is dark” — scientists have managed to revive an eight-million-year-old bacterium they found beneath the surface of a glacier. Researchers believe there are fragments of the Spanish flu virus, smallpox, and bubonic plague buried in Siberia and Alaska.
Or consider this: as ice sheets melt, they take weight off land, and that can trigger earthquakes — seismic activity is already increasing in Greenland and Alaska. Meanwhile, the added weight of the new seawater starts to bend the Earth’s crust. “That will give you a massive increase in volcanic activity. It’ll activate faults to create earthquakes, submarine landslides, tsunamis, the whole lot,” explained the director of University College London’s Hazard Centre. Such a landslide happened in Scandinavia about eight thousand years ago, as the last Ice Age retreated and a Kentucky-size section of Norway’s continental shelf gave way, “plummeting down to the abyssal plain and creating a series of titanic waves that roared forth with a vengeance,” wiping all signs of life from coastal Norway to Greenland and “drowning the Wales-sized landmass that once connected Britain to the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany.” When the waves hit the Shetlands, they were sixty-five feet high.
There’s even this: if we keep raising carbon dioxide levels, we may not be able to think straight anymore. At a thousand parts per million (which is within the realm of possibility for 2100), human cognitive ability falls 21 percent. “The largest effects were seen for Crisis Response, Information Usage, and Strategy,” a Harvard study reported, which is too bad, as those skills are what we seem to need most.
I could, in other words, do my best to scare you silly. I’m not opposed on principle — changing something as fundamental as the composition of the atmosphere, and hence the heat balance of the planet, is certain to trigger all manner of horror, and we shouldn’t shy away from it. The dramatic uncertainty that lies ahead may be the most frightening development of all; the physical world is going from backdrop to foreground. (It’s like the contrast between politics in the old days, when you could forget about Washington for weeks at a time, and politics in the Trump era, when the president is always jumping out from behind a tree to yell at you.)
But let’s try to occupy ourselves with the most likely scenarios, because they are more than disturbing enough. Long before we get to tidal waves or smallpox, long before we choke to death or stop thinking clearly, we will need to concentrate on the most mundane and basic facts: everyone needs to eat every day, and an awful lot of us live near the ocean.
FOOD SUPPLY first. We’ve had an amazing run since the end of World War II, with crop yields growing fast enough to keep ahead of a fast-rising population. It’s come at great human cost — displaced peasant farmers fill many of the planet’s vast slums — but in terms of sheer volume, the Green Revolution’s fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery managed to push output sharply upward. That climb, however, now seems to be running into the brute facts of heat and drought. There are studies to demonstrate the dire effects of warming on coffee, cacao, chickpeas, and champagne, but it is cereals that we really need to worry about, given that they supply most of the planet’s calories: corn, wheat, and rice all evolved as crops in the climate of the last ten thousand years, and though plant breeders can change them, there are limits to those changes. You can move a person from Hanoi to Edmonton, and she might decide to open a Vietnamese restaurant. But if you move a rice plant, it will die.
A 2017 study in Australia, home to some of the world’s highest-tech farming, found that “wheat productivity has flatlined as a direct result of climate change.” After tripling between 1900 and 1990, wheat yields had stagnated since, as temperatures increased a degree and rainfall declined by nearly a third. “The chance of that just being variable climate without the underlying factor [of climate change] is less than one in a hundred billion,” the researchers said, and it meant that despite all the expensive new technology farmers kept introducing, “they have succeeded only in standing still, not in moving forward.” Assuming the same trends continued, yields would actually start to decline inside of two decades, they reported. In June 2018, researchers found that a two-degree Celsius rise in temperature — which, recall, is what the Paris accords are now aiming for — could cut U.S. corn yields by 18 percent. A four-degree increase — which is where our current trajectory will take us — would cut the crop almost in half. The United States is the world’s largest producer of corn, which in turn is the planet’s most widely grown crop.
Corn is vulnerable because even a week of high temperatures at the key moment can keep it from fertilizing. (“You only get one chance to pollinate a quadrillion kernels of corn,” the head of a commodity consulting firm explained.) But even the hardiest crops are susceptible. Sorghum, for instance, which is a staple for half a billion humans, is particularly hardy in dry conditions because it has big, fibrous roots that reach far down into the earth. Even it has limits, though, and they are being reached. Thirty years of data from the American Midwest show that heat waves affect the “vapor pressure deficit,” the difference between the water vapor in the sorghum leaf’s interior and that in the surrounding air. Hotter weather means the sorghum releases more moisture into the atmosphere. Warm the planet’s temperature by two degrees Celsius — which is, again, now the world’s goal — and sorghum yields drop 17 percent. Warm it five degrees Celsius (nine degrees Fahrenheit), and yields drop almost 60 percent.