Before I draw nearer to that stone to which you point,” said Scrooge, “answer me one question. Are these the shadows of the things that will be, or are they shadows of things that may be, only? (“A Charismas Carol,” Charles Dickens)
Trying to predict what our environment will look like in fifty or one hundred years as Climate Change progresses has turned into a sort of cottage industry. [Note: Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, by Mark Lynas and The Weather of the Future: Heat Waves, Extreme Storms, and Other Scenes from a Climate-Changed Planet, by Heidi Cullen] Nevertheless, they are useful thought experiments as they anticipate what changes warming might bring and what we might do to adapt. They also offer up a futuristic strawman, based on many climate studies, from which to think through some of the many long-term consequences of any one of the problems or solutions.
It will get complicated. For example, if you are looking ahead and following only one of the myriad threads of the consequences of a warmer Northeast, you might be expecting a longer and better growing season. (In the last century and half, our growing season has increased by about ten days.) The problem with that particular scenario is that crop pests grow faster in a warmer climate and some studies predict a limit to the carbon bump because high CO2 levels hamper nitrate incorporation by plants. Not to mention, our first reaction to more crop pests will be a dramatic ‘shock and awe’ of pesticide use, and climate studies predict this also.
In the Rochester NY area (Northeast America), we can reasonably expect some or all of these consequences of Climate Change in our region within the next 50 years or so:
...higher temperatures and increased heat waves have the potential to increase fatigue of materials in the water, energy, transportation, and telecommunications sectors; affect drinking water supply; cause a greater frequency of summer heat stress on plants and animals; alter pest populations and habits; affect the distribution of key crops such as apples, grapes, cabbage, and potatoes; cause reductions in dairy milk production; increase energy demand; and lead to more heat-related deaths and declines in air quality. Projected higher average annual precipitation and frequency of heavy precipitation events could also potentially increase the risks of several problems, including flash floods in urban areas and hilly regions; higher pollutant levels in water supplies; inundation of wastewater treatment plants and other vulnerable development in floodplains; saturated coastal lands and wetland habitats; flooded key rail lines, roadways, and transportation hubs; and travel delays. Sea level rise will increase risk of storm surge-related flooding, enhance vulnerability of energy facilities located in coastal areas, and threaten transportation and telecommunications facilities. Across the varied geography of New York State, many individuals, households, communities, and firms are at risk of experiencing climate change impacts. Some will be especially vulnerable to specific impacts due to their location and lack of resources. [Page 3, Report 11-18 Response to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAID)
- The Great Lakes water will become more acidic, even faster than our oceans. Warmer waters will affect temperature-sensitive fish (like trout which evolved in glacial cold waters), forcing them to move or die. Warmer lake waters cause less ice cover and increase evaporation which in turn lowers lake levels, causes more erosions of shorelines, reduces the cooling waters for nuclear power plants, and changes duck migration patterns. Lower water levels affect Great Lakes shipping and will starve hydroelectric plants of some of their water power.
- Wildlife will migrate northward to avoid heat. Some can escape up mountainsides where it is cooler, until they get to the top. Of course, it is very probable that most wildlife migration would be stopped by manmade barriers such as roads, canals, and backyard fences.
- Invasive species, which are by definition opportunists, will probably fill the gaps left by indigenous species. Weeds seem to benefit better from more carbon in the atmosphere than crops.
- There will be less snowfall and less snow cover, both of which are important to various local industries (skiing and snowmobiling). This means less protective blanketing for plants and animals that traditionally used this shield to weather the cold. The freezing and thawing schedule will be more erratic, making fruit growing more problematic. Also, not much is known about how the loss of snow cover will affect the microbes in our soil that evolved in a calmer climate.
- There will be more droughts in late summer and more precipitation in the form of rain in late winter that will mean more flooding and more toxic chemicals washing into our streams from unattended Brownfields, muddier planting seasons, more sewer overflows from the prevalence of combined sewer systems in our region which will in turn will put raw sewage into our rivers and lakes.
- Public Health issues such as Lyme Disease, Dengue Fever, Malaria, West Nile Virus, asthma, heatstroke, and ground-level ozone pollution will get worse (a threat to the healthiest athlete). Also it is possible that new pathogens will arise due to a disturbed ecosystem increasing the likelihood of insect-to-animal-to-human diseases.
- Migrating birds will find their food not ready or already taken by other critters because the synchronization of the birds’ arrival and their food will be disrupted.
- The weather will get whacky causing disruptions in the insurance industries that still use mostly historical data, instead of climate modeling, for predicting future costs. Home and property insurance could get prohibitively expensive, and put a tremendous burden on governments.
- See Likely Changes in our region because of Climate Change.
We can and should prevent at least some of these probable consequences; some we can adapt to; but some, like the extinction of cold water fish (lake trout), are probably going happen--except for continual restocking. Some, if not most, of the consequences are already happening. As of this writing many of our lakes are experiencing Harmful Algae Blooms (HAB). But few in our local media connect the dots with Climate Change, despite information from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) [Impacts of Climate Change on the Occurrence of Harmful Algal Blooms May 2013 US Environmental Protection Agency], thus rendering local efforts to prevent this threat to our beaches ad hoc and ultimately futile.
If this list seems overwhelming, there is nothing for it. We have been banished from the Holocene because we failed to realize we were living in an Eden that needed our keen stewardship to keep it sustainable. We now enter the Anthropocene.
And in Rochester, NY, because the mayoral candidates will not show us their Climate Plan, nor will the media press them on this, we will have no leadership in this new age. After all, Climate Change is all about planning. The shadows of things that may be are increasingly looking like they will be.