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Thursday, 03 April 2014 06:26

How Climate Change Will Kill Us in the Dumbest Possible Way

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aaaOverpass Logan International Hannah Bowman(Photo: Hannah Elise Bowman)When we're not actively engaged in killing each other, watching TV, or occupied in other such entertaining diversions, one of humanity's favorite hobbies is imagining that we live in the end times, with extinction lurking around every corner. I've never been a huge fan of this sort of thing. I tend to hold that, as Copernicus explained, we don't occupy a privileged position at the center of the universe, nor do we occupy a privileged position in time, either at the beginning or end of humanity's lifespan. But lately? Perhaps it's because I don't spend enough time perusing sites featuring cats and their regrettable tattoos, or places that promise to ram a positive mood down my throat, but lately I find that voice of imminent doom to be a lot louder and far more persuasive.

I'm not a betting man, but if I had to choose the horse that our destruction will ride in on, I'd go with climate change (if you want debate the for vs. against of climate change, look elsewhere; that debate involves everyone yelling the same thing over and over. I will treat the notion of climate change as the settled science that it, you know, is). And here's the thing about climate change: while we tend to focus on the big, sexy, Hollywood disasters – the IPCC's latest includes fun things like increased global conflict, health catastrophes, and mass extinction - the climate can kill us in ways that are far more prosaic and even a little boring.

The latest iteration of the National Climate Assessment will be released next month and, for the first time, it includes a lengthy section on risks to infrastructure. A 109-page report on infrastructure impact has already been released and, while it's a bit dry, it makes for some fun bedtime reading. It includes, of course, the familiar bits about rising sea levels inundating coastal roadways – 2,400 miles of roads in the Gulf Coast alone – and cities and the like, but that's 30-odd years out, and long-term thinking has never been a strong point of ours. What should, in theory, be more alarming is what climate change can do to us right now, by breaking our interdependent and antiquated infrastructure.

There are a lot of moving parts that make up the national infrastructure – roads, the electrical grid, communication networks, water management, etc. – but the key point is that they are all interrelated. Poke one component and half a dozen others squeal. Take out the electrical grid and water treatment plants start dumping raw sewage. Throw a hurricane at a major port and, on top of all the bodies floating around, you disrupt shipping hundreds of miles up the river, leaving grain shipments to come within days of rotting on the docks.

All of that, of course, we've "recovered" from. Sure, Hurricane Sandy did $50 billion or so in damage, but that's all being fixed (or will be, when Christie takes some time off from being a gibbering buffoon) and everyone is happy. Why care? Imagine, if you will, a number of climate events occurring in quick succession. A heat wave in the Midwest meets a class-four hurricane in the Gulf while the Southwest, as the Southwest does faithfully each summer, bursts into flame. All predictable events that become ever more frequent as climate change pumps more energy into the system.

The heat wave makes the electrical grid go belly up at the same time Gulf refineries shut down, spiking energy costs. Issues with the electrical grid impact communications in the Southwest, and the wildfires start to get closer and closer to L.A., a vaguely important port city. Electrical failures at a Chicago waste treatment plant release raw sewage into Lake Michigan, and the automated messages that were intended to warn residents that an E. coli cocktail has entered the water supply are never sent due to communication failures. And then a few weeks later, while we're starting to recover, a few dozen tornados land in Oklahoma. All events that, in isolation, would be damaging but not catastrophic. But given the interdependence of the systems, each event is magnified, and each impacts our ability to deal with successive events. Things get worn down and then start to fall down.

Theoretically, it's possible to upgrade the assorted chunks of our infrastructure, to make them less likely to fall over. A comprehensive upgrade - fixing the electrical grid, water and sewage, repairing bridges that are on the verge of collapse, etc. - would run about $272 billion a year. Not cheap, but compared to the $800 billion and change to be spent on defense in 2014, that seems like a fine bargain.

Not that it's likely that such sweeping changes will happen. With Congress populated by clever folk such as Joe Barton, who is inexplicably on the House Committee on Energy, and believes that wind is a finite resource that, if harnessed, will cause winds to slow down and temperatures to rise, this might be a tough sell, especially given the fact that fixing things that are broken is socialism, and Jesus hates socialism.

So here we are, waiting for the world to kill us in a simple, stupid, and utterly predictable way. If our infrastructure collapses because we couldn't be bothered to make the obvious fixes, it will be akin to having your car explode because you couldn't get around to getting the oil changed. But that, alas, is how America rolls. This is the way the world ends: not with fire, nor ice, nor a bang, nor a whimper, but with the sound of a whole bunch of things slowly falling over.