We have no insurance against this risk

Nobody can take credit for inventing insurance. All cultures have found ways to protect individuals from the full cost of bad luck.

  • Farmers diversify their crops in type, location and timing to reduce their risks, but storage, trade and mutual assistance help unlucky farmers.
  • Communities diversity their work, assets and family relations to reduce their risks, but migration, sharing and collaboration help unlucky neighbors.
  • Investors diversity among liquid and illiquid assets with short-term or long-term maturities, but laws, family ties and social welfare protect the bankrupt.

Humans evolved these structures — and the rich social bonds and norms that hold them together — over millennia, with each post-event refinement bringing a little more stability to the system and prosperity to the group.

For most of the 200,000-year history of our species, Nature delivered accidents and harm, but those risks became predictable over time and thus amenable to insurance, hedging, and other means of investing a little in good times to avoid occasional, catastrophic losses.

Among those who study climate, “stationarity” implies that patterns vary within clear boundaries over time. For the past 5,000 years, climate has been stationary in terms of temperatures, precipitation and storms. That pattern has been disrupted by acute forces — hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions — just as it has evolved under the influence of solar radiation and other geological processes, but those changes (small and local or large and slow, respectively) have not been strong enough to overwhelm our primitive insurances or prevent us from migrating out of harm’s way.

Welcome to non-stationarity

Anthropogenic climate change will bring unprecedented risks that will strain and occasionally break our formal and informal coping mechanisms. In October 2017, the World Meteorological Association noted that:

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years… The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now… The rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 over the past 70 years is nearly 100 times larger than that at the end of the last ice age. As far as direct and proxy observations can tell, such abrupt changes in the atmospheric levels of CO2 have never before been seen.

The unprecedented levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) and their unnatural accumulate rate in the atmosphere mean that our species is about to experience dramatic changes in temperatures, precipitation and storms.

As a water economist, I am well aware of climate change’s impacts on the water cycle and thus on the various categories of water-related phenomena  through which climate change will arrive. Given this experience, I would order the risks in these categories, in order of highest to lowest threat to humans, as follows:

  1. Temperatures too high or too low for unprotected exposure
  2. Droughts or precipitation too long to be buffered by storage or drainage
  3. Changes or crashes in biodiversity that destroy entire food systems
  4. Wind-driven storms stronger than natural or man-made defenses
  5. Changes in sea levels and currents that alter continental ecosystems

Note that I put sea-level rise — the change most closely connected to the name of this project — as the least-threatening category of change.

There are many ways to die

Our formal and informal means of insuring ourselves against risk and disaster are going to fail many people in the decades ahead. Poor people with incompetent or corrupt governments will try to help each other, but their resources can only go so far. Rich people will be partially insulated by financial and political coping mechanisms, but additional costs will undermine markets and overwhelm bureaucracies and taxpayers. People all over the world will face the reality of uninsured losses and the uncertainty of emerging, unprecedented risks.

In 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years, Jorgen Randers (one of the original authors of The Limits to Growth) suggested that climate change would slow as humans diverted resources from consumption (and thus GHGs) to investments designed to offset climate change impacts. Although his logic is sound, I see few signs of that switch.

Bottom line: The damages from climate-change driven alterations to the water cycle will overwhelm our coping mechanisms, leading to unprecedented death, destruction and misery. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the resources to help you when you need it, so now is the time to invest in securing yourself and your community against those risks.

2100: Hot, crowded and rich

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

Climate scientists use standardized scenarios as they peer into the future. The scenarios, known as “representative concentration pathways” and “shared socioeconomic pathways,” specify trends in population, economic growth, energy use, and other variables that produce different degrees of warming, help maintain comparability among the work of research groups. But by putting everything in the form of tidy numbers, do they obscure the big picture?

Some of the most widely publicized visions of the future combine two scenarios known as RCP 8.5 and SSP5. These assume that population increases to as many as 12 billion people, nearly twice as many as today. They also stipulate no implementation of climate policies, heavy reliance on fossil fuels (especially coal), and a tripling of CO2 emissions. That would be enough to produce as much as 5 degrees C of warming by 2100, far more than the 2 degrees C, beyond which lies climate catastrophe, according to many environmentalists.

Although it is less often discussed, RCP 8.5 and SSP5 also assume a remarkable increase in economic prosperity. They project that GDP per capita in 2100, adjusted for inflation, will be five times higher in countries that are already developed today, and up to 30 times higher in those that are now less developed. This economic growth surprises some people, but it should not. After all, economic production and consumption are the source of the emissions that drive the warming. If they didn’t grow, the future climate would be cooler.

To grasp what this paradoxical future that combines environmental devastation with great economic prosperity would really look like, we need to move beyond the numbers. Let’s take a quick trip through time to visit some representative countries of the crowded, warm, and wealthy world of 2100.

We start with a stop in Iceland—the richest country in the world, with a per capita GDP of $1.5 million, stated in US dollars with 2010 purchasing power. (This and other income estimates come from a recent study by Marshall Burke and colleagues.) Yes, there is still actual ice here, if you look in the right place at the right time of year. As a tourist attraction, ice is one source of the country’s wealth. Tourism aside, Iceland has maintained strict immigration controls, as have most European countries. That leaves plenty of room for crops in its fertile fields. Food exports are another source of income. Iceland continues to get most of its energy from geothermal sources, so it bears little of the blame for the climate woes that affect many other parts of the world.

Mongolia was poor and chilly back in 2010, but in 2100, it is one of thirty-eight countries that are better off than they would have been without climate change. Its per capita GDP of 390,000 dollars makes it the seventh richest country in the world. Unlike Iceland, Mongolia has opted for an open immigration policy. Its population has increased 40-fold since 2010 and now stands at 120 million. Descendants of refugees from Pacific Islands and the Bengal Delta outnumber those of native Mongolian stock. Most people live in cities. The country’s highly mechanized agriculture, which makes Mongolia the breadbasket of Asia, requires few workers. Abundant coal and a young, skilled, and rapidly growing urban population have made Mongolia an industrial powerhouse that some compare to Japan of the late twentieth century. As we take a tour by high-speed train through verdant fields of corn and soy beans, we can’t help but wonder what Genghis Khan would think if he could return today to his once-austere homeland.

Australia, unlike Iceland and Mongolia, has been a loser from climate change, at least in relative terms. Although per capita incomes are more than double their 2010 level, they would have risen five-fold without global warming. The environment is in terrible shape. There is little open-air agriculture. Kangaroos and Koalas survive only in zoos. Nearly everyone lives in cities, which have become more compact for efficient air conditioning. Streets and cars are a thing of the past—people and freight move around in pneumatic tubes that connect everything. Fortunately, energy is abundant. There is plenty of room in the desertified countryside for solar farms, and the country is still working its way through its vast coal reserves. Mineral exports pay for food from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Siberia. The population is stable. Australia has consistently limited immigration, although it is generous with foreign aid.

India is the world’s poorest country in 2100. Although per capita GDP has risen three-fold since 2010, it is still only $1,657. Much of that is spent on municipal air conditioning, so little is available for personal consumption. By traditional standards, India, one of the world’s hottest countries, is simply uninhabitable. There are fewer days each year when it is safe to go outside, even briefly, but with few countries willing to accept climate refugees, more than a billion people continue to live here. Whereas Sydney and Melbourne were still recognizable as cities, Indians live in more compact habitats. From the inside, they look much like ships, with crowded bunkrooms for the poor and luxury decks for the rich. Like Australia, India is self-sufficient in energy, thanks to abundant solar power and coal. There is a vibrant cultural life, but exports of music, films, and services like software development do not earn enough to pay for food imports. The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid from the hyper-wealthy, unwelcoming, but guilty countries of the North.

We are back to the present now. Can we really believe what we have seen? Did the world really spurn even modest climate mitigation policies that would have left it a little less wealthy, but cooler? Did it really avoid the famines and wars that might have decimated populations and wrecked economies, leaving the planet battered but not quite as hot? These are questions that climate models alone can’t answer.

Edwin G. Dolan holds a PhD in economics from Yale University. He hastaught in the United States at Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, George Mason University and Gettysburg College. From 1990 to 2001, he taught in Moscow, Russia. After 2001, he taught economics in Budapest, Prague, and Riga. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center and lives in Northwest Lower Michigan.

All empires fall

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

All empires fall, and all empires fall for the same reason… Arrogant Complacency.

They rise through hunger and innovation. The Egyptians invented the war chariot, and conquered North Africa and the Middle East. Then the Mesopotamians built a better chariot, and that was it for the Pharaohs, after them came the Persians, and after them the Romans, and so on and so on; each building newer and better machines of war.

If it is true that necessity is the mother of invention, then it must be doubly true that war is its father, after all nothing says necessity quite like your neighbours attempting to part your head from your body.

“What has that got to do with climate change?” I hear you ask (I have truly excellent hearing)

Well everything. Empires grow fat the more successful they become, the people no longer hungry become lazy, delegating work to slaves, or immigrant labour, their sense of inherent supremacy over their enemies leads to complacency, and then one morning you find the Visigoths at the gates, and they aint no tourists neither.

Even when they recognise the danger, it’s either too late or they’re so inured from reality by their belief in their supremacy, (We’re number one, HoooWahh; sound familiar?) that they simply refuse to believe they can lose. Ask Louis XVI, or the Romanovs, they could tell you a thing or two about it; and the British still cannot believe the Empire is gone.

You’re still wondering what all this has to do with Global warming; Jeez calm down, I’m getting to it.

It’s a commonly held belief that man’s interference in the workings of nature leading to his ultimate demise, is unique to our time, not so. Eleven hundred years ago an entire Peruvian civilisation disappeared because of irrigation. Yes, you read that right, irrigation proved to be their undoing.

What they didn’t realise was that every time they irrigated the land, the absorbed water, as it was drawn back up through the soil brought nutrients and minerals with it; and one of those minerals was salt.

Over the course of two hundred years they salinated the land so thoroughly that they rendered it incapable of growing anything.

And how do we know this? Because it`s happening all over again, only this time in California.

We may be unique in the history of mankind, in the history of any species that has littered this planet for that matter; we can see our own demise heaving very slowly into focus, one degree at a time. But we suffer from the same paralysing sense of entitlement that bedevilled all the Empires long gone.

We complain that it’s too hard, that wind farms are ugly, that we can’t make the sacrifices. We’re too pampered, too fat, too full of ourselves; we live in a society that claims that not only is broadband a necessity, it’s a human right; y’know, like clean water, only more important.

Are we capable of learning the lessons of all those fallen civilisations? Possibly.

The most heartening sign is that China and India, the fastest growing economies in the world are ditching coal faster than you can say “Fake News” and switching to solar.

So there may be hope for us yet, though I won`t hold my breath; lucky for me I’m a good swimmer.

Finbarr Swanton was born on a bitter March morning sometime in the last century to much screaming and wailing. Though not by his mother, she slept through the whole event. Raised in the purgatory that was 20th Century Holy Catholic Ireland, he survived a primary school education at the hands of the (un)Christian brothers; just. And yes; it is true that none of the schools he attended are still places of education, though he contends that they never were in the first place, and that their closures are purely coincidence, having nothing at all to do with him. He has had too many jobs to list here. None of which; he admits, have led to a life of indolent riches. He has to date epubbed two books, a Y/A fantasy fiction novel and a collection of short stories; both of which were received with rapturous indifference… The struggle continues.

Visualizing earthly vulnerability

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

What do we imagine when we imagine environmental destruction? What images do we look at on our screens or hold in our minds? While the ways to narrate the story of humans in the age of the Anthropocene may be numerous, there seems to be a fairly small number of visual images that have consistently pervaded our cultural imaginaries of environmental destruction and become iconic. Two among them are the view of the Earth from outer space, and the image of the postapocalyptic Earth’s surface. They are a staple of science fictional films, such as for example Oblivion (2013), Wall-E (2008), or the sci-fi-documentary The Age of Stupid (2009), but also spread out throughout popular culture and political discourses much more widely. One way to approach this is see precisely science fiction as the key contemporary discourse that is not only able to articulate the situatedness of the human species within the historical, geological and cosmic timeframes, but also to speculate on the human and earthly futures. If the genre of science fiction, as Brian Aldiss argues in Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction (1988), is crucially about the human relationship to its environment and advanced technology, what better medium is there to address climatic disturbances brought on by the human industrialized activities, and the imagined future outcomes? The narrative of climate change is essentially a futuristic, speculative, science-fictional narrative, we could argue. In this narrative, how do the two emblems of the Earth from outer space and the postapocalyptic Earth’s surface function, how do they mediate our hopes and anxieties? Let us zoom in on these images more closely.

The iconic Blue Marble image, of the illuminated face of the Earth in space, was taken from the orbit in 1972 by the Apollo 17 crew, and would become one of the most reproduced photographs in human history. It shows the planet as a mesh of blue ocean, white cloud and brown continent, against the eerily vast, black cosmos. The Earth looks frail and isolated amidst the blackness. The context in which it was taken was the space race and the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union, the underlying nuclear threat, and the burgeoning environmentalist movement. The Blue Marble quickly became a symbol for global environmentalism as the image inscribes the sense of oneness and unity of humankind in the need to save our earthly home from the engulfing, black threat, be it nuclear war or climate change. When looking for a few moments longer, the image almost as if condenses into two dimensions the enormous times of the planetary evolution and the evolution of life on Earth, from the simplest organisms to plants and animals, and speeding up through the human history finally brings us to the moment of current urgency. In this evolutionary history humans are just a blip of a split second, but ominously, a force powerful enough to bring about the ultimate destruction of themselves as well as other earthlings. The image comes to stand for the wonder of life on the one hand, and on the other, its utter contingency and vulnerability. As Kelly Oliver suggests in Philosophy After the Apollo Missions (2015), the Blue Marble makes manifest tensions between the sense that humans are the centre of the universe, and the sense we are insignificant, between the awe for and loneliness of earthlings. Let us put it this way. If Copernicus gave an early modern blow to human narcissism and dogmatic presumption by displacing the Earth from the center of the universe, the late 20th century Blue Marble unfolds this to its ecological conclusion: it tears a fatal wound by signalling the imminent threat of the obliteration of humans through their very own doing.

Suddenly, the viewer finds themselves in the middle of a desert. The ominous threat has been materialized, turning the factory farms, advanced machinery, war weapons and planes to things of the past. The evolutionary history will have unfolded itself another split second into the future and dropped us abruptly among the ruins. This future document of the postapocalyptic Earth’s surface is an image of barren, devastated land, interspersed with scattered remains and possibly few human survivors in the windy and erratic climate. Nonhuman animals commonly enter the scene, such as vultures feeding on carcases. Though apocalyptic imagery is at least as old as the Bible, the depictions of God’s Judgement Day have transformed themselves in the current context into the catastrophic aftermath of human industrial exploitation and technological devastation of the environment, of the will to master nature. This is an uncanny world, haunted yet mesmerizing, frequently showing the epitomes of human civilisation in ruins: the London Eye overshadowing the flooded metropolis, the Las Vegas casinos crumbled in the desert, or the Sydney Opera on fire, among others. The Earth’s surface will have deterritorialised itself from these human layers and structures, leaving only traces for a possible future geologist, whatever species they might be. The particular power of the postapocalyptic image, as with the Blue Marble, lies in channeling the ambiguity between the sense of human importance on the one hand, and insignificance on the other. As Clare Colebrook argues in Death of the PostHuman: Essays on Extinction, Vol. 1 (2014), the postapocalyptic geological image folds the earth around human survival, while at the same time it presents the viewer with a world in which life on Earth does continue to go on, and some nonhuman species might even flourish. It gives us a glimpse of posthuman living environments, but only in the tone of elegy and mourning, registering what will have been lost. The postapocalyptic image of Earth’s surface hails to us from the future to change the course of present actions while we still can.

Fani Cettl is a scholar working at the intersection of science fiction, environmental humanities, animal studies and biopolitics. She holds a PhD from the Central European University, Budapest.

Blue death

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

Some say the world will end in fire

I like the idea of a nuclear apocalypse — the sound of it. The “nuclear” clips and the “apocalypse” pops. More than that, I like the suddenness. I’d like to go quickly, in the four-mile blast radius where winds reach speeds of 158 miles per hour (and that’s just for a one-megaton bomb). Of course, a four-mile blast radius is only 50 square miles of a 200-million-square-mile Earth, but the world is small when a bomb lands on top of you. And when a bomb lands on top of you the apocalypse is stentorian and scriptural and sudden. The world ends just as it should – in fire that falls from the sky. Red death is quick.

Blue death is slower. The seas are rising: a millimeter and a half every year in the 1990s, three millimeters a year by 2000. Three and a half millimeters in 2016. A slow creep as global temperature rises and the ocean expands. And scientists expect that hurricanes will get worse too, as the decades tick by – infinitesimally more intense one season, infinitesimally more intense the next.

But a slow apocalypse is so difficult to think about. We don’t like it. I don’t like it; I hate playing the game of time. If I have children, will they have children, and will those grandchildren be born by 2100? (Climate scientists tend to make their predictions for the year 2100.) And will those grandchildren perhaps live in the Netherlands (where my grandparents lived), at some location that is currently only one meter above sea level? Because, if so, those hypothetical grandchildren would surely be subsumed by the sea – but this game is tedious and by this point I’ve lost interest in panicking.

It’s much easier to panic about the nuclear apocalypse than it is to panic about the apocalypse that is wet and blue and slow.

The heat of a hurricane

The heat energy released by a fully developed hurricane is equivalent to that of a ten-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. Not a one-megaton bomb, with its 158-mile-per-hour winds within a four-mile blast radius, but a ten­-megaton bomb, and in another 20 minutes another ten-megaton bomb, and in another 20 minutes another ten-megaton bomb. In the most impressive hurricanes – Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale – wind speeds may exceed 158 miles per hour. The amount of energy released by a hurricane is shattering. It’s apocalyptic.

If a Category 5 hurricane churns over you, then the apocalypse is quick, although not red. If you favor a fiery end, then console yourself that at least there is heat in a hurricane – thousands of billions of watts of heat, many nuclear bombs’ worth of heat. So much heat that it’s almost strange that hurricanes bring blue death.

The hate of a hurricane

There’s hate in the nuclear apocalypse. There has to be hate, because bombs are dropped by people. (Hate is indifference where there should be empathy.) There’s no hate in a hurricane.

Except that hurricanes intensify as the climate warms, and the climate is warming. The most intense of hurricanes – the Category 5 storms as well as their cousins in Category 4 – are going to become more frequent. By 2100, when my hypothetical grandchildren are growing up, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes will have doubled. And perhaps my grandchildren will not be living in the Netherlands, after all (because perhaps the Netherlands will be underwater) and will instead inhabit a more hurricane-prone location, like Japan or Bangladesh or the Gulf of Mexico coast. And while they are growing up on the Gulf of Mexico Coast, they will have good reason to be afraid of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, because Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are exceptionally destructive. During the last century, when they only accounted for 6 percent of the storms that hit the U.S., they were responsible for 48 percent of the hurricane-induced damage.

So there is no hate in a hurricane, except that hurricanes intensify as the climate warms, and climate warms as carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere because we burn coal and oil and gas, and we burn them freely. And we like to think that the apocalypse will be red and fast, so we like to think that it can’t be happening right now. After all, it’s hard to see the sea as it rises, millimeter by millimeter, and it’s hard to see the hurricanes getting worse and worse, because they only land on us one at a time. And it is very tedious to spend time considering a hot, wet, blue death.

And perhaps it’s just tedious enough that I am unmindful, and perhaps I am just unmindful enough that I am willing to be cruel to my bright-eyed hypothetical grandchildren. And perhaps, in 2100, there is hate in a hurricane after all – my ancient hate.

(Hate is indifference where there should be empathy.)

Death by water

When a hurricane hits it is certainly not the heat that kills, and nor, mostly, is it those galloping, screaming winds. Nearly seven hundred storms hit the U.S. over the past half-century; they killed two-and-a-half thousand people; and the winds killed less than a tenth of those people. Water killed nine-tenths – about 2,100 people.

When a hurricane makes landfall, it pushes before itself a wall of water called the storm surge, which can be as short as four feet or as tall as forty. Storm surges in the U.S. over the past-half century accounted for half of the deaths by water. A hurricane also brings rain, and where it rains it may flood, or the ground may collapse into a mudslide – so rainfall accounted for about three-tenths of the deaths by water. And the rest drowned in riptides, and waves, and the open ocean. It can take more than four minutes for a person to drown, and death is slow, and death is blue.

When I dream of the end of the world I dream of water.

Kalila Morsink is a university student in New York City, where she studies earth science and creative writing. When not preoccupied by blue thoughts about the future, she enjoys going hiking and purchasing patterned socks.