2 possible futures: Dust Bowl (or the better choice)

Know anyone who remembers the Dust BowlGrapes of Wrath and all that? Our President’s recent executive order, which can only be called “business as usual” (or worse) with respect to carbon emissions, aims to bring it back. To stay.

Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Projected soil moisture in 2095 at 30-cm depth (as deviations from the 20th century average) for a “business as usual” CO2 emissions scenario. Under this scenario, the atmospheric CO2 concentration reaches 1,370 ppm in 2100.

This projection was not made by a bunch of hacks and conspiracy theorists. The lead author on the study is a NASA scientist, and the picture above results from analyses of 17 different climate models by a team of independent scientists from multiple institutions. I myself am a scientist who dreamed of working at NASA, but I don’t. Please trust me when I say it’s competitive. The climate models involve enhanced versions of the same math that enabled the physicist, Gilbert Plass, to predict in 1956 almost the exact temperature rise and environmental observations we see now. See the NASA press release here. See the technical paper here.

The image above is called “business as usual.” It assumes the Paris Climate Agreement is not honored (as our President has clearly signaled his intent that we not honor it), and all of us go on emitting carbon like we have been. In this scenario, the atmospheric CO2 concentration reaches 1,370 ppm by 2100. (This is not crazy but quite realistic; as we have seen, the CO2 level has risen from 290 ppm in 1900 to 410 ppm today and the rate of increase is strongly accelerating.) The darkest regions in the above image have soil moisture comparable to the 1930’s Dust Bowl. Farmers and grocery shoppers, take note.

The image below is a “moderate emissions” scenario, which assumes we constrain our CO2 emissions such that the atmospheric CO2 concentration in 2100 is 650 ppm. It’s still dry compared with the 20th century average and, make no mistake, this will be challenging. But it’s not a Dust Bowl.

Image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Projected soil moisture in 2095 at 30-cm depth (as deviations from the 20th century average) for a “moderate emissions” CO2 emissions scenario. Under this scenario, the atmospheric CO2 concentration reaches 650 ppm in 2100.

The second image seems like a better choice, for sure. But it’s not the trajectory we Americans are on, under the conditions of our President’s recent executive order. Under those conditions, if we achieve the second choice, it will be thanks to the Chinese, India, Europe, Brazil, and the rest of the 194 other nations that signed the Paris Climate Agreement. And it will be in spite of our own irresponsible actions as the current 2nd largest carbon emitter, the #1 cumulative historical emitter, and the most wealthy nation on the planet. We should be ashamed.

Look, I have no ill will toward coal miners. They have helped bring us enormous human progress. But we now clearly understand that progress has had a price we can no longer afford (and have developed the technology to avoid) paying. Modern coal mining is a technical job. Much like building solar panels or wind turbines. I propose that coal miners could learn to do either one of those. I recognize it would be a hardship (which we could choose to ease, for example, through government-subsidized retraining programs). I believe some of them would end up enjoying and prospering from such a change. And new jobs of the future, not the past, would be created. And the United States would be more competitive in the future global economy, which will embrace sustainable energy sources to the extent that it survives.

But, in any case, it would also be a hardship for all the residents of New Orleans and Miami to choose between building a 25-foot seawall (the height of the Great Wall of China!) or abandoning their homes and skyscrapers. It would also be a hardship for American farmers to look for new professions or seek their farming fortunes in Canada, where they don’t presently own any land.

And let’s be clear. We’re not talking about the fate of some distant human generations. The children living among us, our children, will experience the year 2095 that we are choosing right now.

We have real choices to make. Not made-for-TV choices. And the time for making them is now. (The Earth doesn’t watch TV.)

Watch a short NASA video about this study narrated by lead researcher Ben Cook, NASA Climate Scientist:

Video credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.


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