Science

12 things you didn’t know are about to change forever

May 2, 2014 /
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We are familiar, perhaps too much so, with the adverse effects of climate change upon our natural environment. Most every day we learn of increased erosion, acidification, and some unfortunate kind of caterpillar that will not survive the impending endless summer. But that’s not even the half of it.

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  1. Crime will rise …
    As temperatures rise, so does the incidence of crime. Examining data from the past twenty years in St. Louis, Missouri, Southern Illinois University’s Dennis Mares suggests that violent crimes in particular appear to be linked to recent temperature anomalies. Economist Matthew Ranson takes a broader look at data collected from the whole of the United States, and his prognosis is no less bleak: between 2010 and 2099, climate change will cause an additional 22,000 murders, 180,000 cases of rape and 1.2 million aggravated assaults — and that’s just for starters. As Ranson said of climate change in an interview with the LA Times, “There is reason to believe it will also impact social connections in our neighborhoods, the amount of time we allow our children to spend outside and how much we are willing to spend on law enforcement.”
  2. … so will violence
    When we get hotter, we get more fractious and more violent, says economist Edward Miguel in a talk at TEDxBerkeley. So global warming could be a real problem here (PDF). It’s thought that this issue will hit Africa the hardest; by 2050, Miguel predicts a 40% increase in violence in Africa. Why? Much of Africa’s economic prosperity is bound up with agriculture, making the continent’s inhabitants especially vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Farmers are forced to migrate away from their homes to rear their animals, increasing the competition for arable land. As Jeffrey Sachs, a special adviser to the UN secretary-general, observes (paywall), “political problems arise because of climatic vulnerability and overstressed, arid lands.” This volatility plays into the hands of extremists, who exploit regional instability to entrench their rule by fear, and gain support from disillusioned youths.
  3. We’ll have more sex
    Well, it’s not all bad news. Though we’ll have to be more like marmots rather than polar bears. The lifecycle of yellow-bellied marmots is tied to the climate, since they spend the colder parts of the year in hibernation. A longer summer means more time for them to mate and reproduce. Will humans be the same? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, a National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences report suggests that possible psychological effects of climate change could include sexual dysfunction, social avoidance and irritability — hardly the recipe for a romantic relationship. On the other hand, however, there’s some evidence to support the anecdotal charm of summer lovin’. According to surveys by condom manufacturer Trojan, respondents in hotter climates such as Miami and Atlanta report the highest rates of sexual activity.
  4. We will develop new moral and psychological problems
    Climate change is an incredibly difficult problem, one which requires a global solution and collective action. But the psychology and morality of collective action is complex, and arguably humanity has never had to face a problem like this in its history. Our moral compass — the sense of how to live, what we owe to each other and to future generations — may not be calibrated for issues on such a grand scale. As Nick Bostrom says in a talk given at TEDxOxford, people often say that they want to “play their part” or “do their bit” to fight climate change, but the truth is that any one person’s actions have consequences too small to quantify meaningfully. As psychotherapist Rosemary Randall observes, “people know there is a problem — but they would rather not know. The anxiety that comes with reflecting on climate change might be unbearable, and the guilt it provokes might be crushing. It’s just too painful to accept the reality of it.”
  5. We will get lazier
    Technological advances aim at convenience and often end up keeping us on our couch, expending less effort and energy. It looks like we’ll need all the energy we can get. Climate change is likely to come with an increase in atmospheric temperature and humidity, and these conditions make for a sluggish labor force. According to research published in Nature Climate Change in 2013, humans can withstand a few hours of climate fluctuation, but “adverse reactions in even healthy and adapted individuals are well-documented under longer-term exposure.” (Of course, this applies primarily to those who work in natural conditions — not in air-conditioned offices.) According to the authors’ most severe model, by 2100 much of the tropics and mid-latitudes experience months of so-called “extreme heat stress.” So by then, Washington DC would be hotter than present-day New Orleans, and temperatures in New Orleans would exceed present-day Bahrain.
  6. Suicide rates may rise
    Faced with an overwhelming and intractable problem — and a deep sense of personal helplessness — it is conceivable that climate change could push people toward depression and suicide. Admittedly, this is pretty much only supposition for now. But, we can conjecture that those who suffer personal or professional loss because of climate change might be more prone to suicide. Researchers in Australia claim that droughts substantially increased the incidence of suicide in rural populations, particularly among male farmers and their families. Over the same period there was a reduction in suicide risk during drought in rural females over thirty years old, and there was no increase in suicide in urban regions. These findings indicate that we should attend closely to the social and psychological effects of climate change, especially among those whose livelihoods are most threatened by it.
  7. There will be lots of female sea turtles — and then, maybe, there will be no more
    In humans, the sex of an embryo is determined by its chromosomes. But sea turtles are different: they don’t take their cue from genetics but from the environmental temperature during incubation. When turtles lay their eggs in the beach sand, those that are warmer will produce female hatchlings, and those that are cooler produce males. As the climate generally warms up, we’ll consequently see an increase in the number of females and fewer males. If that behavior goes unchanged, the breakdown in diversity could then lead to the species’ extinction.
  8. Real-life Pokémon will die out
    Sad, but true. First up: the Pteropods, free-swimming sea snails and sea slugs that inspired two Pokemon characters: Phione and Manaphy. These mollusc-like creatures are responsible for shuttling carbon to the ocean floor, and also provide food for whales, fish and seabirds. However, “carbon dioxide is making our ocean more acidic,” observes Jackie Savitz at TEDxMidAtlantic — and that is especially bad news for these creatures, whose shells cannot withstand that acidity. Second up: the pika, the adorable bunny-like critter that inspired the Pokémon namesake Pikachu. The furry pika lives on rocky slopes of the mountains of the North American west, surviving frigid winters by maintaining a high body temperature. But hotter summers could prove lethal to the species. Already the pika has taken evasive action, migrating away from its natural habitat in search of cooler climates and higher altitudes. It has also changed its eating habits, now consuming large amounts of moss. But it remains unclear if these drastic measures will be sufficient to save the pika.
  9. Northern nations will do big business
    According to projections in a 2013 UN report, “a nearly ice-free Arctic Ocean in September before midcentury is likely.” This might sound bad, but if you’re a northern nation looking to expand your business reach, it might be music to your ears. Glaciers and thick ice have hitherto presented an insurmountable challenge to ocean navigation around the Arctic Circle. As that ice melts and recedes, new shipping routes — and new international trading relationships — will appear. Who stands to benefit most? Canada, the United States, Russia and the Scandinavian nations. According to some estimates, the new routes could reduce travel time between Russian and southern Asian states by 40%. This is great news for export power-players like China and Japan, of course, but these nations could then also import oil and gas from Russia and Europe with greater ease and lower cost.
  10. Siberia might explode
    A large amount of methane is bubbling up from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf because warming ocean water is thawing permafrost, allowing methane trapped underneath to escape. This could accelerate climate change, though opinion is still divided as to whether there will be a massive “pulse” — releasing all the methane in one grand, dramatic blast — or it will bubble up and release the methane slowly.
  11. Coastal infrastructure will be disposable and temporary
    As the parable goes, the wise man built his house on a rock while the foolish man built his house on sand. As the rising ocean waters encroach upon land, people who invested in beach-front property are starting to feel pretty foolish. One solution is not to give up on ocean views, but to change the kinds of homes we build there. Drawing from studies of the Australian coastline, engineer AD Gordon proposes that we “accept the potentially temporary nature of the real estate and hence adopt an adaptive philosophy of disposable infrastructure and relocatable buildings.” We’ve done it before; our ancestors lived nomadic or highly migratory lives in search of hospitable terrain, and coastal regions used to be occupied largely by fishing shacks, not seaside McMansions. This state of flux will require a flexible infrastructure to match it — imagine disposable roads, gas lines and sewer systems.
  12. We’ll stop buying unnecessary crap
    As resources grow scarce, our high-consumption and frivolous attitudes to products and belongings will change. Arguably, we will shift our purchases away from the new and the shiny to objects that promise the longest workable lifespan. If ownership becomes prohibitively expensive, the economic incentives may shift toward renting, even for ordinary household goods. Ernst H. Noppers of the University of Groningen and his colleagues have been examining how consumers make choices when it comes to products’ effects on the environment. He suggests that the trick is to make sustainability cool, and that building up the socio-cultural cachet around doing good for the environment will help to break the insane consumption cycle of the past decades. (Note: this one might well be wishful thinking.)

Written by Simon Marcus, a researcher at TED.