Would you like to know what your world is going to look like by, say, 2030? A little peek at the wonderful things we’ll be using? Lives we’ll be living? Did vat-grown meat ever become a thing? Are more of us vegetarian? How did that whole Trump presidency work out?
Getting a look is easier than you think. All we have to do is look at Puerto Rico today. Today Puerto Rico is a land of sunshine, environmental devastation, and the threat of starvation.
This year has seen three major global warming-intensified storms hit in the Caribbean and southern US in a row. One, Irma, was rated a Category 5 only because there is nothing higher than C5. This is pretty much exactly in line with NASA, NOAA, and international modelling of the effects of a warming planet. The ocean has been soaking up amazing amounts of both carbon and heat over the last couple of decades. Now, when a depression forms over the ocean, there is much more energy available for it to soak up. And the more energy it gets from a warmer ocean, the bigger the eventual storm.
On the West Coast of North America, this will play out in two ways; the warming ocean will also create larger storms, and the warmer air will pick up more water. As little as 1/2 of one percent more moisture in the air can lead to an increase of fifty millimetres or more (2”+) of rain. With the logging of the last century, this will mean more mudslides, silting of rivers, damage to spawning grounds, and impacts on municipal water supplies.
On the US’ south and East coasts, storms, particularly hurricanes, will be larger, more damaging, and bring more flooding with larger storm surges. Maria, the hurricane that has wiped our about 80% of Puerto Rico’s crops and up to 80% of some neighbourhoods, is the third storm to hit US territory. This too is in line with the models. And it is this sequentiality that is the problem.
In Houston TX, some places recieved over a metre of rain in 24 hours. As the centre of the US petrochemical industry, Houston has claimed the lion’s share of US aid. Florida recieved much of the rest. Puerto Rico, not being a state but rather a protectorate, is coming a poor third. It doesn’t hurt that both Texas and Florida voted heavily for the current president.
This is one year. What will it be like when we’ve had a decade or more of these disasters. Drought and wildfire in the Midwest, or wildfire or floods on California. In Canada, the prairies are overdue for a drought, a wildfire almost took out Ft. McMurray last summer, and the interior of BC has been devastated by one this summer. Insurance against natural disasters is becoming harder to get, and insurance companies are losing their collective minds.
So here’s the thing about Puerto Rico: 80% of their food crops have been destroyed. The protectorate is poor. And, as Amartya Sen has pointed out, in order to survive famine, you have to be able to either buy food in the market, or move to where you can buy or grow food. And the US has been exploiting the fact that if you just provide food aid, you destroy the local markets, making the population dependent on provided food. It’s actually better to slowly substitute money for food aid, in order to build the market back up.
So what are the odds that the current US government will provide a guaranteed annual income to the residents of Puerto Rico? Because it will take years for PR to recover (if ever—there are more storms coming). Or Puerto Rico becomes a state of refugees, moving en masse to the continental United States. And how do you think that’s going to go over in the present political environment in the US?
That’s your future too. There will be a storm. Or another natural disaster. And the country will be overextended, so disaster relief will be limited or non-existant. So you either try and rebuild where you are, or become an internal refugee.
Murphy’s Law dictates that when the disaster hits, it will destroy the most important stuff; transportation corridors, the electrical grid, food. Just like Puerto Rico. And that it will happen at the worst time. The 1% think they can get out of this—it’s why Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. It’s why they’re buying bunkers in New Zealand. And it won’t help.
We cannot keep going the way we are. That route means we’re reduced to a hundred thousand humans, or so. Worst case, we turn the planet into Venus for a couple of million years. As Michael Crichton said in Jurassic Park: “I don’t fear for the future of life on Earth. [...] I fear for the future of human life on Earth.” We have to downshift in a radical way. Converting to sustainable power doesn’t mean we get to keep this life of insane consumerism. Sustainable power means that we live a medieval life in some comfort. If we start yesterday, we might be able to keep the losses to a few billion humans.