How easily the climate crisis can become global chaos

How easily the climate crisis can become global chaos
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After months of one extreme weather event after another, it’s hard to imagine how climate impacts could get any worse.

Unfortunately, it could. Imagine a year — not far in the future — just a couple years from now, where it all goes wrong:

A strong El Niño event warms the equatorial Pacific, bringing Earth’s hottest January on record. Extreme drought grips Australia, the world's No. 3 exporter of wheat, bringing its most intense drought in history. A 58 percent decline in wheat production results, as occurred after their 2002 drought. Global food prices spike.

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In April, record rainfall hits Canada, the world’s No. 2 wheat exporter. Canada’s wheat harvest falls 14 percent, as occurred after extreme rains in 2010. Unrelenting torrential rains hit the central U.S., delaying spring planting of crops and bringing near-record flooding on the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. Fortunately, because of infrastructure bills passed in 2021 and 2022, which gave funds for flood preparedness, the damage is billions of dollars less than from the great floods of 2011 and 1993. 

As summer arrives, the jet stream gets "stuck" in the type of resonant pattern linked to human-caused climate change that has become more frequent in recent years. The stuck jet stream brings cool air, relentless rain-bearing low-pressure systems and record rains to the central United States. Production of corn falls 4 percent and wheat 25 percent, as occurred in 2017 after a similarly wet year. In the western U.S. and Canada, the stuck jet stream brings a record-strength dome of high pressure, exacerbating their intense drought and bringing another year of hellacious wildfires and choking smoke that leads to thousands of premature air pollution deaths.

Severe drought, typical of an El Niño year, hits India and Southeast Asia, causing failure of the monsoon rains. In India, “Day Zero” arrives for an additional 100 million people, as taps run dry from years of excessive groundwater pumping and a wasteful water supply system. Rice yields fall 23 percent in India, the world's No. 1 rice exporter, as occurred in 2002.

In the fall, another bonkers Atlantic hurricane season unfolds as record-warm waters in the Caribbean fuel five major hurricanes, bucking the tendency of El Niño to suppress hurricanes. In mid-October, a hurricane — a carbon copy of 2021’s Hurricane Ida, except occurring during peak harvest season — trashes three of America’s 15 largest ports, which lie along the Lower Mississippi River and handle 60 percent of all U.S. grain exports to the world. Barge traffic on the Mississippi is crippled for months, during the peak export period for U.S. grain.

The extreme weather onslaught causes food prices to spike to quadruple the levels of 2000. Food riots break out in urban areas across the Middle East, North Africa and Latin America. The Euro weakens and the main European stock markets lose 10 percent of their value; U.S. stock markets fall 5 percent. Civil war erupts in Nigeria, famine kills nearly a million people in Bangladesh and Africa, and Mali becomes a failed state. Military tensions heighten between Russia and NATO; nuclear-armed India and Pakistan fight a border skirmish over water rights. Even more dramatic stock market falls ensue, and the global economy tumbles into a deep recession.

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This worst-case scenario year — though unlikely to occur exactly this way — illustrates one of the greatest threats of climate change: extreme droughts and floods hitting multiple major grain-producing "breadbaskets" simultaneously. The scenario is similar to one outlined by insurance giant Lloyds of London in a "Food System Shock" report issued in 2015. Lloyds gave uncomfortably high odds of such an event occurring — well over 0.5 percent per year, or more than an 18 percent chance over a 40-year period.

Given the unprecedented weather extremes that have rocked the world recently, the odds of a devastating food system shock are probably much higher. What’s more, these odds are steadily increasing as humans burn fossil fuels and pump more heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the air.

A warming planet provides more energy to power stronger storms, and more energy to intensify droughts, heatwaves and wildfires when storms are not present. Earth’s oceans are heating at an accelerating rate, storing energy equivalent to an astonishing three to six  Hiroshima-sized atom bombs per second. That extra heat energy allows more water vapor to evaporate and power stronger and wetter storms — like Hurricane Ida, and the catastrophic storms that hit Europe and China in July, costing over $25 billion each. 

Earth’s extra heat energy also intensifies droughts and heatwaves, like the one that brought Canada’s all-time heat record in June: 121 degrees Fahrenheit in Lytton, British Columbia, a day before a wildfire burned the town down. Global warming also intensified the 2010 Russian drought, which caused a doubling in global wheat prices, helping fuel the Arab Spring protests that led to the deadly uprisings in seven nations and the overthrow of multiple governments.

If business-as-usual is allowed to continue, a civilization-threatening climate catastrophe will occur. Mother Nature’s primal fury of 2021 is just a preview of what is coming. Global temperatures are currently about 1.2 degrees Celsius (2.2 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer than pre-industrial levels, and this year may well be the coolest year of the rest of our lives. Catastrophic extreme weather events will grow exponentially worse with 3 degrees Celsius of warming — the course we are currently on

The key to solving the climate crisis: electrify everything — while making sure the electricity doesn’t come from fossil fuels. The clean energy revolution is progressing faster than seemed possible, but it needs a coordinated international effort led by the U.S. and China to push it harder. This will be resisted by the forces of denial and delay: fossil fuel companies, right-wing partisans, media talking heads and oil-funded governments — all of which continue to profit from our dependence on fossil fuels, as detailed in climate scientist Michael Mann’s book “The New Climate War.” The best way people can help solve the climate crisis is to choose leaders committed to climate action.

Humans caused the climate crisis — we can solve it.

Jeff Masters, Ph.D., is a former hurricane hunter and scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as well as the co-founder of Weather Underground. He writes about extreme weather and climate change for Yale Climate Connections. Follow him on Twitter: @DrJeffMasters