Winter might not be coming! By Andy Dobson, Princeton University

Winter might not be coming!

Andy Dobson, EEB, Eno Hall, Princeton University, NJ 0854, USA.

Winter might not be coming. Or when it does, it will increasingly be in a much-reduced form: less frost and snow, more grey skies and rain. Unfortunately, as much of the northern world has seen this year in Montreal, Japan, Greece, the United Kingdom, California and Sweden, summer can arrive with much more of a vengeance: more droughts, heat, humidity and wild fires.

This is not good news and as any climate scientist will tell you, it’s certainly not fake news. Our weather is changing. Greenhouse gas emissions due to industrial activity and the conversion of forests and savannas to agriculture are the principle drivers of current, massively observed, changes in climate. Our understanding of the science that underlies this is not perfect, but it is as exact as any other area of science that brings together mathematics, massive amounts of data, and hugely replicated experiments. In fact, more sound than much of medicine, and nuclear physics. We all check the weather forecast every morning and it gives us an accurate assessment of what the weather will do for the next 20 to 48 hours. Variations and expansions of the same set of models are used to make predictions of how the climate will evolve as we add greenhouse gases to the atmosphere and what this will do over the next decades to centuries. Imagine how much wealthier we would all be, if mathematical models for the money markets had the level of predictive skill of the daily weather forecast. The middle pages of the daily newspapers would be much diminished. In the clubish world of economic forecasting, less than 5 percent of forecasters get any forecast correct. This is roughly what you would expect with a large number of people each making a random forecast. In marked contrast, 99% of climate scientists are agreed about climate change and its consequences and causes. Yet, some politicians and many members of the public seem happy to revere hedge fund dealers as mathematical geniuses, while simultaneously denigrating climate scientists. This is of course a travesty driven by a mixture of ignorance and large political donations from those with a vested interest in not taking the blame for climate change. Similar situations arose when it was pointed out that there were significant health effects associated with smoking tobacco. The companies who have been driving and denying climate change are likely to eventually face legal settlements that parallel those paid by tobacco companies.

The bill this time will be much, much higher. So energy companies need to seek advice to help find technological and social solutions to climate change under which they can continue to operate. Perhaps the politicians who accepted campaign donations from the energy companies should seek similar advice, or they too will face increasing pressure to help foot the bill. As will the children of energy industry magnets and their political concubines? Not least because ‘climate change’, as with all forms of environmental change, is an inter-generational problem. One where the “sins of the fathers” will be hugely reaped by their offspring. Potentially, climate change will eventually precipitate new legal precedents for collecting intergenerational compensation.

When the climate change debate first started in the late 1980’s several high-profile meetings examined both the available evidence for climate change and the possible consequences. Those who seek to cast doubt on the accuracy of the predictions will find it instructive to go back and read some of these documents (Dobson, Jolly et al. 1989, Schneider 1989, Peters and Lovejoy 1992, Root and Schneider 1995). One again wishes that our highly revered economists were as accurate in their predictions! Many of the climate driven events we have seen in the last few years were consistently predicted during the earliest discussions of climate change: declining Arctic sea ice, increased frequency of summer heat-waves, significant increases in levels of precipitation in some areas and large reductions in others, leading to declining crop yields. The only major error in these analyses was that these impacts were predicted to occur much later in the century. Part of this was expediency, the climate scientists did not want to appear unnecessary alarmist, but there was also a significant belief that climate would respond more slowly to an accumulation of greenhouse gasses than we are currently seeing. Part of it also reflects the further accumulation of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere over the last quarter century. To me, the scariest thing about climate change, is that not that everything predicted is now occurring, but that it is happening much earlier than was originally predicted. The former is a testimony to the skills of the climate scientists, the latter underlies politician’s inability to make long-term policy. Most worrying is that because climate is a highly non-linear system, one in which small tweaks give rise to large changes, this means that future weather events will quickly attain new extremes. So we can either bury our heads in the sands of our primitive belief systems, or we can try and precipitate political and social change to slow climate change before it is too late to reverse it.

The Resilience Institute provides a vital forum for these discussions as does “Climate Central” ( for those who rarely leave their web-browsers. The primary goal of both is to educate people about the consequences of climate change while also fostering research that looks into their impacts in places like the Canadian Rockies and in Indigenous communities, particularly the impact on those living close to the land. The impacts of climate change will have a subtle underlying geographical variability. Temperature will rise much more rapidly in the Artic regions, than in the Tropics. The rapid decline in Arctic sea-ice provides strong testimony to this. This in turn creates a set of secondary feedbacks: as the tundra melts, it will release large amounts of stored CO2 that will enter the atmosphere and further enhance rates of warming. Similarly, the huge fires than have been burning over the past few summers in Canada’s boreal forests add more CO2 back into the atmosphere. The decades it will take for these forests to regrow emphasize that it is much harder to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, than to put them up there in the first place.

At first sight mountains would seem to be pre-adapted to deal with climate change. If the earth gets warmer, than plant and animal communities can simply move upslope and colonize areas that correspond to the climate they used to experience. The problem here is that montane vegetation disperses only very slowly and of course mountains tend to get smaller the higher up them you ascend. This means that montane habitats will get smaller and support less diverse communities of plants and animals if their only recourse is to migrate upslope. Much larger challenges face species living in the prairie; the distances they will have to move to find the climate conditions they are adapted to may be many hundreds of miles to the north and the soil quality will inevitably be poorer as these areas have been covered in thinner layers of vegetation for centuries. This change in soil quality will also undermine any delusions that significant new agricultural areas will open up in the once boreal areas of Canada and Russia. The low-quality soils will provide very restricted crop yields for only a limited number of years. Similarly, increased access to fisheries in the Arctic will be undermined by the problem that marine productivity in Arctic regions is driven by refraction of light into planktonic regions at the edge of the ice. If the area of sea ice shrinks, it’s perimeter will shrink, and the future of Arctic fisheries will be rapidly curtailed.

This synergistic interaction between climate change and decreasing agricultural yields presents a major threat to biodiversity as it will initially increase pressure to convert more wildlands to agriculture. This route leads to disaster as agricultural productivity is always dependent upon water and the principle source of water for agriculture will be the large forested water sheds that supply water to agriculture in lower lying regions. If these lands are converted to agriculture, there will be no consistent supply of water for crops and agriculture will fail. This implies that fears about climate changes action on agricultural productivity should lead to significant increases in protection for water sheds, particularly in montane regions which stimulate rainfall and whose forests hold this precipitation before releasing it slowly for downstream use. Glaciers perform similar functions, but these are rapidly eroding, there is now only one Glacier remaining in Glacier National Park across the border from Canada’s Waterton Lakes park.

What can be done to slow climate warming? First off let’s underline that there are no viable easy technological fixes. This makes solving climate change, much harder than the related problem of atmospheric ozone that created holes over the Arctic and Antarctic whose expansion allowed harmful levels of ultra-violet light to pass through the atmosphere. Fortunately, the industries that created the ozone problem (largely refrigeration and aerosol manufacturers), also had the solution; replace fluorocarbons with alternative chemicals. Policy changes, specifically the Montreal protocol, could thus be quickly adopted and initiated, particularly as the people who’d created the problem could enhance their profits by adopting its solution. Climate change presents more significant policy challenges, that will certainly require a range of solutions (Pacala and Socolow 2004). Some energy companies have been investing in photovoltaic energy research, seeking similar win-win scenarios to the ozone manufacturers. But the initial subsidies that helped initiate photovoltaic and wind energy have largely been killed off, largely due to political pressure from less agile companies who can continue to profit from oil and gas. Slowing and reversing rates of land conversion can provide another option, this will need to be combined with increases in agricultural efficiency, so that more crops can be grown on land already converted from pristine forests. Significant amounts of land restoration will be necessary, particularly the conversion of degraded agricultural and industrial land back to forest and savanna covered in plants that suck CO2 out of the atmosphere and store it back in the soil. These are all labor- intensive projects, they may even employ more people than are currently employed in the energy and timber extraction industries. Society as a whole should benefit from these activities. Global security would also benefit significantly from climate change mitigation, the recent wars in the middle east can be traced back to drought and crop failures interacting with bad governance giving rise to civil war. Similar conditions in Africa have helped drive migrations and the refugee crisis. The US has recently suggested that global defense spending needs to be raised to 4 percent of Gross Domestic product. If Nations more explicitly recognized the underlying cause of civil war and the refugee crisis, they would defensively spend at least this amount on environmental defense and climate mitigation. We might then see a significant decline in migration and the conflicts that arise when people are forced to rise up and rebel in the face of imminent starvation. Swords need to beaten back into plough shares and pipes for crop irrigation. Farmer’s Markets need to replace the vacuous pomposity of military parades.

Land restoration and preservation needs also to be undertaken in ways that allow plant and animal species to disperse across the landscape in response to climate change, and potentially back again, ‘if’ we manage to control climate change. But this is a very big ‘IF’. It requires political will and societal belief, neither of which will be easy to inspire in systems that take many electoral cycles to show effects. The statistical flaws inherent in political democracy undermine its ability to deal with such problems. Most politicians are rarely elected by more than 20% of the populace (less than 50% of people turn out to vote, and most elections are fairly close races between two or more candidates). This generates short-term thinking in politicians who must constantly focus on re-election and balance fund raising from less than 1% of their electorate, with policies that illicit votes from their less wealthy constituents. When it works this imperfection creates the diversity of opinions in representative government that is its principle strength; it prevents bad things happening (Runciman 2018). Concomitantly, this completely stifles innovative government. This requires visionary leaders with a strong mandate to govern and who make policy decisions based on sound scientific evidence. This will require deeper and broader education of both the public and political leadership about the perils of climate change and environmental degradation. There are very few precedents for legislating for events over such prolonged time horizons; anything we do now to modify climate change, will not have an effect for at least 25 years. But, the consequences of not acting will be increasingly dire for children born this century: prolonged droughts, wild fires and floods will leave many people hungry, angry, and very grumpy with the families of the politicians their parents elected. Winter may not arrive at all for their children; but summer will become relentless.

Well worth reading.

Dobson, A. P., A. Jolly and D. Rubenstein (1989). “The greenhouse-effect and biological diversity.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution 4: 64-68.
Pacala, S. and R. Socolow (2004). “Stabilization Wedges: Solving the Climate Problem for the Next 50 Years with Current Technologies.” Science 305(5686): 968-972.
Peters, R. L. and T. E. Lovejoy (1992). Global Warming and Biological Diversity. New Haven, Yale University Press.
Root, T. L. and S. H. Schneider (1995). “Ecology and climate: research strategies and implications.” Science 269: 334-341.
Runciman, D. (2018). How Democracy Ends. New York, Basic Books, Perseus.
Schneider, S. H. (1989). “The Greenhouse Effect: Science and policy.” Science 243: 771-782.