How the Rest of Our Lives Are Going to Be Defined by Accelerating Levels of Climate Catastrophe
By umair haque
As we so often do, I came back recently to the States for the summer from Europe. Back to the East Coast. And it’s hot. I don’t mean the normal August heat I remember. It’s freakishly hot. Sweltering. The air is practically combusting. It’s as hot on the East Coast of the States now as it used to be in the Indian subcontinent when I grew up. That’s serious heat. So how hot is it now in Asia? It’s approaching unlivably hot.
Because it’s been so hot — and this is across the States, across much of the Northern Hemisphere, around much of the globe — we were hit by two huge storms. When I was growing up, they would have been freak, once in a century events. Now, apparently, they’re twice a week events. Both of them knocked out our power — another thing which rarely used to happen. We grew up with regular outages, back in Asia — so we’re used to it. We lit some candles and enjoyed the serenity. But I felt a sense of dread creeping through.
Why? Because this, I knew, is it. Just the beginning. Of a climate apocalypse. We’re living it now.
We’re going to be living it for the rest of our lives. It’s not going to get better, if you want to face the brutal, harsh truth. It’s going to get a whole lot worse. How so?
“Climate change” — let me remind you again that term was invented by a Republican pollster, so let’s say, more properly, global warming — is going to threaten the most basic systems of our civilisation. That part is happening before our eyes, but in a strange way.
You see, global warming has a strange effect on the mind. If I say it’s slow, that used to be true, but it’s obviously not anymore, so you’ll object. And yet it hasn’t been fast, until, suddenly, now, at least in the way we can feel. This is an accelerating catastrophe we’re living through, in other words. Like a pandemic, it’s a thing of exponential growth. It’s going to get a lot worse, faster and faster, every year.
Let me continue my little story. I went to the grocery store the day after the lights went out — they’d come back on at 4am or so. And the grocery store was empty. All the frozen food had had to be thrown out, I’d realized. The traffic lights had been knocked out, so deliveries had stalled. The shelves were bare. See how easily one form of failure cascades into another?
That’s a feature of everyday life we’re going to have get used to. Failure cascades. In my little example, the lights going out meant the shelves on the stores were empty. Easy enough for me. I grabbed some Irani food and called it a night. But what if you weren’t so lucky? And what if the lights kept going out?
Let me put all that more formally. The failure of the power grid led to the failure of distribution and storage networks. But the power grid, of course, is going to be the very first system to fail. Just in this phase of global overheating alone. It’s hot on the East Coast right now. On the West Coast? In the Pacific Northwest? It’s unbearable. The hotter it gets, the more ACs are on, for longer. The hotter it gets, the more stressed our power grids get. And the more they fail.
That much we’re living through. But imagine what the failure of power grids really means, as it gets more and more severe, frequent, and longer-lived — what it cascades down to.
Distribution and storage networks fail. All those electric cars and trucks we’re counting on to stave off carbon emissions don’t go anywhere. The lights go out at universities, schools, hospitals — even if they have backup power, they can’t rely on it alone. Then there are the other utilities and systems which need reliable power, which is, well, all of them. Water, manufacturing, sanitation. Working from home?
Good luck with that when the lights go out — and the megastores take the mobile towers with them, too, which is what happened to us last week.
Power failures cascade into wider system failures. Failure of food systems, healthcare systems, water systems. Communication systems, mobile networks, internet. All the stuff we rely on as basics of modern life. It all depends on power. Every last bit of it. How do you imagine societies are going to survive with aging, failing, often dirty power grids?
They won’t. Instead, what will happen is what already happens in “third-world” countries. Power gets rationed. It happens this way. Rich neighborhoods, with money and connections, get it most, and get their lights back first. Then middling ones. Poor ones? They’re lucky if the lights come back on days or weeks later. That happened to us, last week, too. We’re fortunate enough to live in an affluent area, in a wealthy neighbourhood. The poor neighbourhood down the street, though? Their lights didn’t come back on for much longer than ours. We’re a priority because we’re closer to the centres of commerce and industry here. Our property values are higher. We get what’s left of failing systems, first.
It feels a lot like the law of the jungle, doesn’t it? Everyone for themselves — and the weak don’t make it. That’s American life — but it’s going to amplified to breaking point and beyond by global warming. How do you live without power? You can, but it’s not easy, especially on a boiling planet.
Now imagine what’s happening in the West of the States. There, two mega-systems are failing. Not just power, but also water. The drought in the West is severe, alarming — and it’s not an anomaly, it’s long-term reality.
The first phase of climate change — which accelerates into the horizon of utter catastrophe this decade, the 2020s — is, on an everyday level, for us, about heat. Heat it going to cause the two main mega-system failures of this first phase: electricity and water. You can see this playing out with incredibly alarming fury and rapidity across the globe. It’s not just America’s West that’s quickly running out of water and power — so is, for example, much of South Asia and China.
Now we’re talking billions of people.
What happens when entire regions and cities and run out of water? The answer is utterly unfamiliar to our modern minds. It’s never happened before, we imagine. But it has. Just ask ancient civilisations, who also gulped their wells dry. What happened to them? They — every single of them in the predicament of having no water — collapsed. You can’t live without water.
And you can’t keep on trucking it in for very long. Maybe half a lifetime or so — beyond which point the next generation just throws in the towel and leaves. No water — game over. So how long does the American West really have? How about South Asia? What about Australia?
Electricity and water aren’t just threatened by heat in the abstract sense of 100 plus degree days for months on end. But also by the megafires now spreading around the globe. They’re also something our modern minds are unfamiliar with. We think of “fire season” — but we need to start thinking of “Fire Belts.” As in, geographies which simply incinerate, over and over again, at the slightest spark. How do you live in such a place? It’s bad now — what about a decade from now? What happens to California? The Pacific Northwest? How do people live there?
The answer is: they don’t. Those communities, regions, towns, cities — they go into a permanent decline. Sure, there are die-hard stragglers. But they’re the last of a dying breed. The last ones to hold on to the scorched land. Nobody else lives there, again, period. Fire Belts are not places fit for human habitability — but that’s going to be 10, maybe 25% of the planet before this phase of climate change is over.
That’s maybe three decades from now.
I haven’t even gotten to the second phase of climate change’s effects. If the first is heat, the second is water. The last time the planet was this hot, sea levels were two meters higher than they are now. Why aren’t they back that high yet? Well, because it takes time to melt that much ice, and transform a planet on that scale. But it’s almost certainly going to happen. Go ahead and imagine it won’t be two meters — just 1.75. Feel better? Good, because it’s not going to make any difference to how catastrophic it’s going to to be.
When sea levels being to rise in earnest, it’s going to feel just like the heat now. Do you know you can literally feel the summers getting incandescently hotter every single year? And you’re like: “Wow. This is crazy. I can feel the planet overheating! It never used to be this hot.”
Now imagine the same thing, but for the sea. For rivers, lakes, oceans. Water levels are going to rise — fast. In exactly the same way that temperatures are rising now. So rapidly that it’s going to be immediately noticeable. Only it’s going to be a lot, lot more frightening. Because the seasons come and go, and winter still cools down the now red-hot summer. But the sea doesn’t go anywhere.
So imagine the water just creeping up…up…up. So fast you can see it, every day. If that scares you, it should.
How much is “two meters of sea level rise”? You’ve probably read that it’s enough to sink coastal areas and cities and whatnot, but let’s think about it another way.
Just as with failing power systems, sea level rise is going to be rationed according to wealth. Maybe a place like New York City will be able to build a giant seawall — 25 feet high, around all of Manhattan. Maybe New Yorkers, being hardy souls, will brave living there, even if city still gets flooded once or twice a year. Maybe they’ll even be tough enough to live under the threat of being under fifty feet of water if that wall breaks.
But what about everyone else? Well, New York City’s seawall is going to have to go all the way around Manhattan. So Manhattan becomes an island, only for real. Bridges don’t really reach it anymore, unless someone has the money for a towering, massive, mega-engineering project that can connect it to the mainland which is now ten, twenty, thirty miles away. So you have to take a boat or plane there. That’s not particularly easy, either, considering mega-storms are now everyday events in the summer and the winter.
Sound like fun to you?
Now imagine who’s as lucky as New York. San Francisco? Dubious, the billionaires want to escape to Mars, not fund seawalls. Too bad — you’re under ten feet of water. LA? Maybe all those movie stars with their megabucks will band together to make Malibu an…island. Because, well, you can hardly build a wall the length of California.
You see where I’m going with this. Sea level rise is going to happen as fast as the planet burned. How long did what you might begin to call the Great Burning take? Maybe a decade ago there were no such things, really, as megafires. And now huge, huge chunks of the Northern Hemisphere are on fire, for most of the summer. It took maybe a decade for the planet to begin to burn, as in, literally burn.
It’s going to take just that long for it to flood, too. Floods, though, don’t mean what we think they do. Again, our modern mind has no real reference for: “a place being underwater, forever.” Flood we take to mean something more like: “the water rose because of a storm or a surge, and then it went away.”
But the floods that are going to happen during the next phase of climate change are not those kinds of floods. They are the much, much more serious kind. Not the temporary ones, which recede. The ones which don’t.
The temporary kinds of floods cause enough damage. They shatter homes like twigs and take lives and toss cars and buildings around like toys. But even that has nothing on floods that never go away, which is what “sea level rise” really means.
So rich cities will become islands, dotted in little archipelagos on the coasts. But what about everyone else? Well, you know the rule by now. Every one for themselves. Maybe Malibu’s movie stars can spend billions to make it an island. You can’t do that for your neighborhood, home, town. Tough luck. You’re on your own.
What do you do? Nobody knows. Maybe you run as far and fast as you can, and become a global warming refugee. Maybe you’re trapped, and you don’t have the resources to run. Sorry, I guess you drown. Maybe you fight it out, and inch by inch, realise, no one can defeat the sea.
As the water level rises — as fast as the fires have begun to burn — systems will fail at such a scale and on such a level that the first phase of climate apocalypse, heat, looks like mere child’s play. Remember, heat threatens electricity and water systems. But as the water rises?
Everything goes with it. Now the harvests fail, as the fields flood — permanently. Food systems, done. Sanitation and sewage systems fail, as water tables are upended. Energy grids? Good luck with those, as the water rises and blows every transformer in sight. Distribution networks? How are you going to reach Malibu or New York City when they’re islands?
You see where I’m going with this. Let me try to sum up.
We’re only at the very beginning. Of an of climate apocalypse. If you think this is bad, think again. Much, much worse is coming. The first phase — this decade — is heat. Which is going to cause megafires and megastores and begin to cause widespread systems failure, taking electricity and water with it, and everything that depends on them.
That sounds frightening, but it’s just, and here’s the bad pun of the day for you, a warm-up. Because the next phase of climate change — this is in about a decade or so — is sea levels rising. It happens as fast as the planet’s begun to burn. What survives a permanent flood? Not much, unless you can live underwater. Our societies begin to literally disintegrate at that point, our economies shatter, and the rule of the jungle — every one for themselves — takes hold.
It’s not just going to be bad. It’s going to be much worse than you think. Be honest. Think back exactly one decade ago. Did you think that the planet would be burning…this fast? That’s how fast it’s going to keep happening. The temperature rising. The water creeping up. Fire, flood, famine, drought, plague, the depression and stagnation and stupidity and hatred and breakdown they all yield.
It’s not a pretty picture of the future I’ve painted. But right about now, my friend, I’d rather be honest with you about what’s to come, than tell you pretty lies.