Firebird Journal

Survival and Renewal in the Anthropocene

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How much climate chaos can we take?

Global Warming by badjonni, 2007, Creative Commons


I asked ChatterBot, my AI research assistant, if there are ways to predict the behavior of complex systems. CB answered, “…predicting the behavior of complex systems is inherently challenging due to the numerous interacting factors, uncertainties, and nonlinear dynamics involved.”

Umm, thanks. I’ll take it from there.

So…considering that from, roughly, the beginning of this summer, we have been living through a “quantum leap” in the frequency and intensity of climate impacts on our civilization, it is worth asking first, how much more of this can we expect, and second, how much more of it can we take?

Since one way to try to understand where we’re going is to review where we’ve been, let’s contrast this year’s “quantum leap” in impacts with the level of impacts in previous years. Over the past couple of decades, we’ve had our share of anomalous hurricanes, droughts and flash droughts, floods and flash floods, explosive wildfires and record-breaking heat.

Everything Everywhere All at Once, Title of 2022 Motion Picture Academy’s “Best Film”

But suddenly this summer, those previous records were smashed — to smithereens. We’ve had record global temperatures; 54 days of temperatures over 110 degrees in Phoenix, 31 of them consectutive; 59,000 square miles, an area larger than New York State, of Canadian forest burned; wildfires and intense rainstorms throughout the Mediterranean basin; numerous towns evacuated; super monsoons in India; derechos (line storms) with 100 mph wind gusts across the midwest; severe flooding in Vermont; 100-degree ocean temperatures off Florida; the first tropical storm in Southern California since 1939 — everything, everywhere, all at once.

Will this continue? Can we expect next summer and the one after that to be like this one, or worse? Will there be carryover impacts from this summer’s weather events that increase the likelihood of extreme weather events next year? There is no way to know.

What we can predict, a year out, is that, due to the increasing buildup of greenhouse gases, the earth will be warmer, the land drier and the atmosphere wetter, holding more evaporated water than ever. But even given these baseline conditions, we could have a brief hiatus with some relatively cooler, calmer summers than this one. Or next summer could bring 60 contiguous days of 110-degree temperatures in Phoenix, burn 200,000 square miles of Canadian forests…and so on. Regional weather patterns remain largely unpredictable.

One thing we do know is that climate impacts have lasting effects on that other complex system, human civilization. Of the 11,000 houses lost five years ago in Paradise, California’s Camp Fire, only about 1,400 have been replaced. Building at that rate, it would take 34 more years to replace the original housing stock. How long, then, will it take to rebuild Lahaina? Meanwhile, 50 million U.S. homes sit in areas prone to wildfires.

The economic, social and psychological consequences of climate impacts are adding up, and taking their toll. Insurers are backing out of certain markets, and raising their rates to exorbitant levels in others. Evacuating towns and dispatching firefighters costs money — lots of it. Dense smoke makes people sick and stresses the medical system. Heat and drought reduce crop production which cuts local profits and inflates global food prices. Bigger storms cause more damage. Every climate migrant has needs.

Complex systems are generally resilient, and able to absorb shocks and ultimately heal — up to a limit. As a nation, or as a global community, we can bounce back from losing a town or two. How about losing 1,000 towns? We can survive losing 5% of global food productivity. How about 25%? There is something we can predict, and it’s not all that complex: Unless we change what we’re doing, the cumulative effects of ongoing climate impacts will, at some point, shred civilization.  

Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.


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2 Responses

  1. Thank you. I strive to be as accurate as I can, although there are different interpretations of some of the information.

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Books by Philip S. Wenz

Your Ecological House is a homeowner and designer’s guide to creating a “home ecosystem,” an integrated habitat that conserves and produces energy, reduces waste and produces food and other goods.

This upcoming book discussed three possible futures — ” bad,” “good,” and “likely” — for the planet and humanity in the Anthropocene.

Read the Synopsis.