• Dr. Lee Anne Willson

Is the world on fire?

The most recent IPCC report on climate change is being called “The World is on Fire.” This report looks at current and projected impacts of climate change, and highlights a lot of areas of concern. You can find the “Summary for Policymakers,” the “Technical Summary,” and the full report at www.ipcc.ch/ I recommend the Summary for Policymakers as a first step in understanding the report.


This report summarizes the vulnerabilities, changes that can cause harm – including forest fires, floods, and severe storms. For each item, the report explores the continents and landscapes where each vulnerability is a concern. It goes on to look at who is vulnerable within an area (often very young, very old, and people with fewer resources). In each case it considers both what is already happening, and what is expected if climate change continues unabated. Finally, every conclusion is given a rating for how certain they are of the connection with climate change. The full report is 3677 pages long, and dense with information. (Confession: No, I have not read the full report.)


In this post I will be emphasizing effects that are likely to be felt in Iowa, and also actions that we can take or support to reduce, mitigate, or adapt to these changes. While some of the items in these reports are very worrisome, we can still change the path that we are taking to reduce the impact of climate change.


The biggest impacts around the world


The illustration below shows how the danger increases with the temperature change for five broad categories, including extreme weather events like our two recent Derecho storms and the recent March tornados. The dashed line at +1.1° is where we are now. The red line that is a bit higher across the plot is +1.5°C, the limit we are all striving not to exceed.



This next plot is for land and freshwater systems, with the same dashed and red lines. While this is not specifically for Iowa, this is what is relevant for us:



In these plots, the more dots next to each part of each bar, the more certain they are of this conclusion. We want to stay out of the red areas (and would prefer to stay out of the yellow). It is looking at many plots like this that tells us we need to stay below +1.5° of warming.


What we are likely to experience in Iowa


Those of us who have lived in Iowa for a few decades know that the last several years have not been normal. We had the massive derecho in August 2020, the lesser December (!!) derecho in 2021, and the EF4 tornado through Winterset in March (!) 2022. These are expensive events in human lives, human suffering, and $$. We also have had a couple of episodes of polar vortex, the deep freeze that results when arctic air is warmer than usual, removing the barrier that usually keeps the deep cold north of us.


Beyond storm damage, we have had some spectacular flooding, and this is a constant concern. When the Gulf of Mexico is warmer than usual, more water evaporates. This water vapor is brought up to Iowa, where some of it condenses. The condensed water gives us our floods, and the energy released as it condenses gives us our energetic storms.


One hazard I was not too worried about until last summer: Smoke and air quality. Then the Canadian wildfires sent smoke our way, and I found myself staying inside for several weeks. This is another real threat. With the persistent drought in Western Iowa, we may see fires even closer to home.


Storms, floods, extreme heat, and changing annual temperature patterns are all threats to an agriculture-based economy, such as we have in Iowa. The derecho of 2020, the Missouri floods of 2019 and 2021, and the drought in western Iowa all demonstrate how vulnerable we are.


Extreme heat is another concern, not only for agriculture. High heat is also danger to human health, particularly those who are very old, very young, or work outdoors in the summer. Up to now, higher soil moisture has helped to moderate the hottest days (much as a swamp cooler can cool a room) but we are close to the point where that will no longer work, and we can expect many more hot days. Higher temperatures means more demand for air conditioning. If the electricity for the air conditioning is provided by traditional means involving combustion (coal, oil, gas or biofuels) then the increasing demand for A/C around the world could be enough by itself to push the temperature rise from +1.1° now to +1.5° in just a few years. (I base this statement on a take by Sumanjeet Kaur of Lawrence Berkely Labs, given at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held virtually in February.) Fortunately, more efficient air conditioners and heat pumps (essentially A/C that works in two directions, to cool your house in the summer and heat it in the winter) are becoming more widely available and more affordable.


Adaptation and mitigation


We can mitigate climate change by reducing emissions. We can adapt to climate change by adding appropriate infrastructure – flood resistant roads and bridges, sufficient power for increased air conditioning, and so on. We can also make sure that our healthcare systems are equipped to deal with the effects of climate change (temperature, air quality) on people. In this figure from the report, the health outcomes are compared for three scenarios, for two factors relevant to people living in cities around the world:



In discussions of climate action, one often hears concerns about the cost of making changes. This report shows the cost of not making changes. Changes that we make to mitigate climate change can make us both more comfortable (better insulated homes, for example) and safer (with less global reliance on oil). Changes that we make to adapt to climate change may improve some elements of our infrastructure – new bridges, for example – but don’t always increase our comfort: A/C is nice but being comfortable outdoors is nicer.


The Press Release


Here is a link to another useful summary of this report, mercifully brief: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/resources/press/press-release


Postscript


We might wonder why we have gotten to this point. There is an element of human nature showing here. Consider a situation that happens all too often: A young man loses his father to heart disease. His doctor tells him “It could happen to you, if you don’t take care of your health.” He agrees, but he is busy getting married, doing his job, and all the other immediate priorities that young adults deal with. That health thing can wait. Ten years later, he is having a checkup; his doctor says “Your blood pressure is a bit high, and there are some worrisome results from the blood tests. If you don’t alter your diet and get more exercise this could easily bring you in with a heart attack.” The patient says “I will try,” and he makes a few small adjustments in his lifestyle: He joins a gym and goes there, though not every day, and some weeks not at all. His wife cooks less beef and more chicken, and they have dessert less often.


Ten more years pass, and one day he experiences chest pain. At the hospital they tell him he is having a heart attack; they put in some stents and send him home with strict advice about diet; they sign him up for cardiac rehab. This is where the IPCC report is telling us we are with climate change – we ignored the early warnings that started at least 50 years ago. We made minor adjustments following evidence that climate change is happening and projections of what is to come. Now we are all seeing the effects of climate change (symptoms), it will take a lifestyle change to get through it, and we have damage that cannot be reversed. Fortunately, we also have the medicine (technology) to deal with both reducing the effects (mitigation) and reducing the impacts (adaptation).