The Human Cost of Global Warming
Sunday, June 11th, 2023
This week’s core story is about: The human cost of global warming.
KNEAD TO KNOW
Former President Donald Trump was indicted on 37 criminal counts, including 31 counts of violating the Espionage Act, related to him keeping and hiding federal records after leaving office. The charges unveiled Friday by federal prosecutors include evidence that Trump hid boxes of documents in various bizarre places, including images of boxes in a bathroom. According to the indictment, the records included classified and top secret records on foreign nations’ nuclear and defense capabilities, U.S. plans for retaliating against a possible foreign attack, and potential vulnerabilities of the U.S. and its allies.
Ukraine launched its highly anticipated counteroffensive against Russia. Early reports indicate Ukraine has conducted operations against Russian defenses in at least three key areas over the past week, though the attacks “do not represent the full extent” of the military’s capabilities in the current offensive, suggesting more is to come.
The Supreme Court struck down Republican-drawn congressional districts in Alabama that discriminated against Black voters. In a 5-4 vote, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh joining the Court’s liberal justices in the majority, the Court found the state’s Republican legislature illegally diluted Black voting power by dividing heavily Black areas into districts where white voters dominate. The Alabama legislature will redraw the congressional maps.
Robinhood delisted three large cryptocurrencies amid securities regulator’s crackdown on crypto exchanges. Robinhood announced Friday it would delist Cardano, Polygon, and Solana after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission described the three cryptocurrencies as unregistered securities in lawsuits filed this week against crypto exchanges Binance and Coinbase.
The Human Cost of Global Warming
The orange skies above New York this week should be the climate wake-up call we need, though history suggests that won’t be the case. We’re probably not going to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the well-known goal of the 2015 Paris Agreement. So, what does the research say about the human cost of global warming? And what will it take to ensure the future of a livable Earth?
Canadian wildfire smoke engulfed New York City and much of the Northeastern Corridor this week, tinting the sky a devastating shade of orange typically reserved for only the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets.
The images were familiar to people in the western U.S., who’ve become used to summer and fall air choked with ash and particulates. Indeed, wildfires are so common out here in California that we have our own wildfire season, running each year from May through October.
The situation was decidedly less familiar to the people living through it, as wildfires like the ones raging in Canada – mainly in Quebec – are rare for the eastern part of North America.
What people in the West might not fully understand is just how bad it got. According to data maintained by air quality technology company IQAir, New York City had the dirtiest air of any major city in the world for much of the week.
It’d be nice if we lived in a world where images of New Yorkers doing yoga atop a skyscraper surrounded by a haze of smoke jolted the lawmakers and business executives most responsible for addressing climate change into action to do just that, but we don’t.
Reasons for the stymied progress range from policy details like the desperate need for permitting reform in the U.S. (as analysts like Alec Stapp at the Institute for Progress have been brilliantly vocal about) to the need to overhaul global food systems (which currently account for one third of all greenhouse gas emissions).
Regardless of the causes, recent research makes it clear that we’re almost certainly going to miss the 2015 Paris Agreement goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and while limiting it to 2 degrees C (the less ambitious Paris Agreement goal) is still technically within reach, it’s unlikely. Under our current policies, experts say we’re most likely headed for 3 degrees C of warming by the end of this century, with many believing the worst-case scenario of up to 4 degrees C is possible.
So, what does the research say about the human cost of a warming world? And what action is needed to ensure the future of a livable Earth? Let’s dive in.
What the research says:
A new study led by researchers at the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter in the U.K. assessed the human cost of today’s climate policies amid an increasingly warmer world by estimating the global population living in what the team calls the “human climate niche,” a particular range of temperatures and precipitation levels historically suited to support agriculture, life, and economic growth.
The researchers found continuing with today’s climate policies would lead to 2.7 degrees C of warming by the end of this century, leaving more than a fifth (23%) of the global population outside the crucial climate niche and exposing billions to dangerous temperatures and higher death rates.
Lenton et al. (2023)
Under the worst-case scenario of warming hitting 4.4 degrees C by the end of the century, around half (47%) of the world’s population could be outside the niche based on temperature alone, posing what the researchers said would be an “existential risk.”
If end-of-the-century data seems too distant, the researchers found some 600 million people already live outside the climate niche today, and around 2 billion could be pushed out within the next eight years. According to study author Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute, “For every 0.1 degrees C of warming above present levels, about 140 million more people will be exposed to dangerous heat.”
Why it matters:
If that’s the climate future we’re trying to avoid, how do we do that?
A new study by a team of more than 50 scientists from around the world may have the plan.
The researchers present what they describe as the “first quantification of safe and just Earth system boundaries” on a global and local scale, establishing what they believe to be the limits for critical ecological systems that play key roles in maintaining a healthy planet and protecting people from significant harm.
Of the eight systems examined in the study, the team found human activity has pushed seven past what they consider to be the systems’ “safe and just” boundaries.
To bring the systems back within the boundaries to ensure stable and resilient conditions on Earth for humanity, the researchers found 50-60% of the planet’s surface needs to be returned to natural ecosystems, up from the 45-50% we have today. In urban, agricultural, and other human-modified areas, 20-25% of the land needs to be devoted to semi-natural habitats like parks and natural areas, though only about half of the human-modified land today meets that threshold.
To bring water systems back within safe boundaries, no more than 20% of the flow of a natural river or stream should be blocked for human use (e.g., dams or catchments), leaving 80% of the flow unaltered to meet environmental needs. However, a third of the world’s hydroelectric dams and drainage systems already breach this boundary.
Bringing groundwater systems back would only require setting rules that prevent aquifers from being depleted faster than they can be replenished. A solution that sounds simple enough, but actually isn’t, evidenced by half of the world’s river basins currently being run low.
How realistic is it that governments band together to implement such massive changes? Without major investment and concerted action, it seems unlikely.
Still, that doesn’t mean all is lost.
The 1.5 degrees C mark isn’t a magical tipping point that means we’re all doomed, rather, it's a threshold beyond which certain negative outcomes are essentially unavoidable. This decade will be critical, but we can still come back from crossing the threshold and we can still preserve a livable Earth, even though the ideal scenario of drastically reducing warming is no longer plausible.
Like I mentioned earlier, it’d be nice if we lived in a world where the skies in New York this week served as a massive wake-up call, but we don’t. We live in a world with complex systems and governments and people running those with all sorts of ideas and agendas (and an ex-president currently hogging the news cycle).
It’ll take incremental actions amounting to incredible change to get us where we need to be. Experts seem to believe it’s possible, so we should too.
China Could Experience 65 Million COVID Cases a Week by the End of This Month
A senior Chinese health advisor said the current surge of COVID cases in China could peak at around 65 million infections per week by the end of this month, thanks to the highly infectious XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant spreading throughout the country.
Researchers tracking the rise in cases aren’t surprised, expecting China to see a new infection cycle every six months now that all COVID restrictions have been removed.
The XBB subvariant has evaded all current vaccines, though it hasn’t caused a major rise in hospitalizations or deaths.
Florida Created Its Own Labor Shortage
The impacts of Florida’s harsh new immigration law are already being felt throughout the state, as the bill’s strict new measures have forced undocumented agricultural workers to flee in droves, leaving crops to rot and costing farmers money as Republican lawmakers scramble to fix their self-inflicted mess.
The bill, which takes effect July 1, criminalizes the transportation of undocumented people into Florida, requires hospitals to ask about immigration status, invalidates state driver’s licenses and other forms of government identification issued to undocumented people, and prevents local governments from issuing their own ID cards to undocumented people.
The lawmakers that passed the bill chose a strange time to pick on migrant workers, as Florida is already in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s “more severe” labor shortage category, with just 53 available workers for every 100 open jobs in the state.
LA Times; NOAA
El Niño Is Officially Here
The expected El Niño is officially here, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced Thursday. The climate pattern is expected to strengthen over the next several months, bringing heavy rainfall to the West and sending drier, hotter weather to northern states.
NOAA forecasters say there’s an 84% chance of a moderate El Niño developing by winter and a 56% chance it evolves into a stronger system. Either scenario results in a wetter winter from southern California down to the Gulf Coast, and dry conditions stretching from the Pacific Northwest to the Ohio Valley.
El Niño also tends to exacerbate the effects of climate change, with the hottest years on record typically to occur during El Niño.
States Legislatures Are Considering 185 Bills That Would Make It Easier to Manipulate Elections
A new report by three nonpartisan organizations tracking state legislation found 185 bills have been introduced in 38 state legislatures that would “increase the risk of election subversion,” including 15 that have already become law.
States United Democracy Center, Protect Democracy, and Law Forward identified legislation that would give state legislators control over election results, require wasteful partisan election “audits” (like Arizona’s fiasco headed by Cyber Ninjas), and take power away from nonpartisan election officials and give it to partisan actors in state legislatures.
It’s not all bad news, however, as the report also identified 27 states considering bipartisan legislation that would proactively safeguard elections, including protections for election workers and countering election disinformation.
A Daily Multivitamin May Improve Memory Loss in Older Adults
A new study led by researchers at Columbia University found taking a daily multivitamin could slow age-related memory loss in adults 60 and older, suggesting it “may be a simple, inexpensive way” for older adults to slow memory decline.
The randomized clinical trial included over 3,500 adults randomly assigned to take a daily multivitamin or a placebo for three years. At the end of each year, participants performed at-home tests designed to assess the function of the hippocampus, the part of the brain affected by aging.
The researchers estimate the memory improvement was equivalent to about three years of age-related memory decline. Put differently, the multivitamin group was an estimated three years “younger” in terms of their memory function compared to the placebo group.
Astronomers Identified the Largest Cosmic Explosion Ever Seen
A new study by researchers at the University of Southampton in the U.K. revealed the largest cosmic explosion on record, an event ten times brighter than any known supernova (exploding star) and three times brighter than the brightest tidal disruption event, during which a star falls into a supermassive black hole.
The explosion, called AT2021lwx, took place some 8 billion light years away, when the universe was only about 6 billion years old, and has lasted for over three years, dwarfing typical supernovae which are only bright for a few months.
The researchers believe the explosion is the result of a massive gas cloud, potentially thousands of times more massive than our sun, that has been “violently disrupted” by a supermassive black hole.
102% - The increase in Netflix’s daily sign-ups in the wake of its crackdown on password sharing last month, according to data from Antenna Research. After Netflix notified users about the change on May 23, Antenna found the company had its four single largest days of U.S. sign-ups since January 2019. Did Netflix just start a new trend for cash-strapped streamers?
29% - The rise in vasectomies in the U.S. in the three months after the Supreme Court ended the constitutional right to an abortion by overturning Roe v. Wade in June 2022, according to data compiled by The Economist.
$208.6 million - The opening weekend box office for Sony’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, making it the second-highest opening of the year so far. The film brought in $120.5 million domestically.
Long Video. What could an AI economy look like? (13 min)
Short Video. Is it normal to talk to yourself? (5 min)
Fun Video. What was medieval junk food like? (10 min)
Good Read. Was CNN’s Chris Licht era a sign of a larger media problem? (1,231 words; 6 min)
Neat List. Here are 19 books NPR’s book critics are excited about this summer.
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Written by Ryan Wittler