The most important headlines about climate change might not look like climate change headlines
The most commonly discussed effects of dangerous climate change relate to the physical systems of the earth: rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, warmer temperatures (especially at night, during winter and at high latitudes), melting glaciers and ice caps, acidifying oceans, intensifying extreme weather events and so on. All these can be measured and quantified by empirical observation. But for many people, the most important effects will not be sweating more, wearing fewer layers, buying a new umbrella, or cancelling their glacier climbing holiday.
For most of us, particularly the vast majority of the developed world who live in urban areas, the most important effects will arrive indirectly, through flow on effects in human society. For example, while farmers might directly struggle with changing patterns of precipitation, urbanites will feel this indirectly through higher prices or shortages of food types affected by drought, flood or heat wave. In a system as complex as human society, global warming will only ever be one factor in such a news story. There will be government regulations, transport strikes, supermarket profits and all kinds of other factors that are also affecting the price and availability of food, which may at times mask the effects of climate change. Indeed, it may be that the proximate cause of a particular news story apparently has nothing to do with climate change, but a less stable climate may be the background against which a particular issue is worse than it might otherwise be.
For instance, Australia has always had cycles of drought, and Australian agriculture has always heavily influenced by the natural and quasi-periodic ENSO climate pattern. Climate change may increase the length and severity of periods of drought, leaving crops and livestock stressed and more vulnerable to a variety of adverse events. Ecosystems are pushed closer to the edge; their ability to cope with new threats is reduced. So while a new outbreak of disease or infestation from an introduced species might grab the headline, it may have been climate change that lowered the defences.
Or, to pick another plausible scenario, international conflict could be sparker over stressed water resources (such as the Jordan river, which is dying). The proximate cause of such conflict might be inequitable access to a water source, incompatible policies and allocations between nations sharing a common water source, inappropriate industry or population centres sited on the water source, a new dam or a pollution event. But again in the background could well be changing precipitation patterns leading to less water being available.
The most important medium-term effects of a changing climate are likely to be greater political instability, at both intra and international levels. Although there has been much discussion of ecological refugees from rising sea levels, I suspect higher numbers of refugees will be fleeing conflict and violence in places where climate change is an ultimate (though not necessary proximate) cause.
Here are some quotes from retired high-ranking US military figures (source):
Lt. General John G. Castellaw (US Army, Retired): “This isn’t an environmental issue, this is a security issue. Our strategic interests, and therefore our national security and the safety of Americans, are threatened by climate change and our continuing dependence on oil. Military leaders know this isn’t about polar bears and ice caps, it’s about international stability and national security.”This is why responding to climate change is not simply about reducing our carbon footprint (as important as that may be). It is also crucial that we re-invest in the resilience of local and regional communities. Dangerous climate change is dangerous partially because it is likely to increase the frequency and severity of events that threaten the social fabric. And it will be tensions or breakdowns in the social fabric that bring climate change close to home for many people.
Major General Paul Monroe (US Army, Retired): “We make a profound strategic error if we underestimate the impact that climate has on regional and international stability. Some of our most worrisome trouble spots around the world are dangerous because of a combination of climate problems and social unrest – Somalia, Nigeria, and Yemen are strong examples.”
This too is another site at which the Christian message is good news. Christ summons us into experimental communities of peace and forgiveness, places where people look to the interests of others before their own, where joy and hope can be found amidst sorrow and grief, where failure is not final. Jesus is the pioneer of a living way that refuses to perpetuate cycles of recrimination, returns hatred with blessing and recognises that love is important that self-protection. We walk in his footsteps not in order to survive a world that may grow more violent, or because it is the church's task to achieve world peace. We follow Christ simply because it is he who has issued the summons.
Second image by Andrew Filmer.