07/14/2014 - 21:29

Global warming: We’ll worry about that later

Dawn Stover

Dawn Stover

Stover is a science writer based in the Pacific Northwest and is a contributing editor at the Bulletin. Her work has appeared in...

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During one of several trips I took to Costa Rica more than a decade ago, I visited a small insectarium where a guide described something he called an assassin bug. Also known as the kissing bug, this insect (in actuality a family of more than 100 species) is known to bite people near their mouths during the night—attracted by their breath. It’s bad enough that the assassin bug can suck blood from your lips without waking you, but what really horrified me was learning that the insect can transmit a parasite that often produces no symptoms at first but can trigger heart failure decades later. Oh, and assassin bugs love to hide out in the palm-thatched roofs of huts like the one I was staying in at the time. Yikes.

I now know that the guide was describing Chagas disease, which is widespread in Latin America and causes thousands of deaths annually. I also know that there are treatments that can be effective if administered early in the course of the disease. What I still don’t understand is why I found the prospect of a delayed-death-by-assassin-bug so terrifying, but was largely unconcerned about the possibility that too many sunburns or French fries might kill me decades down the road.

Most of us suffer from some form of denial about the long-term impacts of our behavior on our health—and on that of the planet. Politicians and lobbyists understand all too well how denial works, and many also understand that they are losing the battle to refute climate science; that’s why some of them are finding it useful to narrow the discussion so that it focuses only on the near-term impacts of global warming. Which is as dangerous as taking a “why worry now?” approach to the bite of an assassin bug.

The future is longer than 30 years. A prime example of the new trend is North Carolina’s recent decision to ignore the worst predicted impacts of climate change. For now, anyway.

In 2010, a science panel appointed by the North Carolina Coastal Resources Commission reviewed the scientific literature and concluded that, for land-use planning purposes in coastal areas, the state should expect to see about 39 inches of sea level rise by 2100—which would swamp many ocean-side homes and businesses, as well as military installations such as Camp Lejeune, one of five bases that the Defense Department is studying to assess climate impacts on the military. North Carolina was also developing a map that would allow homeowners to check for expected impacts by street address.

That didn’t sit well with some homeowners, realtors, and builders, who foresaw a drop in coastal property values. In response to their concerns, North Carolina’s new coastal commissioner announced this spring that the state’s climate forecast will extend only 30 years, during which time sea level is expected to rise only about 8 inches.

While the narrowed forecast may be good news for realtors, it’s bad news for their customers. Imagine that you’re shopping for a home on North Carolina’s shore. If some of the properties you’re considering are likely to be underwater in another 40 or 50 years, wouldn’t you want to know that? And wouldn’t you think twice about pouring money into a 30-year mortgage if you knew your home might become worthless a decade or two after it was paid off?

An ounce of prevention. Longer-term climate forecasts have more uncertainty than nearer-term forecasts, of course. But that doesn’t mean that climate scientists can’t make reasonable predictions about impacts that won’t arrive until late in the century. And far from being alarmist, predictions made over the past two decades have consistently underestimated the pace and intensity of climate change.

The idea that climate action should focus only on what is certain to happen within the next 30 years is disastrous on many levels. Not only does it ignore the impacts of greenhouse gases that are emitted today but will linger in the atmosphere for many generations to come, but it also guarantees that mitigation and adaptation will cost far more than if regulators had buckled down earlier. The cost of doing nothing is not zero. “The decisions we’re making today—to continue along a path that’s almost entirely carbon-dependent—are locking us in for long-term consequences that we will not be able to change but only adapt to, at enormous cost,” wrote former US Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. recently, comparing the financial impacts with the credit bubble that burst in 2008.

Even more insidious than the idea that we can’t predict the future is the idea that we can’t do anything to change it. If we know, for example, that climate change—which is changing the geographical reach of many species—is pushing assassin bugs northward, we can take preventive measures to avoid Chagas disease, such as using screening to avoid bug bites, and medications to treat infections before they become serious.

When an assassin bug takes up residence in your home, multiplies rapidly, and threatens to wreak havoc on your life, you don’t wait 30 years to see what happens. The same is true for climate change: Although its worst effects won’t be felt until decades from now, the next 30 years are critical for preventing climate calamity.