Lately, it seems, Mother Nature has been trying to get our attention. Its signals are increasingly loud, strident, and hard to miss. Some have been lethal.
The year 2015 is poised to become the hottest on record. In October, Hurricane Patricia, the strongest hurricane ever recorded by meteorologists, produced winds that reached 200 miles per hour. Average temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing twice as fast as temperatures on the rest of the planet. This, in turn, contributes to the thawing of the ice-covered polar surface—ice cover that is shrinking by 9 percent every 10 years. Scientists expect polar thawing to raise sea levels to a point that will force the population of many highly urbanized coastal areas to move to higher ground. More relevant for Americans is the fact that the Totten Glacier in East Antarctica is melting as warm ocean water erodes it from underneath. Owing to the laws of gravity, this could elevate sea levels by at least 11 feet in the Northern Hemisphere; in the United States, sea levels could rise by 25 percent more than the global average. A recent study indicated that by the end of the century, some urban centers in the Persian Gulf will occasionally be afflicted with temperature and humidity levels “that are intolerable to humans”—a threat Southeast Asia also faces. In these studies, “intolerable” does not mean very unpleasant. It potentially means mortal danger to those who are exposed, even for a few hours, to these conditions.
According to the United Nations, the current number of storms, floods, and heat waves is five times greater than it was in 1970. Although this increase should be partially attributed to the fact that we have better data now than we did half a century ago, numerous studies point to the heightened frequency these days of extreme weather phenomena: abnormally high or low temperatures, torrential rains, mudslides, prolonged droughts, and fierce forest fires. The number of people displaced by the effects of climate change is now greater than ever before. The International Red Cross estimates that there are more environmental refugees than there are political refugees escaping wars and other forms of conflict.