EPA Chief Downplays Global Warming as Unexpected Climate Impacts Stack up

Read time: 8 mins
Cape Town, South Africa

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is well-known for his comments denying the established science of climate change, and this week he touted yet another talking point of the climate denial community.

“I think there's assumptions made that because the climate is warming, that that necessarily is a bad thing,” Pruitt said in an interview with Nevada's KSNV television and as reported by E&E News. But from Cape Town, South Africa's water woes to mercury in melting permafrost, the decidedly negative impacts of global warming are already manifesting themselves, often in unexpected ways.

Pruitt isn’t the first to use this talking point — that global warming might be a good thing for humans. In October of 2016, Marlo Lewis, Jr., a Senior Fellow at the climate-denying Competitive Enterprise Institute, spoke at a conference where he made a similar argument, saying that because people move to warmer climates, then obviously they prefer global warming.

People are voting with their feet by the millions to embrace and endure more climate warming in a short space of time[sic] than even these outlandish models predict will happen in a century,” Lewis said. “If you move from Albany to Florida or to Texas, the climate is really going to change for you. Or Arizona.”

Lewis's colleague at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, fellow climate science denier Myron Ebell, was in charge of Trump’s EPA transition team.

But while the head of the EPA is looking forward to a warming planet as if it were a winter vacation in Arizona, the real impacts of a warming planet are already beginning to happen — and they don’t look quite as appealing.

And some of these impacts are turning out to be quite unexpected.

Day Zero in Cape Town

While Day Zero sounds like the title of a movie about a dystopian future, it's actually the title of a 2007 film about three friends getting drafted to fight in a war. More recently, however, it has also become the name of an impending reality for Cape Town, South Africa's capital city. Day Zero is what municipal planners are calling the day in the near future when the taps to the entire city will be turned off due to an extreme water shortage. Cape Town is one of the wealthiest cities in all of Africa and a popular spot for the affluent to visit. Of course, that will likely change if there is no water.

Cape Town is running out of water for two reasons: population growth and a record drought. While current research suggests that droughts are not caused by climate change, scientists agree that climate change is making them worse around the world.  

Part of the problem in Cape Town is that asking an entire city to drastically reduce its water consumption hasn’t been well received.

Kevin Winter is a researcher at an urban water group at the University of Cape Town and explained this reality to National Geographic:

“I'm not sure if we'll be able to avert Day Zero. We're using too much water, and we can't contain it. It's tragic.”

While severe droughts like Cape Town's are not entirely unexpected in a warmer world, this one seems to have taken the city off guard, despite earlier efforts to improve water efficiency.

Unfortunately, the water crisis in Cape Town is not unlike the greater climate crisis facing the planet. In order to avoid warming the planet to catastrophic levels, many people around the world must drastically reduce their consumption of fossil fuels. So far, that has not happened. And population growth continues unabated.

The Ocean Is Sinking

Another recent discovery reveals an unexpected outcome of climate change. Melting polar ice is adding water to the oceans, and the additional weight of the water has resulted in the “sinking” of the ocean floor. Newsweek recently reported on this phenomena, based on a study published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters:

The results show that the ocean is changing in ways we didn't realize and is sinking further into the earth’s crust. As a result, scientists have underestimated how much sea levels are rising by as much as 8 percent.”

While the sinking ocean floor doesn’t appear to pose immediate risks, it has most likely been helping hide the full impacts of sea level rise caused by global warming. 

Extreme Heat Affects Trees' Ability to Absorb Carbon

One of the main causes of global warming is increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. While efforts to invent ways to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere are in the works, plants and trees already do this on a massive scale via photosynthesis. However, a new study published in Global Change Biology revealed that some trees actually absorb much less carbon dioxide during extreme heat.

Mark Tjoelker is a professor at the University of Western Sydney’s Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment in Australia and is one of the authors of this study.

If heatwaves occur over a large surface area … clearly, the trees and native forests in that area would take up less carbon,” Tjoelker told The Guardian. “And if there is an increased frequency of heatwaves that obviously impacts their ability to serve as carbon sinks.”

Again, the surprising ripple effects of global warming are not turning out to be as positive as Scott Pruitt might expect.

Looming Mercury in the Permafrost

National Geographic recently reported that “Scientists have uncovered another hidden threat buried in the icy frozen north.” That unexpected threat is mercury, trapped in the frozen permafrost. As the permafrost melts, these large natural stores of mercury will be released. This could spell trouble for humans because some forms of mercury are highly toxic, particularly to the human nervous system.

Kevin Schaefer, a researcher with the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center, was involved with the study that discovered these mercury reserves. He explained to National Geographic the planet-wide implications of the finding.

“…what happens in the Arctic doesn't stay in the Arctic,” Schaefer said. “Eventually it would be dispersed throughout the Earth. It moves around.”

And mercury isn’t the only looming threat in the permafrost. An outbreak of anthrax in Russia was linked to melting permafrost, and scientists worry that other infectious dangers may be waiting in the increasingly-less-frozen ground.

The End of a Stable Climate

ThinkProgress recently reported on a climate study published in January by the journal Nature, which includes this sobering analysis:

“This research confirms findings from 2013 that human-caused carbon pollution has ended the stable climate that enabled the development of modern civilization, global agriculture, and a world that could sustain a vast population.”

The end of a stable climate means there will undoubtedly be more unexpected impacts of warming in the future.

The Importance of Two Degrees

As society better understands the negative impacts of climate change, the importance of slowing global warming and limiting it to less than 2° Celsius (3.6° Fahrenheit) should be apparent. But achieving that goal, scientists say, requires making drastic reductions in fossil fuel use and doing so very quickly.

Multiple studies show that limiting warming to 2° Celsius would require an almost immediate halt to burning fossil fuels. According to CNN, one such study “concluded that if emissions continue for 15 more years, which is more likely than a sudden stop, Earth's global temperature could rise as much as 3 degrees” Celsius (5.4° Fahrenheit).

[For comparison, the impacts we're seeing now are the result of the globe warming, on average, only 0.85° Celsius (1.53° Fahrenheit) since 1880.]

The U.S. Energy Information Administration's recent forecast of increased fossil fuel consumption as well as reports of coal power plants planned around the world put the 2° Celsius scenario in jeopardy.  

Cape Town and its impending Day Zero certainly serve as the proverbial canary in the coal mine when it comes to climate change. Unfortunately, one of the main lessons of Day Zero is that people are not taking the reality of climate change seriously enough. While the experts managing Cape Town's water supplies were concerned about this issue, they failed to take into account the reality of a warming climate, instead basing their plans on past climate conditions.

“It's like driving a motor car and looking in the rear-view mirror,” Kevin Winter told National Geographic. “They solved the old problems, but they didn't recognize the risks ahead. Now here comes the juggernaut.”

Solving the many complications that come with a changing climate will be difficult, whether they are unexpected or not. While the steps needed to address global warming are clear, too many people may be “looking in the rear-view mirror” while the juggernaut of climate change barrels ahead.

Main image: Cape Town, South Africa. Credit: David StanleyCC BY 2.0

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