Climate change is really only affecting the polar bears, right?

The world’s getting warmer. So what? Sure, it matters to the polar bears and maybe some people who live on low-lying islands in the South Pacific, but honestly, the world’s just warm by a degree Celsius, or a degree and a half Fahrenheit. We’ve weathered far bigger changes than that before, right? (murmuring) (bell chiming) If you ask people to design a book cover on global warming, nearly ever cover would feature, you guessed it, a polar bear, standing on a big, melting chunk of ice. It’s true. Polar bears are endangered in a changing climate. Through the long summer they spend on land, most bears don’t eat. They wait ’till they can get out on the ice because that’s where they catch their prey, tasty mammals like seals and walrus, even beluga wales. But today, that ice is leaving earlier and earlier in spring, and it’s coming back later and later in winter. In the fall of 2015, Polar Bears International invited me on a trip out to the tundra during what they thought would be the final week before the ice froze and the bears skedaddled out onto Hudson Bay.

I arrived at the beginning of November, and there were bears aplenty, idling around the tundra with absolutely no ice in sight. It wasn’t until mid-December, mid-December Hudson Bay, that the ice finally arrived. That’s six extra hungry weeks with no food for those bears. So yes, the polar bears are at the front lines of climate change, but you know what? If we don’t heed their warning, we’re next. Climate change threatens our food supply, and many other important things. Sure it’s been warmer here on planet earth before back when there were dinosaurs, and you know what? Back then because it was so warm, the ice sheets completely melted. All of that water was in the ocean, so sea level was about 300 feet or 100 meters higher than today. That means that the land where 1/3 of us live, that’s about two and a half billion people, would have been under water. Now, we don’t expect the ice sheets to entirely disappear anytime soon, certainly not within our lifetimes, but they are melting, and sea level is predicted to rise anywhere from about two to six feet this century.

1,000 years ago, if sea level rose a few feet, and we lived on the coast, what would we do? We’d just pick up our tents and move. So why do we care about climate change now? Because we can’t do that anymore. We’re not hunter-gatherers. We live in cities made out of concrete and steel. 2/3 of the biggest cities in the world are within a few feet of sea level, and we can’t just pick up Houston or New York or Vancouver or Shanghai and move them a couple hundred miles inland. 1,000 years ago, what would we do if climate changes pushed the animals that we hunted further north, or made it hard to grow our crops? Well, we’d pick up our tents and move again, right? Except today we can’t. Every acre of arable land, from Brownsville, Texas, to Winnipeg, Manitoba, has already been parceled out. If you can’t grow cotton on your farm in Texas anymore, you can’t just drive up to Kansas, take over someone else’s land, and keep on farming, not unless you want an unpleasant visit from the sheriff.

Climate change also threatens our health. It’s causing more frequent and stronger heat waves from the European Heat Wave of 2003 that killed 70,000 people to the record heat that swept India in Southwest Asia in the summer of 2015. Climate change is even making air pollution worse. When the air is warmer, the reactions that form ground level ozone, that’s one of the most dangerous things for us to breathe, happen faster, and water-borne illnesses are also on the rise. A warmer atmosphere speeds up the hydrological cycle, leading to more extreme precipitation. Heavier rain fall often means higher risk of flooding, and flooding, especially in places where drinking water is already at risk of being contaminated with garbage or animal manure, or even human waste, that can be deadly.

What do Zika and dengue and malaria and all those strange and scary diseases we hear about on the news these days have in common? They’re all spread by mosquitoes, and mosquito ranges are often determined by climate. In some cases, a disease could move out of its current region if it gets too hot, like dengue in the summer here in West Texas. In other cases, a disease could move into a new region, where it was previously unknown, like Lyme disease in Canada. We share this planet with seven and a half billion people, a number that will hit nine billion by the middle of this century. We’ve divided up our land. We’ve built massive amounts of infrastructure. We’ve even allocated our water supply based on a crucial assumption that we don’t think about very much, but one that matters desperately to us now. We’ve assumed that our climate is stable. Why is this important? Well, I live in West Texas. It’s so flat here that our roads are very straight, so straight that you could stay on the road a good long way even if you were driving along looking in your rear view mirror the whole time.

When it’s that straight, where you’ve been behind you in the past is a reliable guide to where you’d be in the future down the road, but once in a while when you’re driving down a straight road, you come to a huge turn. What happens if you’re driving down the road, looking in the rear view mirror, and you get to that curb. (car crashing) I think we all know the answer to that, but what we might not realize is that planning for our future, our food, our water, our energy, our cities, even our economy, planning for the future based on the past only works when we have a straight road and a stable climate. If climate is changing, we’re gonna end up in the wrong place if we don’t plan for that curb in the road. That’s why climate change matters to us today. (bell chiming) Thank you for watching Global Weirding. Be sure to go to every other Wednesday so you don’t miss the new episode. You can subscribe to our YouTube channel, follow me on Twitter, and check out our Facebook Live discussion every other Thursday after each new episode at 7:00 PM Central.

See you next time. (gentle music).