If I see one more polar bear, I’m going to scream.  It feels like whenever people think of climate change, they think of this:

[Scream].  Even conservationists can’t stop talking about the damn polar bear.  Yesterday, Friends of the Earth tweeted this:

Great sentiment, but seriously?  Surely you know — surely we all know that climate change isn’t just going to affect polar bears.  It’s going to affect us.  All of us.  It’s already started.

Climate change is going to cause massive changes to weather systems worldwide.  Some of these changes are already being felt.  How many times in the past few years have you heard someone say, “this weather is so weird for this season” or something like that?  Floods, droughts, hurricanes, snowstorms (yes, snowstorms), heat waves, wildfires — all will become more severe … and less predictable.[1]

At the same time, our resilience to these events is weakening.  Natural systems that help protect and insulate us from weather extremes are being destroyed.  Here are some examples:

Mountaintop snow packs store water year-round.  This water is released in seasonal river flows that provide needed water during the growing season, even when there’s a drought.

For example, Alpine glaciers accumulate water (in the form of ice) in the winter, when precipitation (snowfall) is high, and the extra water wouldn’t be any good to anyone in the basin.  The glaciers melt a little in the summer, and let the water stream down into the Rhine, the Danube and other major rivers, just when precipitation (rainfall) is lower, but water is most needed for growing things. [2]

These snow packs — all mountain ice packs around the world — are disappearing.  Without them, a drought can be catastrophic.  This is the case in California right now, where snow pack levels across the Sierra Madres are at 6% of average, leaving the state unable to cope with an unprecedented drought.[3]

Here’s another example: coastal ecosystems like coral reefs provide protection from storm surges and rising sea levels.  According to a Stanford study, coral reefs can reduce the energy of incoming waves by 97%.[4]  This can turn a towering tsunami into a manageable swell.  Coral reefs are both more effective and less expensive than artificial seawalls for this purpose.  But these ecosystems are rapidly dying, because of climate change and other human-caused damage.

A final example: healthy forests can regulate climate at a local level — helping maintain cooler temperatures and preventing drying out of soil.  (Ever walked into a cluster of trees on a hot day? Nature’s air conditioning) Forests also provide protection from hurricanes and other natural disasters.  But, guess what?  Yep.  These forests are also disappearing.  Without them, we will be even more vulnerable to heat waves, droughts and extreme storms.

So climate change will lead to more extreme and unpredictable weather, and some of the most important natural mechanisms that help us deal with this type of weather are disappearing.  Clearly this will have a direct impact on people and the global economy.  Preparing for and responding to increasingly serious emergencies will be hugely expensive.  And people will die — both from the hurricanes and floods and from the associated spread of disease and health problems that accompany this type of disaster.  But that’s not the only problem.

Changes in weather will create enormous problems for agriculture.  Droughts and floods can destroy an entire region’s crops for a whole season.  This hurts the local population, but it also causes dangerous swings in global agricultural markets.[5]

The key word here is unpredictability.  Climate change is going to make droughts and floods and other extreme weather events less predictable.  Because of this, crop yields will also be less predictable, which will affect prices on the global market.  And in case you’re wondering, unpredictability is not a good thing for global economic stability.

Or political stability.

When food production goes down, prices go up, and some people go hungry.  And hungry people can riot.

A publication by the Center for American Progress linked climate change to the Arab Spring uprisings.  In 2010 and 2011, droughts and heat waves in China and Russia combined with cold snaps in Canada and Australia caused global wheat prices to double.  In the Middle East/North Africa region, home of some of the largest wheat importing countries in the world, this led to food shortages and contributed to the public dissatisfaction that culminated in conflict.[6]

Did climate change cause Arab Spring?  Not necessarily — the food shortage was not the only factor in the uprising.  But the case shows how climate change can act as a threat multiplier — by increasing the chance of drought or flood, it increases the chance of food shortage, which increases the chance of political instability around the world.

Starvation. Conflict. Disaster. Disease. Global economic collapse.  These are the issues we should be associating with climate change.  These are the problems that we will have to face as the effects of climate change intensify and impact the lives of every human on the planet.

Polar bears are the least of our problems.

But it’s more than that.  Talking about climate change in terms of polar bears diminishes the real issues at stake.  It makes it easy to dismiss climate change as a concern of treehuggers and bleeding hearts.  Have you ever heard someone say, “I don’t care about the environment, I care about people”?  I have.  Too many times.  It’s been three decades since the introduction of the term “sustainable development” and people still think that environmental issues are somehow separate from the wellbeing of people.  Why?  Because the environmental community can’t stop talking about polar bears.

Sources:

[1] http://www.ipcc.ch/#tabs-0

[2] http://www.eea.europa.eu/publications/alps-climate-change-and-adaptation-2009

[3] http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2015/04/01/396780035/scary-times-for-california-farmers-as-snowpack-hits-record-lows.  In California, the low snowpack is attributed to both low snowfall and milder than average winters, both of which are symptoms of climate change.

[4] http://news.stanford.edu/news/2014/may/coral-reef-protect-051314.html

[5] Lester Brown goes through an extensive and very convincing explanation of the global economic implications of climate change, particularly as it relates to agriculture.  Scary stuff — I don’t recommend reading it late at night.  Gave me nightmares for weeks.  Lester R. Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, New York, W.W. Norton, 2011.

[6] https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/security/report/2013/02/28/54579/the-arab-spring-and-climate-change/

Lydia

Written by Lydia

Lydia Slobodian is a lawyer working for an international environmental organization. She splits her time between Bonn, Germany and Washington, DC.