By Mark Gongloff / Bloomberg Opinion
For a long time, people have mistakenly thought of global warming as a sort of zero-sum game with obvious winners and losers. Places with fairly cool climates will remain comfortable, the thinking went, while the rest of the planet cooks. A third Pacific Northwest heat wave in as many years — this one this May — is the latest example of what makes this idea deadly nonsense. We’re all in this together.
Temperatures have soared above 90 degrees Fahrenheit this week in parts of Oregon, Washington state and British Columbia, nearly 30 degrees higher than usual for May. This follows a Washington heat wave last August that killed 10 people and the regional “heat dome” of 2021 that killed nearly 800.
Meanwhile, large areas of Alberta and neighboring provinces are burning in what is already one of the busiest wildfire seasons in Canada’s history, with the peak still months away. (The haze from those fires is now floating above Washington.) At risk are the region’s boreal forests, which store significant amounts of carbon. When these biospheres burn, they make climate change worse, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
About 16 years ago, a controversial column in The Atlantic suggested some people — particularly those in Canada, Russia and cold-weather U.S. states — could reap major benefits from climate change. In this vision, thawing permafrost in upper latitudes would create fertile new farmland, while melting polar ice would helpfully open up Arctic navigation routes for warships and cargo. As for the overwhelming majority of inhabited Earth, well, shame about your underwater cities.
“If the world warms, who will win?” the column asked. “Who will lose? And what’s in it for you?”
As cringeworthy as such questions might seem, the general sentiment apparently persists. U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin recently suggested climate change might be a problem in such unfortunate places as Central Africa, but “a warming globe is actually beneficial” to his typically temperate state because it means fewer deaths from winter cold. “Why wouldn’t we take comfort in that?”
In response, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel helpfully put together at least five reasons Wisconsinites could be pretty uncomfortable as the planet warms:
• Lower Wisconsin could be part of an “extreme heat belt” that includes Chicago and southern Michigan, in which temperatures could spike to 125 degrees Fahrenheit by 2053, a recent First Street Foundation study predicted.
• Fast-warming winters are already affecting winter sports and tourism.
• Warmer lake waters hurt fish populations and encourage algae blooms.
• Rainstorms and lake-effect snowstorms are growing more intense, causing more damage to people, property and infrastructure.
• Farmers suffer from heavy rainfall events and pests and diseases that survive warmer winters.
In reality, nowhere on the planet can avoid negative effects from climate change.
Temperatures can surge beyond local tolerance at any place or time, at great cost to human life and health, as we’ve seen in the Pacific Northwest. Flooding and sea-level rise are a threat regardless of latitude. Localized weather extremes, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation in the western Pacific Ocean, can affect weather around the globe. Small shifts in climate can have exponential and unpredictable effects on biosystems and quality of life. The Arctic is warming four times faster than the rest of the planet. The dream of an increasingly balmy, fertile Canada is currently on fire.
Even if the climate did become uniformly pleasant above, say, the 40th parallel in the continental U.S., then there would still be the matter of climate refugees fleeing the far-less-pleasant lower reaches. Already, much of the migration from Central and South America causing so much agita in the U.S. is driven by droughts, crop failures and natural disasters fueled by climate change. By mid-century, a warming planet could force 216 million people to migrate within their own countries, the World Bank estimates. How comfortable will future Ron Johnsons be with housing millions of, say, displaced Floridians, not to mention Guatemalans?
You might consider it a small victory that the dubious winners-losers framing at least acknowledges the reality of climate change. But it also minimizes its importance, offering yet another excuse to delay action to avoid the worst outcomes. Alcoholics often try “geographic cures,” moving to another place in hopes it will solve their problems, only to realize they took their biggest problem along for the ride. We can’t make the same mistake with the planet.
Mark Gongloff is a Bloomberg Opinion editor and columnist covering climate change. A former managing editor of Fortune.com, he ran the HuffPost’s business and technology coverage and was a reporter and editor for the Wall Street Journal.
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