I have an enormous amount of respect for Stuart Staniford, who I think is one of the best minds working on our collective ecological crisis. That said, we’ve had some serious debates, because I’ve tended to think that our situation, particularly our longer term food situation, is more serious than Staniford has – but those debates on my end have always included just a profound gratitude for the kind of analytic work he does.
Staniford has done a fabulous review (Note: apologies for linkage problems, they should now be fixed!) of a report that got buried “Global Climate Impacts on the United States” and gets right to the central point – that climate change in the US is going to be a very, very hard thing to adapt to. A lot of us know this intellectually, but it is very hard to grasp exactly how radically our world is slated to change. I think information like this is precisely why I’m less optimistic than Staniford has been – because how do you do agriculture in a nation that looks a lot like the mojave desert?
I think it is important to point out that while Staniford observes that it is possible there are errors that make this either less or more awful, I think the aggregate of the evidence from what we are seeing is that it is likely to be more awful – that is, almost all of the material evidence we have for how climate change is occurring suggests that we have been understating the dangers. Moreover, the report in question uses older estimates of climate sensitivity than the emerging understanding, now accepted by the IPCC – that is, it may not take emissions nearly as high as projected to achieve the worst outcomes:
This is not to say that it will be right in all respects – clearly the planet as an entire system is so complex that scientists may not have successfully understood and modeled all the important physics, chemistry, and biology, and there may be surprises as additional effects show up. Anyone paying attention to climate science is aware that there have already been significant surprises – it turned out that the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets started melting much faster than had been expected, and the Arctic sea ice appears to have been melting faster than climate scientists expected. So I don’t dismiss the possibility of things either being better or worse than climate science currently predicts.
You really need to read this stuff. You won’t enjoy it, but you need it.