Researchers around the world have found signs of life fitfully adjusting to global warming. In Greenland, an earlier spring is causing insects and plants to emerge earlier. The problem is, the birds that feed on those plants and insects aren’t adjusting as fast. Plants emerge 20 days earlier than they did in 1996, some insects emerge as much as a month earlier, but birds are only 10 days ahead of their previous schedule. Insects and plants can respond more quickly to changing environments because they produce so many more offspring per female. On average, no more than two offspring per female survive and reproduce in a stable population. Insects produce thousands of eggs because only a few percent ever survive. Birds have evolved a different life history, and invest more effort per offspring. If only a few percent of their offspring survived, they would go extinct.
In the long run, the birds would catch up with the plants and insects. But as John Maynard Keynes observed in a related circumstance “in the long run we are all dead.” His comment on economists applies equally well to ecologists or to policymakers: “Economists set themselves too easy, too useless a task if in tempestuous seasons they can only tell us that when the storm is long past the ocean is flat again.”
The Audubon Society recently analyzed annual bird counts, and found that a number of common species are losing population. “Greater Scaup and other tundra-breeding birds are succumbing,” they explain, “to dramatic changes to their breeding habitat as the permafrost melts earlier and more temperate predators move north in a likely response to global warming.”
Closer to home we find that plants, including crops, are shifting north, tracking their preferred climates. How fast different types of plant can move is an open question, as is the consequences for species that can’t move at all. Some species are too tightly tied to the geography of an area, not just the temperature, but the soils, microbes and water. Other species could migrate, but would have to cross too much inhospitable territory.
If, as some have predicted, the wheat belt moves to Canada, what will that do to Kansas? The state’s economy is rooted in its wheat fields, and without that revenue, the state will be hard pressed to find a new industry.
As global warming deniers are forced to abandon the line that global warming isn’t happening, they’ve taken to painting it in rosy terms. The problem is, we don’t understand the consequences. Some might be good for some people and some species, but those same consequences will be bad for other people and other species. Whenever people try to manage natural ecosystems, even on very small scales, there are unintended consequences, consequences which require additional management.
It’s one thing to have to manage deer populations because we eradicated predators. That is within our meager power as human beings. The idea that we can manage the global climate in that way, that we could pick a new global climate which would be a net benefit, is hubris of the highest order. No sane person could believe such a thing. We are making massive, irreversible choices, and doing so with blindfolds on.
This is what’s wrong with the claim Emily Yoffe (and many other people) make: It isn’t hubris to think that we could change the climate, it is hubris to think that we can control the consequences of the changes we are already making.