March 2024
Alan Dean Foster

Climate Change: 1+1=0

Is climate change all bad, I’m sometimes asked? Won’t some people and countries benefit from it? After all, if the temperature rises in Siberia and the Yukon, doesn’t that mean the climate for growing grains will move up a few degrees of latitude?

The trouble is that such considerations involve the climate of the entire planet, and much more than what appears obvious at first glance. We’re not talking about changing the climate in a hobby greenhouse here. Everything on the planet is connected. So while it may appear that a warming climate will make wheat farming possible in Deadhorse and Irkutsk, related issues may well prevent it.

The soil is different, for example. True, the temperature may turn more amenable for growing grains, but while the Arctic winter may become warmer, Arctic winter light will remain the same. That means less sunlight for more of the year. Shorter growing season. As for that soil — nothing grows very well in permafrost.

I have some small acquaintance with permafrost. It’s not nice stuff. When it melts it’s as if the earth is going on a crash diet. The ground warps and twists as moisture is sucked out of it. That means that anything built on such ground is also likely to warp and twist. And not just neatly aligned rows of wheat or corn or barley.

One of the first things I noticed when I was in Utqiakvik (Barrow), Alaska, was a large-diameter pipe running atop supports well above ground. I didn’t think it was to carry oil, Prudhoe Bay being a little more than 200 miles from where I was staying. Asking a local, I found out that the pipe was the main sewage line. This had to be built above ground because: permafrost. In fact, all sewage and water lines tended to be constructed above ground for that reason. Pipelines built above permafrost are more flexible and easier to repair, because if the permafrost melts and twists, buried lines break.

Reports and pictures from Siberia show important infrastructure seriously damaged from the same stresses. Buildings shifted off foundations, bridges that have to be realigned, cracked roadbeds everywhere. You might be able to grow your corn, but that won’t prove very profitable if your silos and barns and warehouses are repeatedly shifted off their foundations. Not to mention what melting permafrost does to airport runways, railroad track and such.

But let’s say that the permafrost problems can be handled and agriculture can move farther north. What about the plants and wildlife that are already there? We’re starting to see the boreal forest and the creatures that live within it move north onto the tundra. Isn’t that great? It means that the logging industry can move north along with the forest.

Except that increasing temperatures, as we know all too well in places like Arizona, simultaneously rise in the south, weakening and killing the pine forests there. As temperate forest moves north, the desert does likewise. So no gain for the lumber industry. 

It’s natural for drought to accompany expanding desert. Just ask the Brazilians, who (partially due to climate change and partially to their own poor environmental policies) are struggling to cope with their most horrific droughts in centuries. Being able to grow wheat in northern Canada and Siberia is a bad trade-off for shriveling the Amazon. 

Until just recently there was a multimillion-dollar crabbing industry in Alaska. With astonishing abruptness, it collapsed, as more than a billion crabs just — disappeared. Why? Because their food disappeared. Because the water is warming. On the other hand, king crab have migrated from the Russian north to the south along the coast of Norway, where there is now a profitable crabbing industry where until recently none existed. But that new industry is also fragile and subject to the changes of global warming.

(Side note: At first, the Norwegians saw the crabs as invaders and pests that would obliterate the local sea life. It took them a bit to realize that the crabs taste a whole lot better than the critters they were replacing).

South Africa, the Middle East — with our extensive water infrastructure in the US we have trouble grasping how climate change is affecting regions so far away. Iran and Kazakhstan are suffering from water shortages of their own making that are hugely exacerbated by climate change. If India and Pakistan go to war, it won’t be because of politics: it will be over increasingly limited supplies of water. Why limited? Because the Himalayan glaciers that feed the Indus are shrinking, drying up. On the other side of India, Bangladesh will face the same issue with the Brahmaputra, which flows through part of India before reaching that low-lying country. Unless India first comes into conflict with China, since the river arises in Tibet.

Speaking of China, an increasing number of dams upstream threaten to destroy the livelihoods and traditions of people living downstream along the Mekong River. Similar water problems are already arising in South America, as shrinking glaciers impact the water supply of every country along the chain of the Andes.

Deserts will get hotter and drier. Rainforests will dry up, reducing the amount of oxygen they pump into the atmosphere. So yes, I’d say that unless you own some land in northern Canada or Alaska, where you’ll still have to deal with the permafrost, climate change is indeed mostly bad, if not all bad.

At least, living in Arizona, we’re used to extremes of climate and better positioned than most to deal with it. But give it another fifty years and another few million immigrants from other states, and ....

Better to try and fix the problem now. Everywhere.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.