Last summer there was talk about the impacts of climate change on the Pacific Northwest. Famed meteorologist and weather blogger, Cliff Mass, argued that the PNW could be a refuge from climate change. http://cliffmass.blogspot.com/2014/07/will-pacific-northwest-be-climate.html
As he is a meteorologist, it is not surprising that he focuses mainly on sea level rise, precipitation, and temperature, although at the end of his post he does mention the possible challenge of incoming climate refugees (from California).
While the PNW may not directly experience extreme weather effects, this does not make it a climate refuge. In fact, I argue that the idea of a climate refuge is inherently inconsistent with a globally connected world. Here, I make two simple points.
First, as several commentators to his blog post already pointed out, the PNW is not immune to ocean acidification. The absorption of CO2 into oceans is changing their acidity, with the predictable outcomes for ocean ecology. Species that are vulnerable to acidity will find it increasingly difficult to reproduce or survive. Shellfish growers along Washington’s coasts are already finding that shellfish cannot reproduce reliability or as productively in natural waters due to the rise in acidity that we have already seen. Other species that are commercially fished or harvested as traditional food in indigenous cultures are also affected. The oceans have always connected the PNW to the rest of the world. Moreover, we are connected to people in distant places economically as well, in a manner that should dispel the myth of a “climate refuge.”
We live and depend on a globally interconnected economy, consequently, there is no haven, no protected space that is insulated from climate shocks whose immediate effects are felt elsewhere. When distant places are affected by extreme weather, the effects eventually are felt by us too.
Recently, the National Research Council completed a report for the US intelligence community, documenting the threats that climate change pose to US national security. While the study excluded several major items (like protective actions countries may take to make themselves more resilient, such as land grabs in Africa, or direct threats to the US military’s ability to conduct operations) and while it focused only on climate threats with immediate impacts outside of the USA, it did highlight a number of important pathways by which Americans, no matter where they live, could experience.
I won’t review the entire report here. One example should be enough to carry the point. For more detail, read chapter 4 in the report, all NAS reports are available free on-line. This one is available at the National Academy website here.
Consider the globally connected food system. This system has developed to ensure there is access to food around the globe. Countries whose domestic supply falls short can purchase grain on the world market. However, this food system has evolved under an earlier climate regime. In other words, it has developed to produce and transport certain amounts and types of foods in certain temporal and geographic patterns. A different climate regime that places extraordinary stresses upon this system may cause it to underperform, particularly in the short-term.
Extreme weather leads to poor harvests. As demand for food increases so does the price. We have experienced this in recent years, most notably 2010-2011. Lack of food or high prices can also lead to social unrest, which can have myriad consequences. For instance, the report discusses how a heat wave in Russia let to high wheat prices in 2011, and high prices were one impetus for the Arab Spring. While we need to be careful about asserting causality with any one stream of events, it is the larger underlying pattern of connections and vulnerabilities that the study committee focused upon.
Even if we zoom in to just the USA, we see the same pattern of spatial interdependencies that make claims of a “climate haven” dubious. Consider this. Weather-related impacts in the USA can have numerous impacts on people living in places that are not immediately affected. For instance, one-third of US petroleum production is located in the Gulf of Mexico and other coastal areas. Hurricane Katrina in 2005 shut down all petroleum production in the Gulf and Superstorm Sandy impacted oil imports and refining on the East Coast. Both to higher petroleum prices throughout the country. Those higher prices are immediately felt in the PNW, even though we did not experience either of those storms. The lesson is: geographical distance is no protection in a world with integrated markets. While we all want to find a silver lining in the devastating story of climate change, any silver linings we find will pale against the other consequences.
The fact is there is no such thing as a climate haven in an interconnected world. Globalization has made us one. Believing that we in the PNW somehow enjoy special protections by virtue of our oceans, mountains, wind patters, or whatever is misguided and dangerous. It is misguided because it is plainly not true. The oceans connect us. The economy connects us. It is dangerous because it may encourage us to withdraw from our collective responsibility to act to mitigate and adapt to global climate change. This is a global problem. We are part of the global community. Climate change is a problem for us and for future generations. All of us are needed to solve it. The Pacific Northwest is no haven from the changes that are coming.
directs research at the Energy Trans Lab