The Law of Unexpected Consequences: A Better Way of Learning
The Law of Unexpected Consequences: A Better Way of Learning
By Richard Worzel [Traduire]
Elsewhere at TEACH Magazine is a discussion on Arctic Sovereignty (see The Canadian Northern Project), which is interesting, but it’s only a small part of a much bigger issue that can be approached from the point of view of politics, economics, geology, climatology, and many other subjects. In the real world, subjects overlap, and taking a broader view of issues will provide greater motivation for students (and teachers) to pursue different aspects of their education and not view subjects in chopped-up blocks divorced from each other. Let me, then, widen the issue of Arctic sovereignty into that broader discussion.
First, the only reason why Arctic sovereignty is (pardon me) a hot topic is because climate change is opening up the Northwest Passage, and making the Arctic much more accessible. When the Arctic was ice-locked, and deemed likely to stay so, it was considered a wasteland, and of interest only to the First Nations peoples and those others that lived there. But now it seems pretty clear that the Earth’s climate is changing, and that is making the Arctic much more interesting for many reasons. To see this, let’s now shift the focus to climate change.
There are some quibbles among the majority of scientists, and a great deal of uncertainty about the long run, but if you look at what’s happening, it’s not hard to see that climate is, in fact, changing. The changes evident range from extreme cold and unusual snowfalls in Great Britain and northern Europe, to both warming and cooling in Antarctica, to melting ice roads and permafrost in the Canadian Arctic. Climate change deniers will say that it’s too early to be able to tell if anything’s happening, that even if something is happening that climate changes naturally all the time.
But let’s skip the controversy, and assume that climate change is happening, and that it’s too late to stop it now (which I happen to believe). That doesn’t mean we should do nothing because the steps we take now may have a lot to do with how severe the changes are ultimately—say, the difference between a light sunburn and a potentially fatal sunstroke. What I’d like to focus on is why the future is so difficult to predict, using Arctic sovereignty and climate change as examples.
If we follow the consensus among climate change modelers, we should be expecting about a two-degree (all temperatures in Celsius) increase in global temperature this century. This will probably mean warmer oceans, higher sea levels, more rain in some places, more drought in others, more severe storms in both winter and summer, and significant shifts in growing seasons in all agricultural areas. But let’s think the changes through, because it’s often not the primary effects that are most significant, but the secondary, tertiary, or further downstream effects that are critical.
If we look at Canada, what would climate change mean to us? First, it means the Northwest Passage is unblocked and becomes a shorter way to get from Europe to coastal cities of East Asia by ship. It raises political tensions between the United States (which claims that the NW Passage is an international waterway, and therefore open to all nations) and Canada (which claims it is a domestic waterway). This issue has already raised tensions between all Arctic nations (Canada, Russia, America, Denmark, and the other Nordic countries), sparking a land rush to claim potential natural resources under the clearing Arctic Ocean. It puts Canada in a much more combative geopolitical position, both with more potential bargaining chips, and more potentially adversarial situations for which we are not well prepared.
Next, let’s look at agriculture. The Canadian Prairies are one of the great breadbaskets of the world. The rapidly developing countries like China, India, and so on, are seeing big increases in standard of living. This, in turn, means their people will eat more and better food, which means the demand for food will rise. That’s good for Canadian farmers. If climate does warm in Canada, farmers could see longer growing seasons, which would mean better crops and a wider range of them.
Yet, it’s not all good news. First, climate change may also shift rain and snowfall patterns. The Prairies are marginal farmland because they are so arid. It’s only because they get just enough moisture at just the right times of year that they can be as productive as they are. If precipitation patterns shift, the Prairies might become less productive instead of more. For example, in 2010, it rained long and hard during early Spring in some parts of the Prairies, which made the ground too soft and damp to plant, cut the growing season for many farmers significantly, and led to lower yields for many farmers, or even a complete loss of crops.
Warmer climate also means more pests. Fewer insects will die off during the less-harsh winters and new insects, coming from warmer climates, will move in and are more difficult to eradicate. Warmer temps will also mean more plant diseases, parasites, and rusts, that again, complicate matters.
Increased productivity for farmers will result in increased competition for their crops and may cause political strife in Canadian politics, pitting farmers and farming provinces against consumers and consuming provinces because of the price of food.
Meanwhile, those people who live in the high Arctic may have to abandon their homes. Summer permafrost is melting in many places and the ice roads that are vital to resupplying northern communities during the winter are thawing earlier and freezing later. This means that fewer supplies can make it into the north before such communities are isolated by spring and summer weather. Will southern Canadians, who have a long history of ignoring northern Canadians, be willing to help them? Does Arctic sovereignty only apply to international relations? Here, again, is a political issue arising out of a climatic one.
If water levels rise, how will that affect Canada’s coastlines like those in St. John, Halifax, Vancouver, and Victoria? And on the West Coast, where the potential for a truly significant earthquake is already high, will rising ocean levels put more pressure on the faults below and trigger more, or bigger quakes?
Speaking of oceans, warmer oceans mean lots of things. They probably mean fewer, but bigger hurricanes, inflicting damage on coastal communities more frequently (including the Atlantic provinces, as happened in 2010). Higher ocean temperatures also mean coral colonies are dying off and new ones forming in places farther away from the Equator. They may even mean a collapse of the food chain in the oceans and that could be really bad news for all life on Earth. (We really don’t know.)
Warming oceans may also mean that the United Kingdom and Northern Europe revert their climates. Remember that London is on roughly the same latitude as James Bay, and without the warming effects of the Gulf Stream, it would be substantially colder. But the runoff from melting Greenland glaciers, and the rapidly disappearing North Polar ice cap is pouring cold, fresh water down the Labrador Strait into the North Atlantic, slowing the flow of the Gulf Stream and diluting it. It is not clear that this is causing the recent colder, snowier winters in Europe, but it may well be a contributing factor. Geological history suggests that the Gulf Stream has been disrupted in the past, producing significant changes in the climate of northern Europe.
Now, if the United Kingdom and northern Europe’s climate becomes radically colder, think of how dramatically that will change the economies of these countries and shift the geopolitics of the world.
But the final possibility I’d like to explore is extreme climate change. There is some thought that the last ice age of about 12,000 years ago was triggered by global warming. Some geologists believe that the patterns of climate change we’re seeing now are similar to those that preceded the two most recent ice ages. Suppose that climate change leads to a domino effect that dumps us back into another ice age. The consequences would be far more profound than that of global warming.
When you consider that at the height of the last ice age, most of Canada was covered in three kilometers or more of ice, it would virtually wipe us out as a nation. Fortunately, this view is still very much in the minority, and must be considered a very low probability.
There is much, much more on which we could ponder about the unexpected, or downstream, consequences of climate change. Arctic sovereignty is one of them, but there are many others. But more than any single issue, exploring this topic clearly illustrates that learning about the real world, as opposed to keeping knowledge carefully tucked in separate little boxes, leads to far better and wide-ranging insights, and makes subjects far more absorbing.
Richard Worzel is Canada’s leading futurist, and one of the most in-demand commercial speakers in the country. He volunteers his time – for free – to speak to high school students when his schedule permits. Contact him by email at email@example.com.