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The Coming Plague

Posted on 24 October 2013 by John Hartz

The following article is reprinted by permission of its author, Stephen Leahy, who writes for the Inter Press Service (IPS) News Agency. To access the article as posted on the IPS website, click here.

Photo of coral reef in Indonesia

Rich benthic fauna and associated reef fish, Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia, which is expected to be one of the first places in the world to see prolonged, record-breaking heatwaves. Credit: Courtesy of Keoki Stender,

A climate plague affecting every living thing will likely start in 2020 in southern Indonesia, scientists warned Wednesday in the journal Nature. A few years later the plague will have spread throughout the world’s tropical regions.

By mid-century no place on the planet will be unaffected, said the authors of the landmark study.

“We don’t know what the impacts will be. If someone is about to fall off a three-storey building you can’t predict their exact injuries but you know there will be injuries,” said Camilo Mora, an ecologist at University of Hawai‘i in Honolulu and lead author.

“The results shocked us. Regardless of the scenario, changes will be coming soon,” said Mora.

The “climate plague” is a shift to an entirely new climate where the lowest monthly temperatures will be hotter than those in the past 150 years. The shift is already underway due to massive emissions of heat-trapping carbon from burning oil, gas and coal.

Extreme weather will soon be beyond anything ever experienced, and old record high temperatures will be the new low temperatures, Mora told IPS. This will affect billions of people and there is no going back to way things were.

“Within my generation, whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past,” he said.

In less than 10 years, a country like Jamaica will look much like it always has but it will not be the same country. Jamaicans and every living thing on the island and in its coastal waters will be experiencing a new, hotter climate – hotter on average than the previous 150 years.

The story will be same around 2030 in southern Nigeria, much of West Africa, Mexico and Central America without major reductions in the use of fossil fuels, the study reports.

“Some species will adapt, some will move, some will die,” said co-author Ryan Longman also at the University of Hawai‘i.

Tropical regions will shift first because their historical temperature ranges are narrow. Climate change may only shift temperatures by 1.0 degree C but that will be too much for some plants, amphibians, animals and birds that have evolved in a very stable climate, Longman said.

Tropical corals are already in sharp decline due to a combination of warmer ocean temperatures and  higher levels of ocean acidity as oceans absorb most the carbon from burning oil, gas and coal.

The Nature study examined 150 years of historical temperature data, more than a million maps, and the combined projections of 39 climate models to create a global index of when and where a region shifts into novel climate. That is to say a local climate that is continuously outside the most extreme records the region has experienced in the past 150 years.

Canada’s climate won’t shift until 2050 under the business as usual emissions scenario the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls RCP8.5. The further a region is from the equator, the later the shift occurs. If the world sharply reduces its use of fossil fuels (RCP4.5), then these climate shifts are delayed 10 to 30 years depending on the location, the study shows. (City by city projection here)

Tropical regions are also those with greatest numbers of unique species. Costa Rica is home to nearly 800 species, while Canada, which is nearly 200 times larger in area, has only about 70 unique or endemic species.

Species matter because the abundance and variety of plants, animals, fish, insects and other living things are humanity’s life support system, providing our air, water, food and more.

“It’s an elegant study that shows timing of when climate shifts beyond anything in the recent past,” said Simon Donner, a climate scientist at Canada’s University of British Columbia.

Donner, who wasn’t involved in the study, agrees that the new regional climates in the tropics will have big impacts on many species.

“A number of other studies show corals, birds, and amphibians in the tropics are very sensitive to temperature changes,” Donner told IPS.

The impacts on ecosystems, food production, water availability or cites and towns are not known. However, the results of the study confirm the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions to reduce those future impacts, he said.

Developed countries not only need to make larger reductions in their emissions, they need to increase their “funding of social and conservation programmes in developing countries to minimize the impacts of climate change”, the study concludes.

Amongst the biggest impacts the coming ‘climate plague’ will have is on food production, said Mora.

“In a globalised world, what happens in tropics won’t stay in the tropics,” he said.

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Comments 1 to 18:

  1. I'm a bit confused by the way the author contrasts Jamaica, a tiny speck of a country located in the Caribbean Sea, with Canada, a large country that reaches from the temperate region well into the Arctic circle, resting against three different oceans. He writes that "In less than 10 years, a country like Jamaica will look much like it always has but it will not be the same country," and then claims that "Canada’s climate won’t shift until 2050 under the business as usual emissions scenario the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls RCP8.5." He makes me even more confused when he adds that "The further a region is from the equator, the later the shift occurs."

    The 2050 date seems strangely precise, but that is a minor concern compared to the other problem I have. Previously, I've seen repeated studies and reports on those studies on Skeptical Science that document the rise in temperatures is happening faster closer to the poles, and yet this author seems to be saying the exact opposite is true. I don't get it. How can the climate in parts of Canada not already have changed, given the much higher average temperatures experienced by the part of that nation above the Arctic Circle?

    Some clarification is needed.

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  2. Don9000 @1, temperatures rise faster as you approach the poles; but interannual variation in temperature also rises faster as you approach the poles.  The result is that if you estimate the impacts of global warming in terms standard deviations of interannual temperature variation, impacts rise faster at the equator than at the poles.  By estimating the time at which the projected mean climate exceeds the current maximum temperature (ie, the projection as stated in the abstract of the paper), the study is reporting a measure much closer to an estimation of impacts based on standard deviations of natural variation. Because maximum temperature records in the Arctic are much higher above the mean temperature, a much greater increase in absolute temperature is required in the Arctic to reach that level.

    It is not immediately obvious that estimating impacts on a scale correlating with change in absolute temperature you have made a mistake; but conversely, it is not clear that estimating impacts based on a scale correlating with standard deviations of normal temperature variation is a mistake either.  Organisms adapt not just to absolute temperatures, but to the range of temperatures normally experienced.  So there is good reason to take the later approach, but for some factors (freezing point of water; limits of heat disposal due to high temperatures and humidity) it is absolute temperature that matters.

    So, the article referred to above does not show the whole picture, but does complement studies that report on expected trends in absolute temperature at different latitudes.

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  3. I have two concerns about the above article.  First, I do not think the analogy of a plague is appropriate in this case.  It is difficult to see what it adds to the article other than a sense of impending doom.  That sense may be a legitimate foreboding, but it is not certain that it is.  I would have thought in this case you would have been better sticking to the science, including the risk to ecosystems without appealing to emotions with the analogy of a plague.

    Further, you state above that "The “climate plague” is a shift to an entirely new climate where the lowest monthly temperatures will be hotter than those in the past 150 years."  That is somewhat ambigous.  Do you mean hotter than the lowest temperatures of the last 100 years, or hotter than any temperatures in the last 100 years?  In fact the paper defines the climate shift as "...the year when the projected mean climate of a given location moves to a state continuously outside the bounds of historical variability under alternative greenhouse gas emissions scenarios."  That is, it reports the year when the mean annual temperature is higher the the prior record mean annual temperature (outside the bounds of historical variability) for all subsequent years.  It also reports on the year in which mean monthly temperatures exceed all prior mean monthly temperatures.  However, the later event is much later than the prior event, not occuring until the 2050s for tropical regions, and until 2100 or later for high latitude land masses.  Your dates appear to be based on the shift in mean annual temperatures rather than that for mean montly temperatures.      

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  4. Tom@3,

    I have similar problems, however I don't think a word "plague" is inapropriate. I don't seek the analogy to "impending doom" but I simply acknowledge the introduction of a term "climate plague" meaning "threashold year beyond which the monthly T variability as reported by CIMP models starts running outside (above) historical monthly variability up to 2005". I assume it means every month will be hotter than the corresponding month before 2005. The term is simple & sounding fine within the context of English language and certainly does not mean "doom".

    It's obvious that climate plague event should occur later than the event of mean annual variability running out of bounds of historical annual variability, because annual mean, be an average of 12 months, will have lower variability than monthly variability. But I don't know if the dates reported in the article are for the earlier or the later of the two events, because the language of the article is imprecise. And I don't have access to the study full text to check it out.

    I also have problem with the precision of those dates: I'd rather see them as approx dates with one or two sigma uncertainty range, obtained from CIMP ensemble runs. I checked the study's website but could not find any interesting details from google overlay map, which BTW shows the results of a single run only. I downloaded hoping to find answers in the data itself but after unpacking, I find all of the data in a binary format unknown to me, with no explanation. Does nayone know how to read such data?

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  5. Chriskoz @4, the following are the maps showing the time of departure for annual and monthly means:

    The article indicates that the climate departure will likely start in 2020 for southern Indonesia.  That would be correct for annual means, but not for monthly means which show yellow for that region, ie, a departure around 2050.

    Also of interest is the graph showing the "cumulative frequency of 100 km grid cells according to projected time of climate departure":

    It shows that even with reduced, but continuing fossil fuel emissions, the climate departure for monthly means occurs prior to 2100 for nearly all cells.

    Finally, the paper does report standard deviations for time of climate departure, but only for mean values for the globe, and for the ocean under the two scenarios.  I presume that if you could read the data file, it would also show it for individual cells, but I have not investigated that closely.

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  6. Tom Curtis@2

    Thank you for the explanation--at least I have a clearer sense of where Mora and the other researchers are coming from.


    I think one problem with the article is that the language used is wildly hyperbolic at times. In my opinion, Stephen Leahy, the reporter for IPS needed to do a bit more work to clarify the claims raised in the piece. For example, this passage, attributed to Camilo Mora, the paper's lead author, catches my eye:

    "old record high temperatures will be the new low temperatures."

    In a conversation, I can see how a person could say this kind of thing, but were I the reporter I would have needed clarification before I ran with this quote, as it seems highly improbable. Let me clarify my statement: according to Wikipedia (sorry, but this was the easiest place to find the numbers) Kingston, Jamaica, currently has record monthly high temperatures which range from 91 to 97 degrees F. Mora's statement seems to imply that Kingston will shortly (is it ten years or within Mora's lifetime or generation?--this is also vague) have normal low temperatures that range from 91 to 97 degrees F.

    Unless global warming is going to be much, much worse than I understand (I'll note we've already established that the temperature increases due to global warming are steeper towards the poles), I think Mora's statement is highly improbable given that the current average monthly lows range from 69.8 to 75.7 degrees F, again according to Wikipedia. Mora's statment thus implies that in a matter of as little as a decade, and in not more than a generation, the average monthly low temperatures in Jamaica will increase by approximately 20 degrees F.

    If true, I wonder what the average monthly water temperatures in the Caribbean Sea will be by that point in time. Currently, I see the sea around Jamaica is about 85 degrees F, which is about midway between October's record high and low temperatures. That would mean that in a decade or generation we'd see sea-surface temperatures well into the 100 plus range, which again strikes me as improbable.


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  7. I, too, feel uncomfortable with the term 'plague'. This side of the fence gets more than its fair share of criticism for being alarmist. It doesn't need to go out of its way to attract even more by using such emotive language. The global warming situation can speak eloquently enough for itself, unfortunately.

    On a more general note, there is a blog, 'Our Finite World', by a respected actuary, Gail Tverberg. One of the arguments that she repeats quite often is that climate change is not going to be as bad as BAU indicates simply because we are now running on the dregs of the world's oil supply. All, or nearly all, of the 'easy oil' has been extracted (the so-called low hanging fruit) and so the only direction for oil prices to go is up, unless the economy collapses. (If prices fall due to such a collapse, shale oil and gas will be uneconomic to extract: look as Shell's withdrawl from shale gas extraction even at today's prices. Deep sea extraction will also be uneconomic.) We are clearly past peak oil (in effect, if not in a pedantic sense) and no matter how hard they try, world oil producers cannot match the rate that demand is rising at. In fact supply is hardly rising at all. (Saud Arabia will soon be a net importer). 

    It is fair to say that Gail sits nearer to the denier side of the fence than most, but it is difficult to argue with her logic when you study her data and graphics. (Though I rather feel that she has not grasped as well as she might the concept of a tipping point that leads to runaway warming.)

    She is quite pessimistic about our chances of avoiding ecomomic and financial collapse, with the lack of oil for transport being particularly significant. (Try electrifying the multi axle truck fleet that is essential for the movement of goods and materials. Try holding down food costs when agriculture is so dependent on oil.)

    Providing we avoid hitting a runaway tipping point, as far as climate change is concerned, Gail's arguments would suggest that we might have more time than this article indicates to knock some sense into those who think of themselves as leaders. We might at the very least get them to look up the definition of the term 'leader' in a half decent dictionary. Whether it will lead to their taking the necessary leadership action that the situation begs, who knows?

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  8. Don9000 @6, your issue regarding Jamaica is valid, but based on two misunderstandings of the paper (one of which I helped propagate in my comment @2, ie, after I had read the abstract but before I read the paper).  These issues are addressed directly in my posts @3 and 5 above.

    First, the year of climate departure for monthly means is defined as all mean monthly temperatures exceed all mean monthly temperatures in the period 1860-2005.  Because it exceeds the mean monthly temperature (ie, the mean of the (daily maximum temperature plus daily minimum temperature)/2 for all days in the month) it will not exceed record daily maximum temperatures, nor even the mean daily temperatures for all days.  A similar climate departure is defined for mean annual temperatures.  It is not clear, but it appears to me that you are comparing record daily temperatures for each month with record minimum temperatures for each month, which gives a range of about 15 C.  For this paper the relevant values are the record monthly mean temperatures.  I cannot find those for Jamaica, but based on mean monthly temperatures, the range should be between 2.5 and 5 C.

    Second, the article above incorrectly identifies the time of annual climate departure as the time of montly climate departure.  The time of monthly climate departure for the carribean is around 2050-2080, as can be seen in part b of the first graph @5 above.  I cannot identify the precise location of Jamaica within the Caribean in that graph to give a closer determination of the time.

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  9. fungelstrumpet @7, it appears that Gail is ignoring the fact that most CO2 emissions are from stationary power generation or foundaries where coal is an adequate, and indeed, cheaper substitute for oil or gas.  Further, unconventional oil and gas sources are verging on economic at current prices.  A slight price increase will make them definititely economic, and it is far from clear that renewables will be a cheap enough substitute to displace them without a carbon price.  Consequently, I suspect her analysis is flawed, although based on your account of it.  

    Finally, I believe that "peak oil" advocates who think it will solve our global warming dilemma have the wrong end of the stick.  If we are in fact approaching (or have just passed) peak oil, then a carbon tax will not add significantly to the cost of energy in the long term for we must soon find renewable substitutes in any event.  Its primary effect, in that scenario, will be to smooth out the transition from ready fossil fuel supply to very limited fossil fuel supply by smoothing the price spike that results from the transition.  The only peak oil scenario in which a price on carbon is costly is one in which non-conventional fossil fuels can substitute for conventional fossil fuels at a price significantly lower than low carbon energy sources (renewables, nuclear).  In that scenario, absent a carbon tax the rate of emissions will rise in that non-conventional fossil fuels require carbon intensive treatment to convert them into commercial fuels, resulting in greater emissions per unit energy consumed.  As that scenario would be disasterous for climate change, a carbon price is advisable in every scenario.

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  10. How does this article, stating that the greatest changes will be in low latitudes, square with the observations so far that the greatest temperature differences have been observed at high latitudes.   In a way, it is probably not that important which goes first.  We have jacked our populations so high that we are higly vulnerable to crop failures.  Even the results of a single year's failure of the Northern Hemisphere wheat crop doesn't bear thinking about.  ps.  Now the Chinese are building large numbers of fishing boats to descimate the tuna of the South Pacific, the last one in the world and jelly fish seem to be taking over and feeding up the food chain.  In the mean time we continue to harvest turtles (which eat jelly fish) and the few fish species that do likewise.  Hard for us to point the finger, though.  We have descimated all the rest of the oceans before the Chinese became involved.

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  11. Tom Curtis @ 9. While your argument centres on CO2, Gail's centres on the economy. If it crashes, and I see nothing in your post that argues against that eventuality, then CO2 production will automatically fall simply because the energy usage will fall.

    More worryingly, Gail believes, along with a number of financial pundits, that the finance system is also on the verge of collapse. There is a body of opinion that argues that fiat currencies simply cannot survive. If you look at QE, you will see that America has a tiger by the tail. The very hint of tapering their rate of QE immediately puts interest rates skywards, and if that happens, then what we have just lived through since 2007/8 will be a picnic in comparision to the disruption that would then result. In those circumstances, CO2 production will fall dramatically.

    Furthermore, you cannot simply dismiss falling oil availability because it is not the major producer of CO2. Oil price impinges on all aspects of the economy and puts prices up in the process. Look around you and you will see people in both full-time employment and in full-time poverty, queing at food banks for whatever they can get in order to feed their families (and we are in the 21st century). Imagine the circumstances where prices keep rising while wage rates remain stagnant. (Look at the number of websites that discuss prepping and living off-grid that are sprouting up. Perhaps people can see the writing on the wall.) 

    In fact, you make Gail's point for her. She repeated says that too many pundits only see the situation we are in with blinkers on ('blinders' in AmE) and thus only see it from one viewpoint. It is an extention of Lovelock's position from a scientific perspective that climate change needs to considered from that of all scientific disciplines. A position that he as a polymath is in a good position to argue from.

    Perhaps there are climate models that take into account possible scenarios regarding the fragility of the world's financial and economic systems and their eventual collapse, but I do not know of any. If they do not exist, then perhaps they should, seeing as the debate about them in other circles is pushing climate change down the agenda. Showing a broad appreciation of the world's various systems that will determine the financial and economic outcomes and how they will affect the way climate change develops, would bring climate models to centre stage, or close to it at least. Let's face it, it is those systems that will eventually determine in large part the atmospheric CO2 content and with that the amount the climate will change.

    Clearly, such models would show financial/economic collapse as beneficial from a climate change perspective. Being honest about such matters would raise the status of climate models and lead to them informing current policy on how to combat it. Such honesty would also stop the complaint that climate scientists are always forecasting alarm - with the suspicion that it is all a ploy to gain funding. Wouldn't it be nice to put an end to that nonsense?

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  12. @funglestrumpet #11:


    Economic scenarios are inputs to climate models. Therefore, there is no need to create new models in order to do the analyses you believe should be done.

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  13. funglestrumpet @11, I was responding to your claim that:

    "One of the arguments that she repeats quite often is that climate change is not going to be as bad as BAU indicates simply because we are now running on the dregs of the world's oil supply. All, or nearly all, of the 'easy oil' has been extracted (the so-called low hanging fruit) and so the only direction for oil prices to go is up, unless the economy collapses."

    Economic collapse was only mentioned conditionally, and the focus is the effect on climate change of peak oil.  You later say she is pessimistic about the economy, but her pessimism realy is not the topic here.  However, once again, if she thinks the lack of liquid fossil fuel supply risks economic collapse due to peak oil, she should be strongly campaigning now for a tax on the use of liquid fossil fuels in stationary energy supply.

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  14. I would suggest that anyone who thinks Peak Oil is a bigger problem than climate change should read this book chapter by energy economist Mark Jaccard. The following graph comes from there, showing that there are abundant new souces of oil that will be expensive, but below the current market price of crude oil:

    There is also a good discussion of the "Peak Debate" on page 435 of this document, which also contains a very detailed assessment of energy resources from fossil fuels to renewables. The untapped resources of unconventional oil are huge, but they are dwarfed by the remaining gas and coal resources. See this chart (too wide to embed here) from the Summary for Policymakers of the Global Energy Assessment report.

    Peak oil is not really about energy, but about transportation fuels. Many countries already are used to paying  very high prices for liquid fuels because of taxes. If Americans have to start paying the same prices as Europeans for gasoline, that will require a tough economic adjustment, but surely not a disaster. 

    The big problem, as the Mora article shows, is that we are already well along the road to changing the climate to an unprecedented state. Yet we have barely got started digging up and burning the available carbon.

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  15. This is an interesting article, and it is greatly enhanced and clarified by the discussion. I've tried to follow some of the links, and I've found two that don't work for me. The first is in the tenth paragraph from the end of the main article: (City by city projection here). The second is in comment 14 by Andy Skuce (this book chapter by energy economist Mark Jaccard). I hope both links can be fixed.

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  16. Joel - try this link for city projection.

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  17. Try this for the Jaccard book chapter link

    Update: The original link came from Mark Jaccard's blog, (here, scroll down to near the bottom). This link seems only to work intermittently, so I downloaded the pdf and uploaded it to my own blog. 

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  18. The discussion about peak oil is realy OT here, but I want to mention important historical facts in this context:

    - the EROEI for oil refining at the begining of XX century was 100:1 (fabulous)

    - now (2010) is about 10:1, new explorations are a bit lower, some 7:1

    - EROEI on tar sands is only 5:1

    As pointed by Andy, tar sands are starting to be viable and their reserves substantial. We have a fair bit to go before petroleum industry collapses when EROEI reaches unviable 1:1. Most economists predict that it may not happen until ~2100, i.e. petroleum will be with us for another 100y. The Mora 2013 study timeframe finishes at 2100, therefore the collapse feared here will likely not affect Mora 2013 results. It is more likely that emissions will just increase as the result of increased petroleum production footprint as EROEI shrinks. Tom Curtis@9 comment is right on that issue is spot on and I concur.

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