Curious Cook: Our future planet


Climate change has wreaked havoc across the globe. Droughts now happen three times more than before. — JOHANNES PLENIO/Pexels

Recently, I came across adverts for people to attend religious establishments to pray for divine intervention against climate change. They were marketed as a way to escape “bad news” and hear “good news” instead.

Initially, I thought it was just a cynical ploy to raise more funds for religious groups, but on reflection, such publicity can also mean that more people are becoming stressed about the severity of the impacts of climate change, and are now open to seeking spiritual and divine guidance for handling a complex problem.

It is certain bad things are happening due to climate change, despite some recent false (and ridiculous) claims about how “fewer people die in hot weather than cold weather.” In specific locations with severe winters, this may be true to some degree, but overall the impact of excess heat, droughts, fires, and catastrophic floods would easily kill many more people than people affected by heat or cold in specific places.

The numbers of false claims about the effect of climate change, probably coming from the fossil fuel industry, only add to the anxieties people feel about the perceivable realities happening around them.

The pervasive misinformation about climate change also excuses the lack of action by many governments to address the core issues driving climate change in their countries. That is because doing something is often more expensive and/or complicated than using ready-made excuses to not do anything.

The other common argument is each country contributes only a tiny fraction of the total global emissions of greenhouse gas (GHG), and hence the impact on global warming of reducing emissions in any given nation is “negligible”.

Something is wrong

Inherently, every sane person should sense by now that something is wrong with the earth’s climate. Our planet simply should not experience, for example, the current levels of species extinctions without some underlying causes. Before humans, the rate of natural extinctions is one species per million species per year. Currently, it is running at around 10,000 times the natural rate.

The weather around the world should also not suddenly turn so much drier or wetter or more violent without some reason. Heat waves occur up to 15 times more often than just 100 years ago. Droughts are happening three times more than before. Countries are experiencing floods at four times the previous rates, and they are increasingly more severe. Wildfires are 10 times more likely and bigger.

 In the last 50 years, rice has lost 10% of its vitamin and mineral content. — POLINA TANKILEVITCH/PexelsIn the last 50 years, rice has lost 10% of its vitamin and mineral content. — POLINA TANKILEVITCH/Pexels

But regardless of what people know or even experience directly, how people handle climate-related stress varies a lot. And one reason for the generally low levels of alarm in many populations is that human brains are hard-wired to mainly respond to events that happen on a much faster scale.

Our fight-or-flight hormonal response to danger is predicated on being able to attack a problem quickly and/or the ability to run away fast enough from danger. The persistent misinformation from various industries and lobby groups also acts to sow doubts about climate change, making people less likely to acknowledge the impending dangers.

With global climate change, the sequence of negative events unfolds relatively slowly. We can read about and/or watch climate events, but the primary instinct is the relief we are safe at home and therefore there is no immediate concern raised at the hormonal level. This is despite watching scenes of people, cars, and houses swept away by floods or entire regions consumed by fires.

Even if homes are affected by a climate calamity, there is commonly some hope (or economic need) that leads people back to such damaged homes, or to rebuild a home in the same location where it had been damaged. In effect, many people are “tolerating” extreme climate events, often in the absence of any other alternative practical options. These people would naturally be much more stressed and anxious about climate change.

Statistics

Statistically, there should be a threshold whereby the majority of the population of the world becomes invested in the issues caused by climate change. But this threshold is not determined by the number of people affected, but by the economic costs to wealthy economies.

Currently, the regions most affected by climate change are (1) low-lying coastal countries directly affected by rising sea levels; (2) countries with severe income poverty rates (and usually also fragile political systems) which have fewer resources to adapt to climate change, thereby making them more vulnerable; and (3) countries with high dependency on agriculture, and therefore susceptible to droughts and floods affecting crop yields and livestock.

An estimated 6.5 billion people (80% of the world’s population) have already experienced events made worse by climate change, such as heat waves, droughts, floods, storms, etc. Yet the economic momentum to tackle the situation is only starting slowly, and even now such momentum is constantly derailed by bizarre decisions such as the issuing of hundreds of new licences to extract oil and gas in the UK.

But in the future, the momentum can only grow. In many parts of Florida, USA, many homes are now uninsurable for storm damage. In Europe, houses, even entire cities built on flood plains or close to rivers are also uninsurable for flood risks, with some places not even getting cover for forest fires or drought damage.

Over 80% of the world's population has already experienced the changes caused by climate change, like extreme flooding. — GENARO SERVIN/PexelsOver 80% of the world's population has already experienced the changes caused by climate change, like extreme flooding. — GENARO SERVIN/Pexels

Crucially, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that if global warming is not limited to 1.5C by 2030, then up to three billion people could be displaced by climate change by 2050.

Such huge dislocations would affect the food supply, cultures, social structures, economics, infrastructure policies, housing capacity, etc, of the countries affected by resulting heavy inward migrations. 2030 is just over six years away, but there is already a 66% probability that 1.5C warming will happen in at least one of the years between 2023 and 2027.

Hence the economic damage will become so huge that the wealthy economies will simply have to act sooner or later. Whether this happens in time, or is enough, is hard to know now.

Stupid food

All the above is not anything new to many sensible people, but there is one consequence of climate change that is less mentioned. And that is the quality of food in the near future. As more and more arable land become affected by climate change, the quantities of food produced may fall. To address this, agricultural scientists have already prepared new strains of crops better able to tolerate heat, drought, or excess water, depending on the localities and the crops farmed there.

This is likely to drive down further the nutritional value of staple crops. Wheat, for example, has lost 10% of its protein and 15% of its mineral content over the last half-century. Over the same period, rice has lost 10% of both its vitamin and mineral content, and now contains 5% less amino acids.

Whatever happens, food processing industries will continue to thrive, because people need to eat, and in a poorer, climatically-damaged world, there will be more people looking to eat the cheapest foods possible. This means many more millions of people on diets of ultra-processed foods (UPFs) made with super-refined ingredients, emulsifiers, preservatives, flavourings, colourings, etc, which are cheap, energy-dense, nutrient-poor, and have conveniently long storage lives.

In the future, it is likely that more people will be consuming ultra processed foods for survival reasons. — DZENINA LUKAC/PexelsIn the future, it is likely that more people will be consuming ultra processed foods for survival reasons. — DZENINA LUKAC/Pexels

The point is the world’s current pandemic of metabolic syndrome is caused by too many people constantly eating too much UPFs, something which may be considered a stupid thing to do if people care about their long-term health. If you are unclear about metabolic syndrome, here is a previous article I wrote about it, titled ‘TOFI, FOFI and metabolic syndrome.’

Soon, many more millions of people will potentially be consuming mostly UPFs, but for existential/survival reasons rather than personal choice. This will inevitably lead later to a secondary, major crisis in health issues as there is a known link between UPFs and metabolic syndrome.

Currently, metabolic syndrome accounts for 75% of all medical costs in countries such as the USA. If billions more people become dependent on UPFs, it is feasible that diseases linked to metabolic syndrome will swamp all available medical resources.

Loss of biodiversity

As a final note, our planet is currently losing up to an estimated 100,000 species a year. This sobering huge loss of biodiversity further reduces our food security in the future as we lose useful insects such as pollinators (which help to increase crop yields), or creatures that feed on pests, or wild relatives of crops from which we can develop new strains.

It also increases the chances of more dangerous pathogens as the surviving species can better tolerate humans, thereby allowing their diseases to also adapt and spread to humans.

The possible confluence of climate change, mass migrations, and a very significant loss of biodiversity within the next few decades means we may be living in more dangerous times than we appreciate.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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