Industry the September 2013 issue

Hot Water

Ice age or global warming: either way, future generations could end up in hot water.
By Coletta Kemper Posted on September 1, 2013

In 1962, marine biologist Rachel Carson penned Silent Spring, a book about the loss of our natural world from man-made actions. Her tome hit a chord and is widely credited with launching the global conservation movement.

This issue’s story on energy and the environment does not rehash the global warming debate but instead explores some innovative solutions to the world’s energy problems. What is being done to move from nonrenewable resources, such as coal and oil, to cleaner and more sustainable resources, such as wind and solar? Of course, we can’t ignore the cost implications of climate change on the insurance industry or our environment. We’re looking for answers to the world’s energy supply but also increasing our awareness of the risk challenges of innovation.

But this column is taking a different tack. And yes, I am treading on the global warming debate. Not to understand climate change is to condemn future generations to living with our uninformed choices.

My editor recently asked what would happen if the climate was not getting warmer but growing colder. Always up to a challenge, I plunged into research of the next “Ice Age.” There is still plenty of debate and disagreement on the causes and implications of climate change present and future, but there are volumes of data to expand our knowledge.

For billions of years, the earth has endured dozens of ice ages and thawing. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the latest major Ice Age started a million or more years ago during the late Pleistocene epoch. During this period, ice advanced far into the Northern Hemisphere, deep into the Midwest around Hudson Bay in Canada and into Eurasia. The sea level dropped by some 400 feet, and global temperatures dropped by 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius). The creatures of the world—mammoths, giant bison, camels, bears and other predators—were forced down to the rim of the ice to find food. Much of the planet was uninhabitable for man or beast.

The vast ice sheets had a profound impact on the landscape, carving out great glacial mountains, rivers and valleys. Greenland, the Arctic and Antarctica are evidence of that great Ice Age. In fact, many scientists believe we are still in the Ice Age that began a million years ago.

If we are, then what the heck is going on with climate change? Polar ice caps are melting, and much of the world is either flooding or starving for rain. There’s no proof of exact causes, but theories abound.

On the TV science show “NOVA,” scientists said the cold/warm periods are the result of a dynamic interaction among a number of factors, such as solar output, the earth’s distance from the sun, tectonic plate shifts, ocean currents and the composition of the atmosphere—for example, from the release of carbon dioxide from volcanoes.

So what’s all the fuss? Is climate change a cycle of nature? Unfortunately, it’s far more complicated. According to the Scotland Alliance for Geoscience, Environment and Society, fossil fuel burning and deforestation “have dramatically increased atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide to levels far in excess of the natural fluctuations that characterized the last few million years. The impact of CO2 is not known with certainty, but the increasing global temperatures, frequency of floods and drought, and rising sea level are typical of a system undergoing change.”

The Obama administration’s recently released report on climate change found that, if the Earth’s climate were primarily controlled by natural factors, then the next Ice Age would happen within the next 1,500 years. In fact, man’s release of carbon dioxide into the air actually may be slowing the advance of the next global freezing.

Slowing the next freeze is a good thing, right? Luke Skinner, a palaeoclimatologist at the University of Cambridge, warns, “We’re not maintaining our currently warm climate but heating it much further, and adding CO2 to a warm climate is very different from adding it to a cold climate. The rate of change with CO2 is basically unprecedented, and there are huge consequences if we can’t cope with that.”

…adding CO2 to a warm climate is very different from adding it to a cold climate.

While we wait for the next big chill, the journal Nature has warned about the cost of global warming. “A release in methane in the Arctic could speed the melting of sea ice and climate change with a cost to the global economy of up to $60 trillion over the coming decades,” the journal reported. Surely, the insured losses would be in the trillions.

Too hot? Too cold? Like much in life, the balance is in the middle.

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