This is the kind of assignment it’s virtually impossible to do well: if your city gets four or five degrees warmer in the next 50 years, what will life be like?
Inevitably, you end up with something that’ll eventually belong here, with the jetpacks and six-hour work weeks and picturephones of the year 2000. As Lewis Black says:
I am old enough so that when I was a kid, I looked forward to the new millennium. When I was young, I said, ‘I’m gonna live through a change! A massive change! Things are gonna be different! Things are gonna be great!’ Screwed again! No flying cars. No flying cars.
The world’s unpredictable. Wars start. Somebody figures out penicillin, then the germs figure it out right back. We learn how to do without some things and become dependent on other things. Tinfoil clothing turns out to be uncomfortable. A certain amount of chaos kicks in.
So you can’t blame the Toronto Star writer for the results of this assignment, though you can blame the Star for putting it on page A1. Here’s a clip from a portrait of Toronto in 2050, a victim of global warming:
The predicted drop in Lake Ontario won’t affect Toronto’s water supply – the level would have to decline by more than nine metres before the three pipes stretching out into the lake would sputter in air. But warming will affect the quality of water. Lake waters are expected to cook by as much as 4 degrees – good conditions for blue-green algae blooms. Although not hazardous, they do make water taste musty.
And if people use more water to nurture their wilting lawns and gardens during droughts, water shortages are likely to occur. That’s what happened in the summer drought of 1988. Water use skyrocketed, draining the city’s reservoirs to a critical point. Water pressure was down throughout the city, and some people in high-rises in North York didn’t get any.
Yeah, but so what? We can’t exactly predict that people in Toronto’s high-rises will be dying of thirst. It’ll be painful, but people will adapt, and they’ll have decades. In the case of water, it’ll start costing more long before the pipes run dry. People will get tired of struggling to keep their lawns alive summer after summer and plant cacti or something. The Brita people will figure out how to do something about blue-green algae.
I’m not saying it’s all going to be fine, when the difference between prosperity and poverty is a few tenths of a percentage points of GDP. I’d rather we were spending money on pushing cutting-edge medicine than, say, building levees or buying new Brita filters. For some people — viz. Darfur for drought, or the lowlying parts of Bangladesh for flooding — it’s going to be awful. Some things are going to go wrong that we can’t imagine now. But it’s silly to figure that climate change is going to be a brutal summer that never goes away.
Gregg Easterbrook’s cover story in the Atlantic is written from 50,000 feet, and is necessarily so vague it’s not that interesting, but it’s probably the best we can do from 2007.