Climate Change. What will it mean for us

“People think local and short-term. When you tell people in Chicago this winter was a very warm winter around the world — the eighth warmest winter on record — their response is that they are scraping ice off their cars in mid-March.”

That’s the view of Rear Admiral David W. Titley, who recently spoke on “Climate Change and National Security” at the World Affairs Council of Hilton Head. 


In his talk, which covered the history of climate change within the budgetary, policy and political perspectives of the U.S.

Department of Defense and Navy, the nationally-known climate expert bemoaned the fact that some people are not making the connection between extreme weather incidents and climate change.

He pointed out that rapidly melting ice sheets in the Artic create warmer oceans with higher sea levels, increased flooding, contaminated drinking water, changes in rain and snow patterns, and hotter temperatures worldwide.

“Snow and ice reflect solar energy,” said Titley. “Without ice sheets, sea water in the Arctic absorbs solar radiation, warming the sea.”

Even accounting for errors, scientific calibrations correlate greenhouse gases with global warming, including the massive ice sheets rapidly melting in the Arctic.

Titley suggested that only the U.S. can lead the way to solve the inevitable effects of climate change.

Unfortunately, it's going to take one or several more natural catastrophes like Hurricane Katrina or Sandy to wake people up, he said. “We need to have adequate warning of truly extreme conditions or abrupt, unexpected changes in the world’s climate.”

Denial and delay

Without an appreciation of the larger shifts that are reshaping our environment and way of life, we act on presumptions that are out of date. Thousands of South Carolinians live within a few feet of high tide and risk being hit by more frequent coastal flooding in coming decades.

Floods will threaten one in every four homes on Hilton Head Island by the year 2100, according to an analysis by Climate Central of Princeton, N.J., a non-profit group of scientists and journalists who conduct climate-change studies. If the pace of the sea level rise continues to accelerate, billions of property dollars will be at stake in Beaufort County.   

The level of change involved in global warming is so fundamental yet has been so hyped up by “doom and gloom” environmentalists that we tend to dismiss it, and then we ignore it, Titley pointed out. We have to release our death grip on denial and deal with the coming future. 

The great divide

Only about 50 percent of Americans thinks pollution warms the Earth. In a Pew Research Center poll, Americans ranked climate change dead last out of 20 top issues, behind immigration and trade policy.

While we look away, greenhouse gases have reached levels not seen in almost a million years, and they are rising rapidly as a result of people burning fossil fuel. Because these gases trap the sun’s heat, they will increase the Earth’s heat by an average between 1.5 and 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by century’s end. Such a rise will likely produce even greater droughts and floods, more acidified oceans and altered ecosystems, and coastal areas like Hilton Head buffeted by rising seas. 

Some of today’s effects of climate change are obvious: stronger storms, heavier rain and snow, more droughts and wildfires, less ice on mountaintops and rising sea levels.

Other climate changes are not so obvious, such as changes in ecosystems (animal migration, agriculture production and prices, and plant life cycles), warmer oceans, damage to coral reefs and the thawing of permafrost, a layer of soil and rock in the ground that causes the kind of tragic mudslides we saw in the state of Washington.

In the U.S., most coastal lands are sinking, including the Chesapeake Bay area, Los Angeles and those on the Gulf of Mexico.

Is climate change really happening?

Each piece of data tells a story. Scientists (Tyndall, Arrhenius) back in the 19th century hypothesized the Industrial Revolution and its greenhouse gases would change the world’s climate.

Then in 1958, Charles Keeling started to measure carbon dioxide (CO2) levels from the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii. (His measurements became famously known as the Keeling Curve.)

Carbon dioxide, which traps heat in the atmosphere, is a greenhouse gas. When Keeling began his work, most scientists did not think that emissions from cars and factories could have a measurable effect on the earth's climate, assuming that nearly all the CO2 would be absorbed by plants or the oceans.

Today’s CO2 concentration is the highest in 650,000 years, way above the natural cycle. We’ve added about 520 billion tons of carbon to the atmosphere since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Projections show the carbon levels will continue to rise. With the addition of an estimated 9 billion tons of carbon per year, a dangerous warming is likely to occur in Hilton Head within 20-40 years.

Additionally, Titley’s data shows that the Earth’s temperature spiked over the past four decades, raising the ocean’s temperature, causing record-breaking rain and record-breaking heat, among other nasty things.

All statistical models, the same kind of models that insurance actuaries use, indicate odds of one in 20-50 million that the observed rapid increase in temperature is due to chance. Titley also said sun temperatures are going down slightly while earth temperatures are going up, so it’s not the sun causing the global warming of land and water.

The Artic amplification

While in the U.S. Navy for 32 years, Titley forecasted the weather at sea and noted drastic changes in the Arctic ice caps. The head of the Navy agreed and sent him north for further research.

A time-lapsed video Titley presented at the WACHH meeting showed drastic changes within the Arctic sea environment over the last 15 years. The largest and most stable ice sheets have melted and what remains is a thin layer of ice. 

“When glaciers and land-based ice sheets melt, they accelerate movement of that thin layer of ice into the sea and release a mass of icebergs that ultimately raises the sea level,” he said.

This extreme event interrupts the balance in the hydrologic cycle as more ice melts than created by "typical" weather patterns.

Today, ocean temperatures are rising, heating up and causing havoc with the weather worldwide.

“The South should expect fewer cold days and much warmer days above 95 degrees,” said Titley.

The much thinner ice sheet also opens up potential new trade routes over the North Pole and Bering Strait, the once-frigid channel separating Alaska from Russia. The potential raises serious geopolitical and security concerns.

“It could be a national security choke point,” said Titley. “The physical battle space is changing. The inexorable rise in sea level measurements is a threat; it is exceeding expectations.”

What can we do?

First, “you don’t need to leave the island,” said Titley. “Barring an ice sheet collapse in Antarctica or a storm surge from a major hurricane, we can expect a three to four-foot rise in the sea level over the next 100 years.”

Still, about 3.7 million people, including Hilton Head Island residents, will face rising tides in the coming decades. Coastal communities — from tens of millions of poor people in Bangladesh to wealthy Hilton Head Islanders, Bostonians and New York Manhattanites are now at greater risk of flooding.

Even today more rain than normal is forecast for the Lowcountry for the next three months. A few inches of rain can flood roadways; several inches could leave streets underwater. And when rain floods the ground, storm winds are more likely to topple trees with saturated roots.

Besides flooding our streets and homes, the loss of clean water is one of the potential critical impacts of seawater intrusion into our aquifers, making our water too salty to drink.

The heating and rise of the sea water will also increase the acidity of the oceans, impacting the local seafood’s catch potential and the price of food overall. Shrimp, fish, crab and clams are some of the most sensitive species to the effects of global warming.    

According to Titley, “It’s all about the water — too much, too little, salty or too acidic. As the climate changes, it affects the tenets of security worldwide like food, energy and water.”  

In the last 8,000 years of climate stability, we developed agriculture, cities and advanced technologies. Now that we are moving away from climate stability, are we going to adapt our systems, our technologies?

Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Science, and David Archer, a geoscientist at the University of Chicago said in the journal Nature, “Unless emissions begin to decline very soon, severe disruption to the climate system will entail expensive adaptation measures and may eventually require cleaning up the mess by actively removing CO2 from the atmosphere.”

But there are reasonable measures we can undertake to minimize the damage. Titley suggests three feasible and affordable proposals for our nation.

“We must begin to better measure CO2 and other greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere worldwide,” he said. “We must incentivize and transform research and development into reliable and economically viable low- to no-carbon baseline power generation and transportation fuels.

“And we must seize the opportunity to focus our best minds on this challenge, then develop the needed technologies and drive their costs down so that we can be the world leader in supplying these capabilities to the world. Ubiquitous non-carbon based power and clean water can change the world in a huge way, and the U.S. can lead the way.”

What can we do as individuals to impact climate change? Titley is a realist. He presented a pragmatic approach for individuals to reduce global warming while mitigating fiscal restraints:

  • Attempt to limit your individual carbon footprint.
  • Conserve water and energy.
  • Support alternative energy sources like solar, wind and nuclear with a realistic understanding that a robust, growing global economy is necessary as well as energy transition.
  • Support the empowerment of women, especially in the developing world. This, in conjunction with available contraception, can limit population growth.
  • Support efforts to perfect genetically modified food to resist the results of changes in climate.

Most importantly, let your elected representatives know you care about climate change and need them to take this issue seriously.

To contact your elected representatives:
U.S. Senator Tim Scott | 202-224-6121 |
U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham | 202-224-5972 |
U.S Representative Mark Sanford | 202-225-3176 |