Climate Primer #29: Impacts of Climate Crisis – 12. Water Scarcity

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases (GHGs) in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries. Although the human activities which drive these converging crises (for simplicity: the climate crisis) are diverse and complex, the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) breaks down the sources of anthropogenic GHG emissions into five high-level sectors. Similarly, the impacts of climate crisis – in their variety and complexity – are almost impossible for an individual to grasp, but so far, this sub-series has covered: global heating, Arctic amplification, heat waves, droughts and floods, disruption of oceanic and atmospheric patterns, cryosphere collapse, declining oceanic dissolved oxygen content, sea level rise, fisheries collapse, coral reef die-offs, and deforestation. In the absence of dramatic global climate action this decade, climate crisis will likely spiral out of control, rupturing key planetary boundaries and endangering the future of organized human life on Earth.

A previous post highlighted freshwater consumption as a key planetary boundary; unfortunately, multiple intersecting aspects of climate crisis are now converging to reduce the availability of safe drinking water across much of the world, including in heavily populated parts of South Asia, North Africa, and western North America. As AR5 puts it:

Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 67); obviously, there’s a cruel irony in simultaneously increasing risks of both water scarcity and major floods.

And further:

Source: AR5 of the IPCC (page 69); note, that, unfortunately, most of Earth’s human population does not live at high latitudes.

At the risk of redundancy, this sentence from the second excerpt above stands out: “The interaction of increased temperature; increased sediment, nutrient and pollutant loadings from heavy rainfall; increased concentrations of pollutants during droughts; and disruption of treatment facilities during floods will reduce raw water quality and pose risks to drinking water quality”; although New York City is fortunate to enjoy access to ample freshwater for even its massive population, events in recent years have shown how aging infrastructure combined with negligence and lack of public funding (lead), corporate malfeasance and regulatory capture (PFAS), and extreme weather events (Superstorm Sandy) can threaten access to safe drinking water even in a place like New York. As I’ve noted previously, I think it’s correct to claim that all 14 of NYC’s wastewater treatment facilities are at risk from rising sea levels and storm surges.

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