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Monday, July 4, 2022

Fire, fury, and de-escalation

As Seoul experiences its first tropical nights of the year, we're all wondering even more acutely how climate change will affect our daily lives in the peninsula.

First, climate change is already happening, and we already know for sure that global temperatures will rise higher than targeted during the Paris Agreement. Key tipping points have already been passed, from the ever-shrinking Amazon rain forest, now emitting more CO2 than it absorbs, to the vanishing glaciers and polar caps, to the geographically closer permafrost collapse.

Permafrost covers a quarter of exposed land surfaces on the Northern Hemisphere, releasing as it melts frightening volumes of methane in our atmosphere already saturated with greenhouse gases. If scientists have already estimated the ginormous volumes to come, it's very hard to predict how, at the local level, they will directly and indirectly disrupt currents that structurally impact (e.g. North Korea's colder seas, the Siberian air masses...). 

After a 20th century where Korea already underwent a rise of +1.8 Celsius in average temperature (more than the rest of the World), this one promises to go medieval: the 2020 South Korea Climate Change Assessment Report (Ministry of Environment and Korea Meteorological Administration) announced that by 2100, the number of heatwave days (over 33 celsius) would more than triple from 10.1 to 35.5 per year. Winters will be shortened by one whole month, and we'll experience more precipitations and extreme episodes.

 

Rise in numbers of heatwave days (business as usual scenario)

Over the past 30 years, I've seen Winters become not only less cold (e.g. the Han River seldom freezes beyond smaller patches), but also much drier, which probably contributes to wildfires that are more violent and difficult to tame (58% of them happen during the Spring, when the nation is at its driest). Mountain soils get washed away at the first rain, landslides and floods multiply, and as seas rise, whole ecosystems are bound to disappear (tidal flats, wetlands)...

Korea wildfires on March 5, 2022 (NASA)

The social, economic, political impacts of climate change can't be underestimated. Beyond competitiveness, that's a matter of survival, sometimes literally: the number of heat-related fatalities is expected to more than double by the end of the century, and diseases or pests that used to be contained to warmer climates are becoming endemic*.

Food security, highlighted by the war in Ukraine that exposed Korea's over-dependence on China for its sustenance, will become even more critical: by 2100, the production of rice will have dwindled by 25%. The stakes are even higher in North Korea, which relies much more on its own, ailing agricultural sector. In the region, logistics and geopolitics are already impacted by warmer seas (East Russia enjoys its own sea ports that don't freeze during the winters, new arctic routes emerge...). 

Korea destroyed its greenbelts, boosted its coal power, and crippled its nuclear power at the worst moment. In spite of a few significant projects, it's nowhere near it should be in renewables. Logically, the country scores very poorly when it should be setting the example:

Climate Action Tracker, Mars 2022

Water, biomass, and forest management is already a strategic challenge, particularly in a country where a lot of the trees share the same age thanks to the massive tree-planting campaign of the 60s. It would be nice to involve, once again, all the population in a collective effort that would benefit generations to come. 

Big cities, starting with Seoul, are already experimenting and benchmarking best practices, because everybody knows that when cities become the solution, differences can be made much faster. Obviously, a lot remains to be done. Making sure every new project should contribute to improving natural temperature control or water collection / management could help.

Korea tends to forget that its landscapes have been degraded far beyond urban environments, and again (see "From zombie maeul to seed village - from fake startup communities to real Communities-as-a-Startup"), the country must start reconsidering and rethinking its rural world as a key asset for the future.


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* BTW bad news on the pandemic front: experts expect a second massive wave of coronavirus cases from August as people will gather in confined, air conditioned area, and most of them will have lost a lot of resistance to the virus (most received their last dose of vaccine last year). 


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