Cli­mate change doesn’t scare you? How about ‘rat ex­plo­sion’?

Merced Sun-Star - - Opinion - BY FAYE FLAM Faye Flam writes for Bloomberg View and other pub­li­ca­tions. Her de­gree is in geo­physics from the Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy.

What’s so scary about cli­mate change? The term is not scary – at last not in a vis­ceral, skin-crawl­ing sense. Sci­en­tists have shown that the likely 2 de­grees of global warm­ing to come this cen­tury will be ex­tremely dan­ger­ous, but, you know, “2 de­grees” is hardly a phrase from night­mares and hor­ror films.

How about “rat ex­plo­sion”?

As the cli­mate warms, rats in New York, Philadel­phia and Bos­ton are breed­ing faster – and ex­perts are warn­ing of a rat pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion.

Like rats, hu­mans are hardy an­i­mals, and we’ve adapted to all kinds of cli­mates. So it can be tempt­ing to brush off the prospect of 2 de­grees of warm­ing. Es­pe­cially for Amer­i­cans, who mostly use Fahren­heit. But sci­en­tists are talk­ing about 2 de­grees Cel­sius, which is 3.6 de­grees Fahren­heit. Still not scared?

The physics lacks the fear fac­tor of the bi­ol­ogy. Many liv­ing things are sen­si­tive to small changes in tem­per­a­ture, so warm­ing of 2 de­grees Cel­sius will trans­form the flora and fauna that sur­round us in sev­eral big ways. Other life forms are also very sen­si­tive to mois­ture, and so pop­u­la­tions will crash or ex­plode as an­thro­pogenic cli­mate change con­tin­ues to make wet ar­eas more sod­den and dry ar­eas, more parched.

And while ex­tinc­tions might in­spire a sense of tragedy, it’s the crea­tures that are mul­ti­ply­ing in out­breaks and in­fes­ta­tions that gen­er­ate hor­ror.

Rat ex­pert Bobby Cor­ri­gan of Cor­nell Univer­sity has spo­ken to var­i­ous me­dia out­lets about rats, point­ing out their ges­ta­tion pe­riod of 14 days. The ba­bies can start re­pro­duc­ing after a month. So, in the space of one year, one preg­nant rat can re­sult in 15,000 to 18,000 new rats. Warmer win­ters will con­tinue to dial up rat fe­cun­dity. Peo­ple in ur­ban ar­eas such as New York and Bos­ton are al­ready notic­ing more rats – not just in down­town al­ley­ways, but even in the posh sub­urbs.

Rats are just the be­gin­ning.

Bi­ol­o­gists have cal­cu­lated that with the ex­pected warm­ing this cen­tury of 2 de­grees Cel­sius, pop­u­la­tions of dan­ger­ous crop-eat­ing in­sects are likely to ex­plode as tem­per­ate ar­eas warm, re­duc­ing crop yields by 25 to 50 per­cent. Sim­i­lar hor­rors lurk off­shore, where bi­ol­o­gists have found that a pop­u­la­tion ex­plo­sion of pur­ple sea urchins – “cock­roaches of the ocean” – is chok­ing out other crea­tures that rely on the Pa­cific kelp forests.

For sci­en­tists, there’s some­thing deeply trou­bling about a sin­gle species tak­ing over what was a di­verse ecosys­tem.

In re­cent years, psy­chol­o­gists have ac­cused con­ser­va­tives


of be­ing more in­nately fear­ful than lib­er­als, but that never quite squared with the fact that con­ser­va­tives ex­press less fear over en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems. Some so­cial sci­en­tists are fi­nally start­ing to ques­tion the broad equa­tion of po­lit­i­cal pref­er­ences with fear, rec­og­niz­ing that dif­fer­ent peo­ple fear dif­fer­ent things. It usu­ally de­pends on their up­bring­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and sur­round­ings.

But we’re all shar­ing this warm­ing planet, and at the very least surely we can unite against a fu­ture filled with rats.

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