Too late, Stop sign. via Flickr.
If you were to take a comparative look back at our planet during the 1950s from some sort of cosmic time-traveling orbiter cube, you would probably first notice that millions of pieces of space trash had disappeared from orbit.
The moon would appear six and a half feet closer to Earth, and the continents of Europe and North America would be four feet closer together. Zooming in, you would be able to spot some of the results of the Golden Age of Capitalism in the West and the Great Leap Forward in the East. Lasers, bar codes, contraceptives, hydrogen bombs, microchips, credit cards, synthesizers, superglue, Barbie dolls, pharmaceuticals, factory farming, and distortion pedals would just be coming into existence.
There would be two-thirds fewer humans on the planet than there are now. Over a million different species of plants and animals would exist that have since gone extinct. There would be 90 percent more fish, a billion fewer tons of plastic, and 40 percent more phytoplankton (producers of half the planet’s oxygen) in the oceans. There would be twice as many trees covering the land and about three times more drinking water available from ancient aquifers. There would be about 80 percent more ice covering the northern pole during the summer season and 30 percent less carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere. The list goes on...
Most educated and semiconcerned people know that these sorts of sordid details make up the backdrop of our retina-screened, ethylene-ripened story of progress, but what happens when you start stringing them all together?
If Doomsday Preppers, the highest-rated show on the National Geographic Channel is any indication, the general public seems to be getting ready for some sort of societal collapse. There have always been doomsday prophets and cults and everyone has their own personal view of how the apocalypse will probably go down (ascension of pure souls, zombie crows, etc.), but in the midst of all of the Mayan Calendar/Timewave Zero/Rapture babble, there are some clarion calls coming from a crowd that’s less into bug-out bags and eschatology. Well-respected scientists and journalists have come to some scarily sane-sounding conclusions about the threat human-induced climate change poses to the survival of the human species.
Recent data seems to suggest that we may have already tripped several irrevocable, nonlinear, positive feedback loops—permafrost is melting, arctic ice is falling into the sea—and an average global temperature increase of only 2°C by 2100, which has long been a target of the UN and climate scientists, seems like a fairy tale. Instead, we’re talking 4°C, 6°C, 10°C, 16°C (your guess is as good as mine) here.
The link between rapid climate change and human extinction is basically this: the planet becomes uninhabitable for humans if the average temperature goes up by 4° to 6°C. That doesn’t sound like a lot because we’re used to the temperature changing 15°C overnight, but even a 2° to 3°C average increase would give us temperatures that would regularly surpass 40°C (104°F) in North America and Europe, and soar even higher near the equator. Human bodies start to break down after six hours at a wet-bulb (100 percent humidity) temperature of 35°C (95°F). This makes the 2003 heat wave in Europe that killed over 70,000 people seem like not a very big deal.
Factoring in the increase we’re already seeing in heat waves, droughts, wildfires, massive storms, food and water shortages, deforestation, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise some are seeing the writing on the wall:
We’re all gonna die!
If you want to freak yourself the fuck out, spend a few hours trying to refute the mounting evidence of our impending doom compiled by the man who gave the Near Term Extinction movement its name: Guy McPherson, who runs a blog called Nature Bats Last. McPherson is a professor emeritus of Natural Resources and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona who left his cushy tenured academic career and now lives in a straw house on a sustainable commune in rural New Mexico in an attempt to “walk away from empire.” There are a lot of interviews and videos available of Dr. McPherson talking about NTE if you want to boost your pessimism about the future to suicidal/ruin-any-dinner-party levels.
If you are in need of an ultimate mindfuck, there's a long essay on McPherson’s site entitled “The Irreconcilable Acceptance of Near Term Extinction” written by a lifelong environmental activist named Daniel Drumright. He talks about trying to come to terms with what it means to be on a clear path toward extinction, and it probably being too late to do anything about it (hint: suicide or 'shrooms). As Drumright points out, the entirety of human philosophy, religion, and politics doesn’t really provide a framework for processing the psychological terror of all of humanity not existing in the near future.
Outside of the NTE enclave, there are a lot of scientists and journalists who would probably try to avoid being labeled NTE proponents but are still making dire predictions about our collective fate. They may not believe that humans will ALL be gone by the middle of the century, but some of them are OK with talking about massive, catastrophic “population decline” due to rapid, human-induced climate change.
James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and one of the world’s leading climatologists, has recently retired from his position after 43 years in order to concentrate on climate-change activism. He predicts that without full de-carbonization by 2030, global CO2 emissions will be 16 times higher than in 1950, guaranteeing catastrophic climate change. In an essay published in April of this year, Hansen writes:
“If we should ‘succeed’ in digging up and burning all fossil fuels, some parts of the planet would become literally uninhabitable, with some times during the year having wet bulb temperatures exceeding 35°C. At such temperatures, for reasons of physiology and physics, humans cannot survive… it is physically impossible for the environment to carry away the 100W of metabolic heat that a human body generates when it is at rest. Thus even a person lying quietly naked in hurricane force winds would be unable to survive.”
Bill McKibben, prominent green journalist, author, distinguished scholar, and one of the founders of 350.org—the movement that aims to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels to 350 parts per million in the hopes of avoiding climate change–caused disaster—wrote a book in 2011 called Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. In it, he highlights current environmental changes that have put us past the predictions that had previously been reserved for the end of the 21st century. He emphasizes that the popular political rhetoric that we need to do something about climate change for our “grandchildren” is sorely out of touch with reality. This is happening now. We’re already living on a sci-fi planet from a parallel universe:
“The Arctic ice cap is melting, the great glacier above Greenland is thinning, both with disconcerting and unexpected speed. The oceans are distinctly more acid and their level is rising…The greatest storms on our planet, hurricanes and cyclones, have become more powerful… The great rain forest of the Amazon is drying on its margins… The great boreal forest of North America is dying in a matter of years… [This] new planet looks more or less like our own but clearly isn’t… This is the biggest thing that’s ever happened.”
Climate Change protesters in Melbourne, Australia. Image via Flickr
Peter Ward is a paleontologist and author whose 2007 book Under a Green Sky: Global Warming, the Mass Extinctions of the Past, and What They Can Tell Us About Our Future provides evidence that all but one of the major global extinction events (dinosaurs) occurred due to rapid climate change caused by increased atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. This time around, the carbon dioxide increase happens to be coming from humans figuring out how to dig billions of tons of carbon out of the ground and release it into the air. Ward claims that during the last 10,000 years in which human civilization has emerged, our carbon-dioxide levels and climate have remained anomalously stable, but the future doesn’t look so good:
“The average global temperature has changed as much as 18°F [8°C] in a few decades. The average global temperature is 59°F [15°C]. Imagine that it shot to 75°F [24°C] or dropped to 40°F [4°C], in a century or less. We have no experience of such a world... at minimum, such sudden changes would create catastrophic storms of unbelievable magnitude and fury...lashing the continents not once a decade or century but several times each year...For most of the last 100,000 years, an abruptly changing climate was the rule, not the exception.”
Far from being a Mother Earth lover, Ward has also developed a theory he calls the Medea Hypothesis in which complex life, instead of being in symbiotic harmony with the environment, is actually a horrible nuisance. In this hypothesis, the planet and microbial life have worked together multiple times to trigger mass extinction events that have almost succeeded in returning the Earth to its microbe-dominant state. In other words, Mother Earth might be Microbe Earth and she might be trying to kill her kids.
Scientists are putting out the warning call that rapid, life-threatening climate change lies ahead in our near future—but most are drowned out by the political arguments and denialist rhetoric of climate change skeptics. The well-funded effort by free market think tanks, energy lobbyists, and industry advocates to blur the public perception of climate science should come as no surprise. The effects of an ice-free artic by 2015 don’t seem so threatening if you stand to gain billions of dollars by sending drill bits into the potentially huge oil reservoirs there.
It may not be the case that the southwest US will be uninhabitable by 2035, or that all human life will be extinguished in a generation, but we should probably start to acknowledge and internalize what some of the people who have spent their lives working to better understand this planet are saying about it. It’s depressing to think that humans, in our current state, could be the Omega Point of consciousness. Maybe sentience and the knowledge of our inevitable death have given us a sort of survival vertigo that we can’t overcome. As the separate paths of environmental exploitation quickly and quietly converge around us, we might just tumble off the precipice, drunk on fossil fuels, making duck faces into black mirrors.