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Human Civilization at Risk of Ending, Scientists, Governors, and Pope Agree

"We're talking about extinction."
Image: Hvalsey, Wikimedia.

Who do you tend to trust? Scientists? Politicians? Film stars? Popes? Take your pick; this week, they all say human civilization is at risk of extinction under the bootheel of climate change. In a matter of days, James Hansen, the world's most famous climate scientist, Jerry Brown, the governor of the biggest state in the US, Pope Francis, a religious leader followed by 1.2 billion people, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who needs no introduction, all warned, in different ways, that the flush times are ending, and the end times are nigh.


"We don't even know how far we've gone, or if we've gone over the edge," said California gov Jerry Brown, at an international meeting of mayors convened at the Vatican, in the wake of the Pope's recent encyclical on the environment. "There are tipping points, feedback loops. This is not some linear set of problems that we can predict. We have to take measures against an uncertain future which may well be something no one ever wants. We are talking about extinction. We are talking about climate regimes that have not been seen for tens of millions of years. We're not there yet, but we're on our way."

Dire! An exaggeration, perhaps? Politicians stand to profit from the specter of doom, sure, if they can cast themselves as saviors. But here's James Hansen, once NASA's preeminent climatologist, summarizing the findings of his most recent (though not-yet-peer-reviewed) paper, co-authored by 16 other top scientists:

"We conclude that continued high emissions will make multi-meter sea level rise practically unavoidable and likely to occur this century. Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating. It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization."

Which sounds suspiciously like the plot of a disaster movie, so just let us escape into this fiction, a mere possibility, an alternate reality, unless there is of course some certified expert on action filmography who might be able to serve as an authority on the matter.

"I've starred in a lot of science fiction movies and, let me tell you something, climate change is not science fiction, this is a battle in the real world, it is impacting us right now," Arnold Schwarzenegger said on Tuesday, according to TIME, after the former governor was appointed a UN ambassador on the issue. "I believe the science is in. The debate is over and the time for action is now. This is bigger than any movie, this is the challenge of our time. And it is our responsibility to leave this world a better place than we found it, but right now we are failing future generations."

The Pope, of course, recently issued an entire teaching document, Laudato Si, focused explicitly on climate change and capitalism. In it, he writes that "Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain." Those skeptical and those in denial call this "alarmism," but this cast of moral and scientific authorities and public and popular personalities is easily drowning them out, with ample evidence of cause for alarm.

"The Earth, our home," goes one of the encyclical's most famous lines, "is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth."