A child born today may live to see humanity’s end


Humans will be extinct in 100 years because the planet will be uninhabitable, said the late Australian microbiologist Frank Fenner, one of the leaders in the effort to eradicate smallpox during the 1970s. He blamed overcrowding, denuded resources and climate change.

Fenner’s prediction, made in 2010, is not a sure bet, but he is correct that there is no way emissions reductions will be enough to save us from our trend toward doom. And there doesn’t seem to be any big global rush to reduce emissions, anyway. When the G7 called on Monday for all countries to reduce carbon emissions to zero in the next 85 years, the scientific reaction was unanimous: That’s far too late.

And no possible treaty that emerges from the current United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Bonn, Germany, in preparation for November’s United Nations climate conference in Paris, will be sufficient. At this point, lowering emissions is just half the story — the easy half. The harder half will be an aggressive effort to find the technologies needed to reverse the climate apocalypse that has already begun.

For years now, we have heard that we are at a tipping point. Al Gore warned us in An Inconvenient Truth that immediate action was required if we were to prevent global warming. In 2007, Sir David King, former chief scientific advisor to the British government, declared, “Avoiding dangerous climate change is impossible – dangerous climate change is already here. The question is, can we avoid catastrophic climate change?” In the years since, emissions have risen, as have global temperatures. Only two conclusions can be drawn: Either these old warnings were alarmist, or we are already in far bigger trouble than the U.N. claims. Unfortunately, the latter seems to be the case.

Lowering emissions and moving to cleaner energy sources is a necessary step to prevent catastrophic temperature rises. The general target is to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius. Higher increases — like the 5C increase currently projected by 2100 — run the risk of widespread flooding, famine, drought, sea-level rise, mass extinction and, worse, the potential of passing a tipping point (frequently set at 6C) that could render much of the planet uninhabitable and wipe out most species. Even the 2C figure predicts more than a meter’s rise in sea levels by 2100, enough to displace millions. It is no wonder that the Pentagon calls climate change a serious “threat multiplier” and is considering its potential disruptive impact across all its planning.

This is where the U.N. talks fall short — by a mile. The targets proffered by the United States (a 26 percent to 28 percent decrease from 2005 levels by 2025), the European Union (a 40 percent decrease from 1990 levels by 2030) and China (an unspecified emissions peak by 2030) are nowhere near enough to keep us under the 2C target. In 2012, journalist Bill McKibben, in a feature for Rolling Stone, explained much of the math behind the current thinking on global warming. He concluded that the United Nations’ figures were definitely on the rosy side. In particular, McKibben noted that the temperature has already increased 0.8C, and even if we were to stop all carbon-dioxide emissions today, it would increase another 0.8C simply due to the existing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. That leaves only a 0.4C buffer before hitting 2C. Even assuming the Paris conference implements everything that’s promised, we will be on track to use up the remaining “carbon budget” — the amount of carbon we can emit without blowing past the 2C threshold — within two to three decades, not even at mid-century.

These emissions-reduction frameworks, it is safe to say, are simply insufficient. By themselves, they only offer a small chance of preventing the earth from becoming mostly uninhabitable – for humans at least — over the next few centuries. For the talks to be more than just a placebo, they need to encompass aggressive plans for climate mitigation, with the assumption that current wishful targets won’t be met.

Apart from coordination to cope with climate-driven crises and associated instability, climate-change leadership needs to encourage and fund the development of technologies to reverse what we are unable to stop doing to our planet. Many of these technologies fall under the rubric of “carbon sequestration” — safely storing carbon rather than emitting it. Riskier strategies, like injecting sulfates into the air to reflect more of the sun’s heat into space and ocean iron fertilization to grow algae to suck in carbon, run a high risk of unintended consequences. Better and safer solutions to reduce CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere don’t yet exist; we need to discover them and regulate them, to avoid the chaos of what economists Gernot Wagner and Martin L. Weitzman term “rogue geoengineering” in their book Climate Shock.

None of these approaches are substitutes for emissions reductions. Achieving a carbon-neutral society is a necessary long-term goal regardless of other technological fixes. Technology could buy us the time to get there without our planet burning up. Ultimately, we need a Cold War-level of investment in research into new technologies to mitigate the coming effects of global warming. Without it, the United Nations’ work is a nice gesture, but hardly a meaningful one.

Food for Thought

14 thoughts on “A child born today may live to see humanity’s end

  1. “Apart from coordination to cope with climate-driven crises and associated instability, climate-change leadership needs to encourage and fund the development of technologies to reverse what we are unable to stop doing to our planet.” What??
    This gobbly-gook is one of the reasons there is no hope. More technologies? Funding? Leadership?….”to reverse what we are unable to stop…?
    Frankly, this is a very myopic, stupid article. No, the planet will not just be “mostly uninhabitable for humans at least”—again another silly Humanist writing, which centers around us humans–who are busy at this very moment killing off all biodiversity–non-human life.
    The last couple of years now, I see very few (if any) butterflies, and only one humming bird at the feeders this summer, with other folks saying the same thing. I wonder if I will ever see a butterfly again….

  2. And we’ll go down kicking and screaming too. This quote from the previous post on the new fuel efficiency standards says it all, I think:

    ““Once upon a time, to be pro-environment you had to be anti-big-vehicles. This rule will change that,” said U.S Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx.”

    We just don’t seem to get the big picture, and this quote doesn’t give me much confidence that anyone has any concept of climate change. Just don’t take our big trucks away!

  3. The only sad part about the prediction is that by the time the scourge of humanity is finally gone so to will be much of the other higher life forms that once graced the planet. And I too see almost no butterflies in the summer where I used to see dozens if not hundreds.

    Concerning predictions of impending doom, those of us who were around for the first Earth Day in the 60’s can remember lots of warnings about THAT being the “decade of decision” when humankind would decide whether we wanted a livable planet in the future or to PARTY-ON and risk losing everything for short-term economic gain. Those were fateful times and obviously, by almost every available measure, the human race collectively chose the latter.

  4. The solution is so simple – a mandatory vegan diet for all and birth control for everyone for at least the next twenty years. However, people are too stupid, selfish, self-righteous, greedy, and gluttonous to do so. If the choice is saving life on earth including your own by making small changes to your behavior vs. continuing to do what you have always done, the later will win every time.

    • Considering the massive systemic planetary changes now here, vegan diets and birth control (which would have been great if mandatory years ago), will not stop the Earth’s Feed Back Loop, which is like a domino affect on the biosphere, now increasing as we speak. Homo sapiens has been destructive since it came down from the trees, and was actively killing off species. Here in North America, early humans were busy causing massive extinctions of mega fauna, using their early weapons: hence, the giant sloth, saber-toothed tiger, mammoth, and many other non-humans went the way of the Carrier Pigeons later. Now, new ecological problems are here. Permafrost in the polar regions is melting faster than scientists could ever have imagined. Oceans are warming at an “alarming rate,” with more acidity, which is causing increasing death in the oceans. The methane once trapped by the colder oceans, and the permafrost, is now entering the atmosphere–this gas is much more volatile and dangerous than even CO2. This is all taking place in a geological “blink” of time, interrupting the very process of evolution.
      What is so terribly tragic, is not what will happen to us humans. Our species is now responsible for the death of Planet Earth as it has been for millions of years, with species that have evolved over the same time. All wiped out by a single, arrogant, thoughtless, greedy Homo sapiens. We have Domesticated Planet Earth, turning her into a de-natured, soon-to-be barren, lifeless planet–another Mars.

      • or Venus, a lifeless planet that suffered from runaway carbon.

        “Homo sapiens has been destructive since it came down from the trees, and was actively killing off species. ” Since they started killing killing off individuals from other species, even.

  5. Pingback: A child born today may live to see humanity’s end | GarryRogers Nature Conservation and Science Fiction (#EcoSciFi)

  6. The probability of apocalypse continues to grow, but we must keep pointing out the problems and the mitigations. Though they don’t think about it, our remaining wild animals need us to keep trying.

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