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September 15, 2021 News » Cover Story

Time's Up 

It's the End of the World, and We Know It.

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DEREK CARLISLE
  • Derek Carlisle

Commentary by Jim Catano

Picture six friends chatting about the environment.

"There's no such thing as global warming," the first says. "Climate change is fake news."

"No, the planet is warming," says another, "but in a gradual, natural cycle that's repeated itself throughout Earth's history. Higher temperatures may even benefit some places."

"What we're experiencing is not natural," counters a third. "It's caused by human activity, specifically the burning of fossil fuels. But luckily, we've got time to get it under control."

"On the contrary," the fourth person suggests, "climate change is entering a critical stage. We need to keep lobbying Congress because if we don't get emissions under control within the next couple of decades, we may experience big problems."

"Sorry, but Congress—or any other political entity—isn't doing anything close to what could make a difference in time," the fifth says. "There will be huge consequences in most parts of the world, but hopefully our species will soon wake up and take drastic steps to avert total environmental and societal collapse. We must end our reliance on fossil fuels and pursue new technologies for removing carbon from the air."

The sixth friend lets out a heavy sigh, then speaks. "I hate to be the bearer of bad news," he says, "but we've simply gone too far down the hole. Rapid conversion to a renewably fueled society and carbon capture are technologically and logistically impossible for several reasons. Even if we were to immediately stop using fossil fuels today—which we won't—there is already too much heat-trapping greenhouse gas in the atmosphere to stop the rise in global temperatures. A cascade of tipping points—many already in the rear-view mirror—will almost certainly make the Earth's climate inhospitable for humans and most mammals. The best, long-shot case would be if small pockets of habitability can continue to sustain human existence."

That hypothetical conversation demonstrates what I consider to be the six major schools of thought on climate change. And I should know—over the past 30 years, I've personally enrolled in five of those schools. But as updated information has poured in and times have changed, however, so has my awareness of the threat humanity faces.

The End is Near
Recent environmental news reports have made the first two schools of thought simply impossible to defend. Even the third—the idea that we have lots of time to correct the problem—has seen its credibility plummet in light of increasing record-setting extreme temperatures worldwide, severe and destructive storms, massive flooding in some areas, prolonged droughts in others, accelerating glacial and ice cap melting, sea level rise and devastating wildfires. At long last, public opinion is coming in line with what science has been warning us about for decades.

But as it is increasingly apparent that the way we've lived on this planet has tragically altered its chemistry, biology and ecology, the question then becomes how bad things will get. Is it possible that our world could become uninhabitable for humans and most other species? A growing number of scientists and laypersons who choose to be guided by facts and observable trends—as opposed to forming their opinions around hopes and wishes—say such a scenario is very likely, if not inevitable.

The end of the world as we know it has been debated, discussed and predicted by intellectuals, mystics and prophets for millennia. What will happen to our planet and its inhabitants has also been considered by science, in fiction writing and cinema, and at around-the-campfire discussions since time immemorial. Potential catalysts bringing about the end have included plagues, asteroids, super-volcanoes, alien invasions, nuclear war, an energy burst from a quasar, a deity declaring "time's up" on the human drama or the death of our sun in a few billion years. By comparison, catastrophic, abrupt climate change is the relatively new kid on the block.

Mainstream science is gradually narrowing in on the final two scenarios described by the six friends as possibilities. The United Nation's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a chilling report in August that's far less hopeful than the previous five assessments published by the IPCC since 1990.

The organization has been criticized for being overly optimistic. Its latest report, however, contains dire warnings of imminent, catastrophic and irreversible climate impacts given the quantity of greenhouse gasses (CO2, methane and others mostly released by industrial activities) that are already in the atmosphere and oceans and that continue to be released relatively unabated.

Three terms are useful in discussions about abrupt climate change. The first is "overshoot," when a society surpasses in population and consumption the capacity of its environment to sustainably support it. The second is "tipping point," which is when a condition reaches a critical stage and can no longer be stopped. The third is "feedback loop," which is when a condition deepens as a result of itself. (One example is how Arctic ice shrinks each year, allowing more sunlight to penetrate ocean water instead of reflecting back into space, which heats the oceans and contributes to further ice melt.)

Humans began leaving a carbon footprint about 10,000 years ago with the dawn of agriculture. Things went into overdrive three centuries ago when societies started mining large quantities of carbon that had been deposited over hundreds of millions of years as decaying plant and animal life sank to the bottoms of oceans, seas and swamps, becoming oil, coal and natural gas.

Our ancestors started burning these fossil fuels to power their lives, and carbon dioxide was released as its waste. Since the Industrial Revolution in the 18th century, we've spewed more than a half-trillion tons of CO2 into the air. By weight, that amount of carbon dioxide would roughly equal two Mount Everests.

An Invisible Killer
Unfortunately, carbon dioxide appears "clean." Despite coming from mostly pitch-black sources, CO2 is invisible, odorless and toxic to humans only in high concentrations. Unlike soot and other emissions that exit smokestacks and tailpipes—and which humanity has done a better job capturing—excess CO2 gave the appearance of being relatively harmless until quite recently. Even though CO2 was identified as a heat-trapping atmospheric gas in 1859 by Irish physicist John Tyndall, the cheap, concentrated energy that burning fossil fuels provides has been too tempting and too addictive to spark the motivation to adequately address its downsides.

Carbon dioxide's cousin, methane or CH4, is initially 84 times more potent as a heat-holding greenhouse gas, and billions of tons of it lie just below the Earth's surface in the frozen northern tundra and seabed. As temperatures climb, this natural gas is being released in ever-increasing amounts to the point that there is now more than twice as much in the atmosphere as there was in pre-industrial times. Some scholars predict that an upcoming, rapid release of methane will be the trigger for a large and catastrophic spike in global temperatures.

We've created an entire society and economy based on fossil-fuel use and, so far, our species has shown little resolve to significantly change its ways, due in large part to centuries of self-centered thinking and decades of misinformation disseminated by fossil-fuel companies and the government officials who back them. Many individuals in industrialized societies simply resist change.

"I can't give up my [big house/car/RV/boat/motorized toys/vacations/cruises or even a clothes dryer]," the First World opines, while at the same time, less-wealthy societies aspire to our profligate lifestyle. Our lack of will to abandon biosphere-killing ways is why a growing number of experts see humanity as simply too addicted to have ever averted disaster.

There's also a world population that has swelled from 2.5 billion when I was born in 1950 to nearly 8 billion today. The global population could reach 10 billion, but some researchers have calculated that even if humans were doing everything right in terms of living simply and using alternative and renewable energy, the planet could support, at most, about 2 billion of us in perpetuity.

In This Together
I'm aware this may be the biggest downer that City Weekly readers have ever encountered in these pages. Many will reject it as inaccurate and overly pessimistic, and that's a perfectly normal human response. Denial is the first of psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's classic five stages of grief, and some never move beyond denial even when contemplating their own death—let alone that of all of humankind within a relatively short time frame.

As I've passed backward and forward through Kubler-Ross's five stages while contemplating what all this means for me, my partner, children, grandchildren and recently-arrived first great grandchild, I've mostly carried the burden alone without asking others to help shoulder it. Fortunately, resources and support groups exist to help people first get their minds around these horrific possibilities and then turn anxiety and fear about them into courage and resolve to live nobly and well in whatever time we have left.

I reached out to four thought leaders on abrupt climate change. As you will see, these scholars differ in their views, but each wishes they were wrong about what they see coming. So do I.

The following responses were provided individually via email, but are presented in the form of a panel discussion.

Climate change scientist Guy McPherson believes humanity’s days are numbered. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Climate change scientist Guy McPherson believes humanity’s days are numbered.

When did you realize climate change would be inevitably catastrophic?
Guy McPherson (an internationally recognized speaker and award-winning scientist who specializes in abrupt climate change): In 2002, it seemed we had already triggered self-reinforcing feedback loops, any one of which make climate change irreversible. As a typically conservative academic, I kept my conclusion to myself. I finally went fully public with an essay I posted on my blog in June of 2012.

Max Wilbert (an organizer, wilderness guide and author of "Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It"): In 2010, I traveled to the Russian Arctic to document a National Science Foundation climate science expedition. In Siberia, we walked on thawing permafrost and saw "drunken forests," which look like a game of pick-up-sticks as the soil melts underneath the trees. That year was the hottest year on record in Russia at the time.

Michael Dowd (a bestselling eco-theologian, TEDx speaker and environmental advocate): It was in 2012 after watching David Roberts' TEDx talk, "Climate Change Is Simple (Remix)"

Eco-theologian Michael Dowd urges compasssion in hard times. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Eco-theologian Michael Dowd urges compasssion in hard times.

When will the climate disaster become so intense nobody will deny it?
McPherson: Denying reality will continue until the last person draws his or her last breath. COVID-19 serves as a recent example.

Wilbert: It's already that way. If you live in a small island nation, or in New York, or along the Gulf Coast, or in the wildfire-ravaged West, climate crisis is not something in the future.

Dowd: Most will go to their grave in one form of denial or another.

Erik Michaels (a researcher of ecological overshoot, its symptoms and the human denial of them): Those who deny it now will most likely continue denying it. Facts don't often change people's beliefs, unfortunately.

Max Wilbert, co-author of Bright Green Lies, visited the thawing permafrost of the Russian Arctic. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Max Wilbert, co-author of Bright Green Lies, visited the thawing permafrost of the Russian Arctic.

Will civilizational collapse occur?
Wilbert: Every civilization that has ever existed has destroyed its own ecological foundations and then collapsed. Collapse is not an event, it's a process. We're already in the early stages of collapse. Aquifers are shrinking, increasing disease and civil conflict, droughts and extreme weather. It's here.

And in places like Syria, or Pakistan, or Columbia, collapse is already well underway. It's well underway here in the United States, too. Just look at the homeless encampments in your city. The consumerist "prosperity" of the post-war 1950s is gone and is never coming back.

Michaels: Civilizational collapse is already happening and deepening—it's a very slow process, however, and it really affects the most complex societies first.

Will humans survive?
McPherson: No life on Earth will survive abrupt, irreversible climate change.

Wilbert: Humans will eventually go extinct, but who knows when? With nearly 8 billion of us on the planet, we're nowhere close to extinction now. I'm more concerned about the 100-200 other species that are being driven extinct every day. If we can't halt that trend, the future for humanity is bleak.

Dowd: The stability of the biosphere has been in decline for centuries and in unstoppable, out-of-control mode for decades. This "Great Acceleration"—just Google it—of biospheric collapse is an easily verifiable fact. The scientific evidence is overwhelming, but the vast majority of people will deny this, especially those still benefiting from the existing order, those understandably concerned about the effects of collapse, and those who fear that "accepting reality" means "giving up." And, yes, that means most of us.

Michaels: A quote from Carl Sagan: "Extinction is the rule. Survival is the exception." So, yes, we will go extinct—the only question is when, not if. I find it hard to believe that humans will still populate the planet by 2100. If there are still groups alive at that point, the likelihood that they will be functionally extinct is very high. Most likely, six or seven people out of every eight will die over the next two decades as energy and resource decline deepens.

Erik Michaels researches ecological overshoot. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Erik Michaels researches ecological overshoot.

As conditions deteriorate and social institutions breakdown, will individuals and groups be able to offer assistance to others?
Wilbert: We've already seen governments increasingly unable to provide meaningful aid in disasters, whether they be economic or natural. The future—if there is going to be one—is local.

Dowd: There will always be compassionate and generous people, especially in super hard times. Nevertheless, I think half or more of the human population—3 to 5 billion—will likely starve within 16 months of the first multi-bread-basket failure, most likely this decade.

Michaels: One will see all ranges of social responses unfolding as time moves forward. People will do good things to help and to provide assistance where they can and people will do nasty, selfish and brutish things as well as everything in between. Fewer people will have the resources and abilities to help as time moves forward and resiliency is removed from location after location.

As collapse deepens and unfolds, fewer people will be able to help as their own conditions deteriorate. There will also be those who decide to be competitive and take whatever they can. So, there will be moments of beauty and moments of depravity.

Will American climate refugees from flooded coasts or drought-plagued areas be welcomed elsewhere?
Michaels: Many of us suffer greatly from a sense of privilege and what the Indigenous Americans call "wetiko," a form of colonialism. Because everyone alive today grew up with the culture of always having "more," very few people will know how to handle a life of constantly having less.

Do some religious millennialists see catastrophic climate change as fulfillment of the prophesied, fiery end of the world and even welcome it?
Dowd: Yes, of course! Fundamentalist and evangelical Christians are likely to interpret all this as God's will, not climate change.

Michaels: I have met individuals who talked about these claims. They are troubled by their beliefs and denial of reality. The bottom line is that the world is not really ending. A new world will unfold and new species will fill niches once held by species going extinct.

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Between now and the end, what's the best way to live?
McPherson: Treat family, friends, and others with whom you interact frequently as you would treat your beloved, dying grandmother. Would you lie to your grandmother as she is dying? Would you disrespect her?

Once you've mastered this way of treating your friends and family, extend the relevant behaviors to everyone. Work in your community to overcome the ills associated with every civilization, including racism, misogyny and monetary disparity. And work to safely decommission all nuclear facilities. Failure to do so likely spells the loss of all life on Earth.

Wilbert: It's not too late. Yes, a lot of change is already baked into the climate and ecological system. A lot of bad things are going to happen. But the Earth is incredibly resilient, and so are human beings. If you're in love with your family, your partner, your kids, how can you give up?

When you see a wild river, or an old-growth forest, or an alpine meadow, or a herd of elk, how could you not want to protect the future? Resisting the destruction of the planet is the most normal and natural thing we could do.

Dowd: Live fully, trustingly, courageously, compassionately and with deep and profound gratitude for the gift of being alive and conscious and in love with life.

Michaels: Live now. It sounds so simple but can be quite difficult for many people because of our cultural programming and indoctrination.

Jim Catano lives and fights for the environment in Salt Lake City. Readers looking for support dealing with the emotional impact of abrupt climate change can find resources through the Good Grief Network.

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