Let’s get real about Climate Change, Collapse, and Extinction

We have a problem here on Planet Earth. We are on a trajectory to collapse, dystopia, and extinction.

Here are a some facts:

  • Global warming has resulted from human activity: population growth combined with increased consumerism, and related carbon emissions. There is a direct correlation between the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (causing warming) and human population numbers. The world population has tripled to 8 billion since I was born (late 1950s), and our ecological footprint now far exceeds the earth’s capacity to sustain it.

  • The planet is warming at a rate faster than any time in the last ten million years, and that rate of increase is accelerating. As a result, ice is melting… the ice over the Arctic is melting, the permafrost in the Arctic is melting, forests are burning. As I write this, parts of the Arctic are 20 degrees Celsius above what they would normally be! This is causing major changes to the weather globally (the northern jetream is very unstable). It is getting warmer everywhere! (see Scientific American 2018 article). The ‘methane bomb’ in the Arctic has been triggered. (Robert Hunziker).

  • As the ocean and land warms, more water is evaporated from it. As the atmosphere warms it holds more moisture, 7% more for every 1 degree Celsius (Kevin Hester). Consequently, we are seeing more extreme and more frequent flooding. Water vapor is also a ‘greenhouse gas’ leading to a still warmer and moist atmosphere.

  • Climate change and global warming is itself becoming the major driver of climate change and global warming (rather than just human activity). For example, the Arctic regions were once a ‘sink’ for absorbing CO2 but are now a source for carbon emissions (CO2 and methane). We have ‘lit the fuse’ and the consequences are evident. Warming is leading to increasingly more warming.

  • As a direct result of human activity, the habitat for life on this planet is being destroyed. Forests are disappearing on the land, and coral reefs (like the Great Barrier reef) in the oceans are dying or dead. “No species persists long without habitat, not even the clever ones” (Guy McPherson). It is estimated that since 1970 the earth has lost 83% of wild animals, 50% of plants, and 76% of insects. The rate of ‘disappearance’ accelerates, both for habitat and for life that depends on it. The current extinction rate for species is ten times faster than any previous mass extinction event on earth.

The ‘point of no return’ and ‘tipping points’

A ‘point of no return’ is when you can no longer turn around and return to a previous place. When an aircraft is taking off it can put on the brakes (abort takeoff) until it reaches halfway down the tarmac. We have passed the point of no return here on planet earth regarding a number of changes. It is too late to put on the brakes. There is no going back to ‘normal’ or the stable climate we have enjoyed for thousands of years.

Then there are ‘tipping points’. I’m sitting at a table with a glass of wine. The glass is on the table, and everything is stable and in equilibrium. But if I lift one side of the table the wine-glass reaches a tipping point, when all of a sudden there is abrupt and irreversible change… the glass (and unfortunately the wine too) tips over and is lost. There are many tipping points that we are approaching or have passed here on planet earth regarding climate and biosphere collapse. These abrupt and irreversible processes including the melting of permafrost, the drying of rainforests, and the acidification of oceans. Catastrophic loss is immanent.

Ecological Footprint and Biocapacity

We have long been in ‘overshoot’: when our ecological footprint surpasses the earth’s capacity to sustain our population size and consumption rate. (see the Ecological Footprint Explorer) The consequence is collapse. “Collapse is the only realistic scenario” (Arthur Keller).

Can we Fix It?

No. This is hard to accept. There’s this popular myth that we can turn this around or fix it, like Bob the Builder in the children’s story who says “Can we fix it? Yes, we can!” For a response to that I refer to the comical Tui beer advertising here in New Zealand with the sarcastic punch line “Yeah right.”

For the last few decades climate conferences and agreements have detailed the measures that need to be taken to keep the global average temperature below a 2 degree Celsius increase over the pre-industrial levels. The longer we leave it the harder and more severe the action required. It is now impossible. Besides, there is enough warming inertia in the system that even if we ‘turned off the switch’ the planet would continue to warm for decades. Any emissions mitigation also takes decades to have effect (Samset, Fuglestvedt, Lund).

Is mitigation possible when governments are planning to produce about 50% more fossil fuels by 2030 than would be consistent with limiting warming to 2°C, and 120% more than would be consistent with limiting warming to 1.5°C (The Production Gap Report, 2019)?

Some call for political action. But that is clearly unrealistic. At the last international climate conference, the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, said “Global problems require global solutions”. But the nations on the globe just cannot agree and have no power against the oligarchs and polluters who do what they will.

Extrapolation and Cognitive Dissonance

One of the things that humans can be good at doing is extrapolating from information about the past and the present to predict the future. Then again there’s cognitive dissonance: not seeing the facts or acknowledging them to be facts, because they do not “fit” within our ‘world-view’. For example, I may believe the economic theory that perpetual growth and exploitation of resources is possible on a finite planet. I may smoke cigarettes knowing they are very harmful to my health. I may have beliefs that cannot accommodate some scientific facts, and these may be cherished religious beliefs. Or I may simply hope that things will turn out okay (maybe another religious delusion), despite the contrary indications. Ignorance is no longer an excuse, and cognitive dissonance is self-deception. Greta Thurnberg is right when she answers the question “are you an optimist or a pessimist?” She says, “Neither. I’m a realist”. That is what we need to be. Realists.

We need to understand that death is natural, like the seasons. We also need to accept that this is unnatural. We pulled the trigger of destruction. This is the last great extinction event and the first extermination event. But there is no point blaming anyone. We are in this together. We are all complicit.

As we speed down the road to collapse and dystopia, we first see the following:

  • More frequent and extreme weather-related catastrophes.
  • The failure of food crops and famine.

[The Elephant in the Room artwork is by Mark Bryan]

3 thoughts on “Let’s get real about Climate Change, Collapse, and Extinction

  1. “We need to understand that death is natural, like the seasons. We also need to accept that this is unnatural. We pulled the trigger of destruction. ”

    This seems like cognitive dissonance on your part.

    Given what you quoted of Guy Mcpherson, it seems that you have a naturalistic view of humanity as a species, yet in the quote above, you describe at least some set of our behaviour as being unnatural


  2. When you say “extinction”, do you mean the extinction of humanity, or the other species? Or both? While it’s hard to disagree that we’re going to experience perhaps the worst suffering our species has had to contend with, it seems unlikely that our species would be fully destroyed, unless we start a significant nuclear war or continue to ignore climate change until an AMOC shutdown. Do you agree?


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