Climate twitter – the most fun twitter – has recently been reigniting the debate between human extinction and mere civilizational collapse, between doom and gloom, despair and (kind of) hope. It was sparked by an interview in The Guardian with acclaimed scientist Mayer Hillman. He argues that we’re probably doomed, and confronting the likelihood that we’re rushing toward collective death may be necessary to save us.
The headline alone provoked a lot of reactions, many angered by the ostensible defeatism embedded in Hillman’s comments. His stated view represents one defined camp that is mostly convinced of looming human extinction. It stands in contrast to another group that believes human extinction is highly unlikely, maybe impossible, and certainly will not occur due to climate change in our lifetimes. Collapse maybe, but not extinction.
Who’s more right? Let’s take a closer look.
First, the question of human extinction is totally bounded by uncertainty. There’s uncertainty in climate data, uncertainty in models and projections, and even more uncertainty in the behavior of human systems. We don’t know how we’ll respond to the myriad impacts climate change is beginning to spark, and we don’t know how sensitive industrial civilization will be to those impacts.
We don’t really know if humans are like other apex predators highly sensitive to ecological collapse, or are among the most adaptable mammals to ever walk the earth. One may be inclined to lean toward the latter given that humans have colonized every ecological niche on the planet except Antarctica. That bands of people can survive in and around deserts as well as the Arctic as well as equatorial rainforests speaks to the resilience of small social groups. It’s why The Road is so disturbingly plausible; there could be a scenario in which basically everything is dead but people, lingering in the last grey waste of the world. On the other hand, we’ve never lived outside of the very favorable conditions of the Holocene, and past civilizational and population collapses suggest humans are in fact quite sensitive to climatic shifts.
Famed climate scientist James Hansen has discussed the possibility of “Venus syndrome,” for instance, which sits at the far end of worst case scenarios. While a frightening thought experiment, it is easily dismissed as it’s based on so many uncertainties and doesn’t carry the weight of anything near consensus.
What’s more frightening than potentially implausible uncertainties are the currently existing certainties.
+ The atmosphere has proven more sensitive to GHG emissions than predicted by mainstream science, and we have a high chance of hitting 2oC of warming this century. Could hit 1.5C in the 2020s. Worst-case warming scenarios are probably the most likely.
+ Massive marine death is happening far faster than anyone predicted and we could be on the edge of an anoxic event.
+ Which also means predictions of sea level rise have doubled for this century.
+ Industrial agriculture is driving massive habitat loss and extinction. The insect collapse – population declines of 75% to 80% have been seen in some areas – is something no one predicted would happen so fast, and portends an ecological sensitivity beyond our fears. This is causing an unexpected and unprecedented bird collapse (1/8 of bird species are threatened) in Europe.
+ Forests, vital carbon sinks, are proving sensitive to climate impacts.
+ We’re living in the 6th mass extinction event, losing potentially dozens of species per day. We don’t know how this will impact us and our ability to feed ourselves.
+ Energy transition is essential to mitigating 1.5+C warming. Energy is the single greatest contributor to anthro-GHG. And, by some estimates, transition is happening 400 years too slowly to avoid catastrophic warming.
+ Incumbent energy industries (that is, oil & gas) dominate governments all over the world. We live in an oil oligarchy – a petrostate, but for the globe. Every facet of the global economy is dependent on fossil fuels, and every sector – from construction to supply chains to transport to electricity to extraction to agriculture and on and on – is built around FF consumption. There’s good reason to believe FF will remain subsidized by governments beholden to their interests even if they become less economically viable than renewables, and so will maintain their dominance.
+ We are living in history’s largest oil & gas boom.
+ Kilocalorie to kilocalorie, FF is extremely dense and extremely cheap. Despite reports about solar getting cheaper than FF in some places, non-hydro/-carbon renewables are still a tiny minority (~2%) of global energy consumption and will simply always, by their nature, be less dense kcal to kcal than FF, and so will always be calorically more expensive.
+ Energy demand probably has to decrease globally to avoid 1.5C, and it’s projected to dramatically increase. Getting people to consume less is practically impossible, and efficiency measures have almost always resulted in increased consumption.
+ We’re still setting FF emissions records.
+ Conditions today resemble those prior to the 20th century’s world wars: extreme wealth inequality, rampant economic insecurity, growing fascist parties/sentiment, and precarious geopolitical relations, and the Thucydides trap suggests war between Western hegemons and a rising China could be likely. These two factors could disrupt any kind of global cooperation on decarbonization and, to the contrary, will probably mean increased emissions (the US military is one of the world’s single largest consumers/emitters of FF).
+ Neoliberal ideology is so thoroughly embedded in our academic, political, and cultural institutions, and so endemic to discourse today, that the idea of degrowth – probably necessary to avoid collapse – and solidarity economics isn’t even close to discussion, much less realization, and, for self-evident reasons, probably never will be.
+ Living in a neoliberal culture also means we’ve all been trained not to sacrifice for the common good. But solving climate change, like paying more to achieve energy transition or voluntarily consuming less, will all entail sacrificing for the greater good. Humans sometimes are great at that; but the market fundamentalist ideology that pervades all social, commercial, and even self relations today stands against acting for the common good or in collective action.
+ There’s basically no government in the world today taking climate change seriously. There are many governments posturing and pretending to take it seriously, but none have substantially committed to a full decarbonization of their economies. (Iceland may be an exception, but Iceland is about 24 times smaller than NYC, so…)
+ Twenty-five years of governments knowing about climate change has resulted in essentially nothing being done about it, no emissions reductions, no substantive moves to decarbonize the economy. Politics have proven too strong for common sense, and there’s no good reason to suspect this will change anytime soon.
+ Wealth inequality is embedded in our economy so thoroughly – and so indigenously to FF economies – that it will probably continue either causing perpetual strife, as it has so far, or eventually cement a permanent underclass ruled by a small elite, similar to agrarian serfdom. There is a prominent view in left politics that greater wealth equality, some kind of ecosocialism, is a necessary ingredient in averting the kind of ecological collapse the economy is currently driving, given that global FF capitalism by its nature consumes beyond carrying capacities. At least according to one Nasa-funded study, the combination of inequality and ecological collapse is a likely cause for civilizational collapse.
Even with this perfect storm of issues, it’s impossible to know how likely extinction is, and it’s impossible to judge how likely or extensive civilizational collapse may be. We just can’t predict how human beings and human systems will respond to the shocks that are already underway. We can make some good guesses based on history, but they’re no more than guesses. Maybe there’s a miracle energy source lurking in a hangar somewhere waiting to accelerate non-carbon transition. Maybe there’s a swelling political movement brewing under the surface that will soon build a more just, ecologically sane order into the world. Community energy programs are one reason to retain a shred of optimism; but also they’re still a tiny fraction of energy production and they are not growing fast, but they could accelerate any moment. We just don’t know how fast energy transition can happen, and we just don’t know how fast the world could descend into climate-driven chaos – either by human strife or physical storms.
What we do know is that, given everything above, we are living through a confluence of events that will shake the foundations of civilization, and jeopardize our capacity to sustain large populations of humans. There is enough certainty around these issues to justify being existentially alarmed. At this point, whether we go extinct or all but a thousand of us go extinct (again), maybe that shouldn’t make much difference. Maybe the destruction of a few billion or 5 billion people is morally equivalent to the destruction of all 7 billion of us, and so should provoke equal degrees of urgency. Maybe this debate about whether we’ll go completely extinct rather than just mostly extinct is absurd. Or maybe not. I don’t know. What I do know is that, regardless of the answer, there’s no excuse to stop fighting for a world that sustains life.
Samuel Miller McDonald
First published by Resilience, 2 May 2018