Or wipe out all life, or drive humans to extinction, but it could destroy our civilization
Let’s drop the hyperbole and start thinking rationally.
To help, I classify doomsday scenarios into five types of catastrophes. Then I examine how likely is each one.
Type 1 catastrophe - The Earth is destroyed
When doomsayers cry “the Earth is in danger!” surely they don’t mean it literally. I hope they are not that stupid.
Earth is a planet, the third from the Sun, and destroying it would take some extremely unlikely event.
For example, the Sun exploding. We know that his would happen eventually, but it is billions of years in the future. In a culture in which a hundred years is a very long time, this is the least of our worries.
Other events that may destroy planet Earth is collision with a large interstellar object moving at extremely high speeds. Since kinetic energy equals mass times the square of the velocity, a relatively small body can be highly destructive if it moves very fast. However, the chances that it would come into the Solar System with the right trajectory to hit the Earth are vanishingly small.
A black hole coming close to the Solar System could also destroy the Earth. However, we don’t know of any black holes close enough to us to be a threat. Small black holes could be invisible, but they have a relatively short life due to Hawking radiation.
Neutron stars can be destructive due to their concentrated gravitational forces. However, there doesn’t seem to be any neutron star close enough to us to be a threat.
It’s a wild cosmos out there, full of terrifying monsters. However, the Earth has survived five billions years. Events that may destroy it in the near future are vanishingly unlikely.
And, of course, none of this has anything to do with the climate crisis.
The Earth is not going anywhere. And, if it is, we are completely powerless to save it.
Type 2 catastrophe - The biosphere is destroyed
What the doomsayers mean when they cry “save the Earth!” - I guess - is not save our rocky planet, but the crust of life encroaching on its surface. The technical name for it is the biosphere, although I like the name Gaia coined by James Lovelock in his famous hypothesis. It states that the biosphere is a system in a steady state, but far from chemical equilibrium; hence, it meets the criteria put forth by Ilya Prigogine to be considered a living being. The Gaia hypothesis is wildly misunderstood by proponents and critics alike, but I will not explain it in more detail here (I did in my article The Secret of Life). I bring the Gaia hypothesis up just to point out that, if the biosphere is alive as a whole, it can die.
Gaia - or the biosphere, if you prefer - got started three or four billion years ago, when life became so abundant on Earth to change the chemistry of its atmosphere, its oceans and even some of its rocks. Lots of things happened to the Earth in that enormously long period of time - almost one third of the age of the Universe, 13.8 billion years. At one point, the Earth got almost completely covered with ice - Snowball Earth - just like planet Hoth of Star Wars. At another, some of the oceans became so hot that you would be scalded alive if you tried to swim in them.
The figure below shows changes in Earth temperature during the las half billion years. There have been four long glaciation periods, separated by warming periods in which global temperatures spiked as high as 8 degrees Celcius above average.
I am not trying to minimize the dangers of global warming, just to point out that it is not likely that it would destroy the biosphere.
The worst-case scenario is the runaway greenhouse effect. In it, a positive feedback loop is established in which planet warming release greenhouse gases, which increase global warming until the temperature becomes extremely high. For example, gaseous water is a greenhouse gas, so if global temperatures get to be high enough to start a huge evaporation of water from the oceans, this could lead to a runaway greenhouse. Water will also migrate to the stratosphere, where it would be cleaved into hydrogen and oxygen, that then would get lost into space. The end results would be Earth looking like Venus. The biosphere is unlikely to survive this scenario, although we know that, once life has gotten started, it can adapt to very extreme environments.
However, I think that a runaway greenhouse is not likely because, if it was, it would have happened already in the Earth’s past. Bad as it is, our alteration of the atmosphere is minor compared to that produced by huge volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts in the past. In fact, when life started on Earth, its atmosphere was made of greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane. And yet, it got cooled down. I suspect that the homeostatic mechanisms - negative feedback loops - that have kept Gaia alive for three billion years are powerful enough to compensate what we are doing to the atmosphere. Scientists agree…
The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) has also stated that "a 'runaway greenhouse effect'—analogous to [that of] Venus—appears to have virtually no chance of being induced by anthropogenic activities. […] [This] would require ten times the amount of CO2 we could release from burning all the oil, coal, and natural gas in Earth's crust." Wikipedia.
Therefore, I doubt that global warming will destroy the biosphere and wipe out life from Earth. The probability of that happening is higher than planet Earth being destroyed, but still extremely low.
Type 3 catastrophe - Homo Sapiens goes extinct
Even though Earth’s biosphere has survived for more than three billion years, this has not been a walk in the park. On multiple occasions, there have been die-offs that wiped out a majority of the species on the planet-the extinction of the dinosaurs being just the most famous one.
In fact, we are currently in the midst of an extinction event caused by human activities. It is not primarily due to climate change (yet), but to the wholesale exploitation of the Earth’s land and oceans to produce food and consumer goods.
So, if species are going extinct, wouldn’t ours be one of the first to go? Aren’t humans fragile and sensitive to the environment?
Well, no. We are one of the most adaptable and resilient large animals in the planet. We conquered almost every terrestrial ecosystem, even before the Agrarian Revolution and the establishment of civilizations. Today, human beings represent a large fraction of the biomass of the planet.
How is this important? Couldn’t we all just die in a short period of time? For example, there could be a disease like Covid-19 that wipes us all out.
Again, no. There is strength in numbers. The more humans there are, the more chances there are that there would be individuals with genetic immunity to a disease. Also, the fact that we have colonized most terrestrial environments on Earth gives us an advantage, because there is a high chance that somewhere there would be the right environmental conditions for a few humans to survive. Remember, for Homo Sapiens to become extinct, all 8 billions of us would have to die.
In fact, as current global villain Vladimir Putin has reminded us, climate change is not the biggest threat to the survival of humanity. Nuclear war is worse, far worse. A full nuclear exchange between Russia and the USA would immediately kill millions, if not billions, of people. It would render most of the Northern Hemisphere inhabitable with a nuclear winter. The resulting radiation would induce mutations in our collective genome, causing hereditary diseases for thousands of years.
And yet, I think our species would survive even nuclear war. Maybe in New Zealand.
If we can keep those nukes in their silos, I’ll give our species a high chance of surviving climate change.
Type 4 catastrophe - Civilization is wiped out
In this type of catastrophe, Home Sapiens survives, but not our civilization. We go back to being hunter-gatherers.
To recapitulate, our species has existed for 250,000 years. Then thousand years ago, the Agrarian Revolution took place, which started cities and the accumulation of written knowledge. Our current scientific, industrial civilization is just 200 years old. Hence, humans have lived as hunter-gatherers for 96% of the lifetime of our species, and without science and industry for 99.9% of that time. From that perspective, our civilization has existed for just a blip of time. There are no guarantees that it would last.
Major disruptions in the environment - like those likely to result from climate change - could destroy the fabric of society, make agriculture impossible and send us back to the hunter-gatherer state.
I know that a lot of people secretly pine for this. They have romanticized primitive societies with the Myth of the Noble Savage. They think that tribal societies live a life of innocence, free from the patriarchy, consumerism, capitalism, racism or whatever is their favorite modern demon.
Nothing is further from the truth. Accounts like those of Napoleon Chagnon, who spent many years living among the Yanomami of the Amazon, tell a different story. This tribal society is highly patriarchal and hierarchical, and practices frequent warfare, rape, physical abuse of women, and murder.
In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, psychologist Steven Pinker present overwhelming evidence that modern society is far more peaceful, humane and egalitarian than any other society in human history. We’ll be far worse living as hunter-gatherers than we are now, for sure. If you disagree, there are still tribal societies in the world, go live with them!
Besides, hunter-gatherer societies can only live with a much lesser population density than we have now. Hence, to go from our modern society to a tribal way of living, most humans on the planet would have to die.
Therefore, devolving from our civilization to a hunter-gatherer way of living is a highly undesirable outcome.
How likely is that climate change would completely destroy our civilization and take us to a pre-agrarian state? Well, certainly more likely than types 1-3 catastrophes.
In his book Collapse, UCLA professor Jared Diamond studies several civilizations that declined and disappeared. These include Easter Island, the mutineers of the Bounty in Pitcairn Island, the Anasazi, the Mayas, the Norse in Greenland, Rwanda’s genocide and Haiti. Some of these are stories of societal decline because of environmental degradation.
The Norse became extinct in Greenland because their culture prevented them from adapting to an extremely harsh environment.
Rwanda and Haiti are examples of the violence brought about by overexploitation of nature, but not of complete societal collapse.
But even the Anasazi and the Mayas failed to fully revert to hunter-gatherers.
Therefore, it is unlikely that this will happen to our global civilization. Instead, we may revert to a period in history in which we lose many of the comforts to which we have become accustomed.
Type 5 catastrophe - Western civilization disappears
At the risk of sounding politically incorrect, I’ll say that our modern civilization resulting from the Renaissance and the Enlightenment is the most humane, egalitarian and rational of all past and present civilizations. It is often called the “Western” civilization, even though it has been largely adopted by Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. It also incorporates cultural elements from India, China and many other countries around the world.
It is characterized by the following values:
Democracy - political power resides in the people, who elect the government and legislative bodies.
Science as the ultimate method to acquire knowledge and develop technology.
Freedom - everybody is free to do as they please, as long as this is not in conflict with the freedom of others and respects the interests of the community.
Freedom of religion and freedom from religion - people are free to practice the religion of their choosing, or not practice any religion at all.
Egalitarianism - everybody should have the same rights and obligations regardless of race, gender, language, religion, etc.
Capitalism - everybody has a right to personal possessions, free enterprise, and to develop their wealth within a framework of fair rules.
Socialism - the State is the guarantor of freedom, safety, health, education, fairness in economics, and wealth distribution. The political tension between capitalism and socialism, and their alternation in power through democratic elections, has created the successful modern states.
These values are far from universal. Islamic theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia do not abide by values 1 through 5. Dictatorships like China, Russia and Cuba do not uphold values 1, 2, 3, 5 and 6. In fact, few countries completely abide by all these values, but many have them as their stated goals.
Why do I need to dwell on this? Because many people who have grown up protected by these values not only take them for granted, but are set to destroy them. For them, “Western civilization” is a bad word, something that reeks of colonialism and cultural superiority. While it is true that the history that has brought us to this place is full of terrible crimes and genocide, this is not because of these values. Quite the opposite: it has been the awareness of these historical injustices what has convinced us to adopt these values. They were won with the sacrifice of countless men and women. It would be a terrible loss if we lose the civilization that has been so difficult to build.
And yet, the loss of our democratic values is the most likely outcome of the climate crisis.
Our civilization is built, not just upon these shared values, but on the enormous collective wealth brought by science, technology and stable and effective political systems. If our means to produce food, build cities and provide education and medical care collapse because of unsurmountable environment catastrophes, our civilization will collapse to be replaced by the wars and tyrannies of the past.
Why consider the different types of catastrophes?
This may seem like a futile exercise. Bad stuff will happen and we need to prevent it, that’s all we need to know-you may say.
I think that we are past the point of debating whether anthropogenic climate change is happening - despite the many remaining stubborn skeptics. It is happening, no question.
What we need to decide is what are we going to do about it.
Let me point out a few things that definitely are not going to work:
Abandoning science and technology in search of a rural, agrarian utopia.
Wanting everybody to become vegan.
Recycling, limiting traffic speed, reducing travel, and other bromides that shift the burden from the government and corporations to the regular citizen. We need to do some of this, but it cannot be the bulk of the solution.
Criticizing Western civilization, or American culture, and other forms of self-flagellation.
Writing endless streams of articles explaining how the Earth is going to be destroyed, the environment is doomed, and humans are going extinct. As I said above, none of this is going to happen.
What we are facing, in all likelihood, is a Type 5 catastrophe - the destruction of Western civilization. In the worst-case scenario, we may face a Type 4 catastrophe that leads us back to tribal societies. However, I think it would take a full-blown nuclear war to get to that point.
If the problem we face is the destruction of Western civilization, we are not going to solve it by destroying Western civilization.
If we want to solve the climate crisis, we need to do some serious push back against people who are using it to further their private agendas.
Like anti-capitalists pining for a Marxist utopia that has nothing to do with protecting our atmosphere.
Or vegans and animal liberationists that want to convince us that all we need to do is to stop eating meat.
Or writers who have figured out that doomsday articles are a goldmine - the more pessimistic and guilt-inducing, the better.
The only way forward is science and technology. We are too far along this path to try to turn back. Without modern systems of food production and distribution, millions of people would starve in a matter of weeks. The world population is simply too large for any other system to work.
In fact, technology is already providing the means to de-carbonize. We can get enough energy for our needs from solar, wind, geothermal and other renewable resources. We can all switch to driving electric cars and, hopefully soon, flying in electric airplanes.
The coup de grâce would be nuclear fusion, a technology that looks enticingly close. If we can get such a large source of cheap energy, we could use it to capture CO2 out of the atmosphere and the oceans put it back underground.
We also need to reduce the global population. Luckily, this has proven easier that it looked in the last century. All it takes is to make contraception and abortion freely available to women, and to increase their freedom and standards of living. No Chinese-style, Draconian family control measures are necessary. And tell the people claiming that population decline is a crisis to shut up.
What is lacking is the political will to recognize the climate crisis once and for all, and start applying solutions. Conservatives are much to blame, of course, but also progressives that keep using climate change to further agendas like the ones I listed above, instead of trying to find common ground with rational people in the center and the right.
If we want conservatives to stop saying crazy things, we should stop saying crazy things ourselves.
Climate change is not going to destroy the Earth or drive humans to extinction.
So let’s stop the hyperbole and start a truly rational discussion.