In the wake of several extreme weather events around the world during the past decade, the public finally woke to the prospect of a dark future from climate change. The more alarmed have taken to calling the situation a climate “crisis” or “emergency.”
The likelihood of ameliorative measures in the future may be gauged by looking at missed opportunities in the past.
In the mid-1920s, lead was added to gasoline to prevent engine knock. This adoption came after scientific outcry about the dangers of lead which had been known since antiquity. Only in the early 2000s was the deadly additive phased out in most industrialized countries.
Environmental legislation in the modern era began in Britain in the mid-19th century. Air pollution laws were passed in nations around the world only after smog had taken terrible tolls. You can hardly tell. Globally, major cities everywhere suffer horrendous pollution when the air is stagnant.
Tokyo’s air is so polluted that the city would self-extinguish if ocean winds did not regularly sweep the air away. This level of deadly pollution has been a chronic condition since the 1960s.
Water quality isn’t any better. Fresh water is a precious resource, but you can’t tell that by how governments around the world fail to conserve potable water.
The pollution of water and air in China and India are so bad that it is a health hazard to even visit those countries. Developing countries which are industrializing are doing their damndest to catch up in decimating their environments.
Toxic chemicals from industrial waste dumped into waterways and let loose in the air is standard practice worldwide. The most determined application of toxicity has been in agricultural biocides: pesticides to rid farms of pesky insects and herbicides to rid farms of pesky weeds. Indiscriminate use of pesticides has been instrumental in reducing world insect populations by up to 80% in the last few decades. Many insect pollinators face impending extinction. Yet biocide use continues unabated.
In 2016, under the auspices of the United Nations, 187 nations committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to specific targets. In the easiest years, only 2 emission-insignificant countries – Gambia and Morocco – met their pledges. The world greatest polluter – the United States – did not even pretend to play along.
The follow-on 2019 UN convention to address global warming broke up with unceremonious finger-pointing. This owed to the major polluters clinging to “business as usual.”
Capitalism is the exploitative economic regime which has run the world since the 15th century, when the Age of Discovery morphed into the Age of Imperialism. Industrialization radically ratcheted up environmental destruction by dint of machines powered by fossil fuels.
Modern capitalism has begat socioeconomic stratification and levels of pollution from the technologies which were profitable and tolerated by government permit. Governmental license to pollute has been generous indeed.
Despite cyclical economic cycles which indicated that capitalism itself was an ill-functioning machine, societies rigidified to the jarring grind. The societal companion to 20th-century capitalism was institutionalization, was anchored societies in ways which aimed to preserve the status quo.
The institutionalization of modern societies has been instrumental in instilling a conservatism which resists radical overhaul. Oddly, those with the least to lose and most to gain from revolution are more often than not staunch defenders of the status quo, out of fear of change and mistrust of radicals who talk over their heads.
Those haranguing for radical action are an informed elite. Most people are more concerned about their finances and creature comforts – living their lives like tomorrow is going to be like yesterday. The climate may be changing, but the thought of self-extinction is too horrible to contemplate.
“We will survive,” is a common refrain when confronted with the unthinkable. Abetting this false belief is faith in technology. The promotion of “clean” energy technologies, which simply do not exist except as bogus branding, engenders the dangerous fantasy that revival is merely a product of will, and that time remains to turn back the clock.
In the southern hemisphere summer of 2019–2020, Australia was savaged by wildfires. Scientists had warned over a decade earlier of this likelihood. The government was nonresponsive. The current government went so far as to deny that climate change had anything to do with the continent-spanning conflagration.
Australia is merely a blazing example. The Brazilian government is recklessly egging on the deforestation of the Amazon so that ranchers can raise cattle.
America fracks away while floods and storms wreak havoc on agricultural output and fires seasonally rage on the west coast in emulation of Australian immolation. The national government response has been to subsidize farmers, loosen environmental regulations, and berate California for not trimming its forest underbrush.
The US essentially abandoned environmental protection under President Trump. This is only a culmination of studious neglect by administrations regardless of political party.
Governments worldwide have done next to nothing to alter the dynamics of their economies to mitigate the practices and pollutants which have propelled mass extinction and global warming. Indeed, no pressing issue has been as ignored by the leaders of industrialized nations as climate change.
Despite global warming being largely the result of emissions from burning fossil fuels, at the end of the 2nd decade of the 21st century, governments around the world were subsidizing fossil fuel corporations by over $100 billion a year. In politics, money doesn’t just rule the roost; it vacuums up more money.
Despite growing concerns about global warming, carbon emissions continue to climb; a rise which is likely to decline significantly only with an economic depression. For it is economics, not public sentiment, which determines pollution output.
In the 2nd decade of the 21st century, the world enjoyed a sanguine economic environment. Given the cyclical nature of capitalist economics, a downturn is overdue. A slowdown in economic activity already started during 2019 in Europe and some other countries, including China.
The next recession is going to be hard to recover from. Consumer spending has historically been 2/3rds of the driving force behind economic growth. But not this past decade. A prolonged artificial stimulus benefited corporations and the upper crust, fueling a financial recovery more than one on main street.
Consumers are unlikely to spark the economy after the next downturn, especially with a shortage of well-paying jobs, a decimated retail shopping sector, and workers increasingly replaced by robots who eat only electricity.
Sovereign debt soared in America despite economic vitality. Almost all other countries around the world also dug deeper in debt in the past decade. Low interest rates allowed historic levels of sovereign debt.
Will investors be willing to pony up at low interest rates for government outlays to reanimate the economy? If not, recovery becomes impossible. Having to raise interest rates to entice investors would be a self-defeating tactic for economic revival.
There is a wild card in the deck of economics which has never been there before at a global scale: a rapidly degrading natural environment. This deterioration will doubtlessly dent economies while taking an increasing toll of lives.
Capitalism has always been a confidence game. Why invest in the future when the end of the world looms? Why not instead prepare by privately hoarding resources?
A prolonged global recession will strain the social fabric much as the Great Depression 90 years earlier. This raises the prospect of revolution, and for war. Conflict is a timeworn way for leaders to distract their people from governmental failure. War is also an excellent way to ramp pollution.
This past decade, immigration has been a flash point issue for many governments. Even supposedly liberal democracies, including the US and those in Europe, have spurned accepting immigrants. Concentration camps of refugees now dot the world near war zones and countries suffering catastrophic climate calamity. The death toll from the inhumanity of men will increase exponentially in the decades to come. This is an easy prediction, as governments will be overwhelmed mismanaging the suffering of their own citizens.
Sea level rise will increasingly evict people in the low-lying coastal areas – home now to roughly 10% of the world population. This displacement will exacerbate the refugee problem. As with other climate calamities, the number of people moved by coastal flooding will rise, with millions affected by mid-century.
Absent economically inspired wars, an extended downturn lessens the pollution driven by economic growth. For this reason, man-made greenhouse gas emissions will peak by 2030.
The time lag between greenhouse gas emission and climate effect has been estimated to average 40 years. This owes to the oceans absorbing over 90% of the carbon and its thermal effect before the atmosphere catches up. Once in the atmosphere, the hothouse effect of CO2 lasts at least a century.
Methane (CH4) lingers in the air for 12-15 years but is 84 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Methane emissions have been rising precipitously this century from fossil fuel extraction and other technological endeavors.
The ballyhooed offloading of carbon emissions from so-called “clean” technologies is unlikely to be climatically significant until it is too late to make any difference to humanity’s fate.
Even if man-made emissions abate, Nature is just warming up to taking its revenge. Along with the ongoing death of forests from wildfires and global warming generally, melting permafrost will release tremendous volumes of greenhouse gases, most potently methane in prodigious quantities. These feedback effects are already underway and will only accelerate.
Unnatural forces which are rocketing Earth into hothouse have been unleashed. Any amendment to pollution emissions levels is like trying to put an evil genie back into the bottle – the dynamic has been uncorked and won’t let up for a century at the soonest.
The rapidity and severity of climate change depends upon the degree Earth warms in response to increases in greenhouse gases; a concept climatologists refer to as “climate sensitivity.” The refinement of climate models has been a process of refactoring hitherto underappreciated factors and better understanding feedback effects, such as how cloud cover will change as the atmosphere warms. The most recent models are finding that climate sensitivity is significantly higher than previously thought.
Global warming is a nonlinear dynamic. The oceans and air are hotting up faster. Humanity’s self-created march to doom is picking up pace.
Crop yields are already being affected. The contrary effects of floods in some regions and droughts in others are taking an increasing toll on food production. This trend will only worsen. The immediate impact will be higher food prices for richer countries and increasing starvation for poor ones.
The bounty of the sea will soon be spent. Governments still subsidize overfishing, which has been going since the mid-20th century. Along with increasing marine dead zones, plastic pollution, and the worldwide demise of coral reefs from hot seas on continental shelfs, a primary source for food for 1 billion people will disappear in the early 2030s if not by the end of this decade.
Global air surface temperature will be 2 ◦C above that of 1840 by 2040. For hot spots around the world, including the Arctic, the Middle East, and portions of Africa, that temperature will be 12 ◦C, not 2. This considerable discrepancy between global average and hot spots is already apparent and will only get worse as regional dynamics become more pronounced.
There will be no technological fix. Industrialized technology put humanity into the frying pan but cannot pull us out. Carbon capture on any appreciable scale is a science fiction fantasy. You certainly can’t bring back to life all those all those decimated ecosystems and creatures inadvertently killed for the unsustainable luxury of modern conveniences.
Millions of people will be dying each year in the 2030s in the wake of climate change. By 2050 the toll will be 10s of millions annually. The death rate will rise into the 100s of millions in the 2060s.
Depopulation of the hardest hit biomes will be pronounced. Australia, large swaths of Africa, most of the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and China will suffer tremendous death tolls.
The underclasses will, of course, be the first to die off in large numbers. Mortality has always been foremost a matter of lifestyle, and nothing determines lifestyle more than financial resources. In the coming apocalypse, money buys survival.
Another factor driving the die-off will be shortages of clean water. Large parts of India and northern China are already parched. Pollution has rendered most of water supply nonpotable. Driven by desperation, water and food shortages are likely sparks for regional conflicts during this decade, with larger war potential only growing in the coming decades.
By 2060, the average global air surface temperature will be approaching 3 ◦C if not already past it, on the way to 5 ◦C or more when the 22nd century arrives.
Civilization is a thin veneer. Economic globalization has been spelled economic interdependence – an underappreciated codependency that will accelerate our demise.
The first products to disappear, after becoming outrageously expensive, will be high-tech gadgets. These products rely upon raw materials and assembly from and in multiple countries before being shipped to consumers.
The most remarkable economic facet of the 21st century so far has been low inflation in much of the developed world; an anomaly which won’t last. As countries catch on to looming self-extinction, the very idea of “free” trade is bound to become a byword of an earlier era. Anticipating that scarcity is becoming the new normal will guarantee inflation. As with all else, the poor will suffer first and worst.
World civilization as we now think of it will collapse in the 2070s if not before. By this time, the societal stresses from failing to cope with all the self-created problems will have furnished the kindling for numerous political revolutions. Rioting and warlordism will have by then become common global phenomena.
Living is hard and dying is easy. At best only a few million people will live to see the year 2100. The likely scenario is that humanity will have exhausted its brief self-destructive exhibition by the dawn of the 22nd century. The environmental aftermath will continue for many thousands of years: which, in geological time, is less than the blink of an eye.
The Anthropocene mass extinction event is likely to be comparatively severe and short-lived. Its propagator will have only been on the planet for less than 400,000 years; and less than 300 years since industrialization – quite a powerful punch for a self-defeating species having postured itself as the master of all it surveys.
Is there anything that could stave off self-extinction? Yes, but doing so is exceedingly unlikely. The effort would require a level of cooperation and sharing on a societal scale that has been seen only in caring families. The selfish mass mind-set imbued by capitalism works against remedy.
More practically, the plutocracy of the modern world must be broken for humanity to have any chance of survival. Such a Herculean attempt would necessitate political and economic revolutions which can be imagined but not realistically foreseen.
The final stand will come as “survival” cities spring up. Whereas rationally centers of sustainability would be a government project taking the better part of a century, the greater likelihood is that ad hoc fortresses of hoarded supplies and the means to go on living while the world at large dies will be bought by billionaires.
The failure of humanity has been not bothering to compassionately respect others or Nature itself. Humanity’s fate is a foreseeable consequence of how we collectively chose to live, which has included an unhelpful heaping of denial.