Will climate change destroy humanity?
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
For the first time in human history, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 415 ppm. But what does that mean? Are we doomed to suffocate under a blanket of carbon, slowly cooking to death as the planet melts away beneath us? It’s not quite that bad, but it does not bode well for humanity.
“Remember intermittent fasting?”
The guy looks to be about my age, and was definitely heavier before all this. Now he’s gaunt and glassy eyed, but comes to life at the sound of my voice. His eyes beam and his saggy face cracks into a buck-toothed smile. “Yeah,” he half laughs.
“I used to follow a guy on YouTube who was all about it. He’d go a few days without food every week.”
The guy keeps smiling, but shakes his head. “Huh, if he could see us now. Champion fasters, huh? What, they used to say it would make you live longer, right?”
I nod my head, run the four fingers of my right hand through my dusty beard—a bad habit. “Long life, more energy, stronger. Like a miracle cure. If only he could see us now.”
He chuckles, a sound like sandpaper on desert-blasted timber. He lifts his head for an instant and the sun smashes down on his grimy face. I see gaps in his smile now, and lips red and cracked like over-grilled sausages. My stomach rumbles. “You think we’ll live longer, then?” he asks.
“God I hope not.” Grim humor is a gamble during times like these, but this guy seems like he’ll get it. He does, and cackles his old man cackle.
“This… this is no laughing matter…” A quavering voice from behind me. I turn to look for its source and see a skeletal young woman, eyes glowing like coals. “This is your fault.” The words fired like bullets at her worst enemies: the people who wrecked her planet. She’s right, of course, and it hurts to hear it.
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” I say. I was never one to shy away from an apology. And I never offer excuses, they just make things worse. “I shouldn’t have said it.”
Her eyes continue to glow, but cool a bit at my words. Just another hapless old man, what good would it do to put me out of my misery? Maybe more food for everyone else, but I certainly won’t give her that idea. She looks away, stares into the middle distance. I don’t blame her for being angry.
The line is a quarter mile of ragged humanity, dusty and parched and sunburned and frosted with ash. The forest fires have been raging for three weeks and the air is tangy and chalky all at once. Nobody is even sure how many rations the National Guard troops have up there, but there are no other options. Barely anything in the markets anymore, and no money to pay for any of it if there were. These grim young men in camo jumpsuits are our only hope. They flank us, keeping everyone in check with machine guns and dead eyes. I can see under their puffy clothes that they’re just as skinny as we are, but they’re younger and more well rested, and armed.
I turn back to the guy ahead of me. The woman’s words have sobered him, too. He has retreated to whatever faraway place he was before I cracked my bad joke. Humor has drained from this world, a world in the throws of the current and maybe last mass extinction. And this is the last bastion of hope, this smoldering rainforest at the edge of the northernmost land in the US. Portland used to be a soggy, dreary place. Now the weather swings from floods to searing heat, a relentless cycle that burns and cleanses, leaving a blackened moonscape. Thankfully it’s still cool enough to grow food in the Willamette, and north in the central plains of Washington. That’s why everybody came here, and why there’s nowhere for them to stay and nothing for them to eat.
Still, we’re lucky, really. Despite all the guns, nobody has formed militias, there are no death squads. Despite all the posturing and machismo and warmongering, America turned out to be… meek. Helpful, even. We opened our home to refugees from California, as did many other families in our little Portland neighborhood. We even gave them the cool basement and together we tended a tiny garden in the front yard. It still wasn’t enough, though. No amount of compassion can combat a cold capitalist system and we were kicked out when people with money came along. Money, somehow, in all this. Don’t know how they made it or how they kept it, but they had it. Took the house and tore it down to build a multistory, multifamily eco development. It happened to millions before us, but we never thought it’d happen to us. So it goes.
“Hang in there, man.” The guy in front of me is back from his faraway place. He must’ve noticed how lost I was in my sad reverie. His eyes are no longer cloudy, but piercing. “We can’t give up,” he says.
“Thanks. You, too.” I say. The line inches forward and we fall silent. It’s a good sign—they haven’t run out of rations yet.
For the first time in human history, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is 415 ppm. But what does that mean? Are we doomed to suffocate under a blanket of carbon, slowly cooking to death as the planet melts away beneath us? It’s not quite that bad, but it does not bode well for humanity.
I’ve been avoiding this subject for a while, as one avoids staring down the barrel of a loaded gun in the hands of a madman. Nothing is more depressing than thinking about the inevitable desertification of populous areas and the social upheaval that it’ll cause. But that could very well be our future and hiding from it won’t make it go away.
So let’s start with the basics. What is carbon dioxide and why does it make the planet hotter? Carbon dioxide is pretty easy to explain on a molecular level. It’s one carbon atom with two oxygen atoms attached. It’s a gas at room temperature and pressure, but turns to a solid if you cool it down to -78.5C (-109.3F) and is better known as dry ice. Carbon dioxide was actually the first gas to be described as its own substance. In 1640 the Flemish chemist Jan Baptist van Helmont saw that when he burned charcoal in a jar, the ash leftover weighed much less than the original charcoal. He presumed the leftover mass had been transmuted into an invisible substance he called “gas” or “wild spirit.”
It was the first time we know of that anyone identified a gas that simply wasn’t just “air.” This was long before anyone had any idea of atoms or compounds. It took another 100 years or so before anyone narrowed it down further. In the 1750s, Scottish physician Joseph Black found that when you heat or spill acid on calcium carbonate, it creates a gas he called “fixed air.”
About 20 years later, English chemist Joseph Priestley figured out how to use “fixed air” to make fizzy water. Chemist Humphry Davy and Michael Faraday were the first to liquify carbon dioxide under pressure in the 1820s. I really only include this bit because Faraday is better known for his study of electromagnetism and electrochemistry. Seems that guy was just good at all kinds of science.
Scientists noticed the warming effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere a few years later. In 1824 Joseph Fourier noticed that earth is much warmer than it should be given the amount of sunlight it receives. He proposed that the atmosphere acts like a blanket, insulating the planet and keeping it warm. In the 1840s, American scientist Eunice Newton Foote conducted a series of experiments using glass jars and thermometers to measure the insulating properties of various gasses. She tested air, pure carbon dioxide, and hydrogen. She was the first scientist to recognize what is now called the greenhouse effect.
When sunlight strikes the earth, it heats it up. The earth radiates that heat in the form of infrared radiation toward space. Gasses in the atmosphere absorb that infrared radiation and re-radiate it in every direction. Carbon dioxide is especially good at doing this, as Eunice Newton Foote figured out in her experiments. She speculated that more carbon dioxide would provide more insulation, and thus cause temperatures to rise.
The term “greenhouse effect” is kind of a misnomer, as actual greenhouses stay warm due to convection, which is a different mechanism.
But during the next 180 or so years, scientists confirmed Foot’s findings. Carbon dioxide is an insulating greenhouse gas. Not only did they prove it in small experiments, but they confirmed its effect on the environment using ice core data. Mountain glaciers are great for recording climate information over time. They’re relatively stable, and they trap a lot of information about the climate.
First, they trap tiny bubbles of air. It’s relatively easy to release that air to see how much carbon dioxide or other gasses it contains. Ice also traps various isotopes of oxygen and hydrogen. These different isotopes form at different temperatures, giving scientists an accurate picture of global temperatures. Finally, radioisotope dating techniques can tell you when the ice was formed. Put all that data together, and you get a picture of global atmospheric conditions and temperatures over time.
We can figure out if ice core data is accurate by comparing it to direct measurements. Ice forms every year, including the years we’ve directly measured temperature and carbon dioxide concenration. We can also get ice core data from glaciers across the globe. All the data checks out and we have an accurate picture of the earth’s climate over the last 70,000 years.
And we see the correlation between carbon dioxide and temperature. The more there is, the hotter it gets. We see it before, during, and after the last ice age.
Earlier this month, global carbon dioxide concentrations hit 415 ppm, which is higher than at any other time during human history. In fact, carbon dioxide levels haven’t been this high in 2.6 million years.
For about 12,000 years before the Industrial Revolution, carbon dioxide levels were at around 280 ppm and the earth enjoyed a rather mild climate. Then we started pulling tons of carbon out of deep storage. Initially it was coal, which provided the tremendous amounts of energy needed to industrialize England. Oil and natural gas quickly followed, delivering even more energy. Fossil fuels supercharged world industrialization. Trouble is, much of the carbon that was sunk deep within the earth was released into the atmosphere.
It’s true that plants and algae absorb some of that carbon and use it to grow. In fact, about 57 percent of all the carbon humans release is reabsorbed by plants. But before the Industrial Revolution, plants absorbed all the carbon dioxide that was released from decaying plants and volcanoes. The system was in balance and carbon dioxide levels remained around 280 ppm.
Today we’ve overwhelmed the planet’s ability to reabsorb the carbon in the air, and CO2 levels are rising at an alarming rate. At 415 ppm, they’re the highest we’ve ever seen.
But not higher than predicted. In the 70s and 80s scientists predicted levels would reach 415 ppm this year based on the data they had. In fact, scientists at Exxon-Mobil, the world’s largest private fossil fuel producer, predicted it back in 1982. Their secret report was revealed in 2015 and showed a predicted rise in CO2 levels that matched almost perfectly with reality. It seems that the fossil fuel industry knew almost 40 years ago that carbon levels would get this high. They also predicted the corresponding global temperature rise of 1 degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels. The Exxon report predicts a 3-degree Celsius rise within the next 30 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has made the same prediction. Both are considered pretty conservative and don’t include other factors that could make things get even hotter.
But even 3 degrees of warming is something to be alarmed about. Yes, the earth has been that warm before, but it hasn’t ever warmed up this quickly. About 2.6 million years ago the planet was about 3 to 4-degrees warmer than it is today. Beech trees grew 300 miles from the South Pole and there was little or no ice at the North Pole. Sea levels were between 15 and 20 meters higher than they are now. Go back in time even further and the planet was even hotter. Much hotter. During the early Paleogene about 50 million years ago, temperatures at mid latitudes were about 10-15 degrees hotter. Same with the Triassic period around 200 million years ago. Back then CO2 levels hovered around 1750 ppm and much of the world was a desert. There were no ice caps and forest covered Antarctica, which was part of a giant supercontinent called Pangea. Oh, and there were dinosaurs all over the place.
All of these climate changes took place over the course of thousands or tens of thousands of years, not hundreds. To recap, CO2 levels have doubled in the last 200 years alone. We are in uncharted territory and the last time CO2 levels changed anywhere near this rapidly, everything died.
About 252 million years ago, 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of species on land died off. We call it the Permian-Triassic extinction event and it is the worst on record, even worse than the asteroid impact that killed off the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago. Nobody knows exactly what happened during the Permian-Triassic extinction event, but there are theories. The evidence points to a rapid rise in CO2 levels that triggered massive ocean acidification. This could’ve been caused by a meteor or comet impact, or by a series of supervolcano eruptions. Either way, it was really bad.
CO2 dissolves in water faster than it does in air. When it does, it reacts to form carbonic acid. The ocean is slightly basic to begin with, so the additional acid pushes it toward more pH-neutral conditions. Still, this shift is deadly for most marine life, which is used is to ocean waters the way they are. When the pH balance tips toward acidic, it gets difficult to form solid calcium carbonate, which gives structure to billions of organisms. Plankton and coral are made of the stuff and both support huge food webs in the ocean. When plankton and coral die, crabs, shrimp, and small fish starve. Big fish run out of small fish to eat and they starve, too. It’s a bit oversimplified, but that’s how it works. When the oceans get more acidic, huge dead zones form.
More CO2 in the water also means less oxygen. Marine biologists Peter Brewer and Edward Peltzer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute have been studying ocean oxygen and CO2 levels for more than a decade. They found that as CO2 levels increase, oxygen levels decline. It can get so bad that fish can’t pull any oxygen out of the water and they drown. Brewer and Pletzer have found large zones of suffocating, oxygen-low water deep under the surface. It’s likely that during the Permian-Triassic extinction event much of the ocean not only became more acidic, but also suffocating.
There’s also evidence that oxygen levels in the atmosphere plummeted. Paleontologists have found lots of green sulfur bacteria, which thrives in oxygen-low environments, around this time. Some theorize that this bacteria, or similar bacteria, could be responsible for the rise in CO2 in the first place.
The bacteria apparently acquired a new metabolic pathway around that time and went berserk. This new pathway gave them the ability to turn acetate into methane, letting them gobble up tons of organic material on the seafloor. Then they released tons and tons of methane and CO2 into the atmosphere. This all happened millions of years ago and it’s nearly impossible to know if this was responsible for the initial release of CO2, or in response to it. Either way, it seems that for a brief moment 252 million years ago, green goopy bacteria ruled over a wasteland of death. I can’t really imagine what the planet looked like in the aftermath of such an apocalyptic event, but I imagine it was a lot like the Salton Sea is today.
The Salton Sea is a shallow salt lake in the middle of an arid wasteland about 120 miles northeast of San Diego. It formed after the Colorado river flooded in 1905. Water sleuced into a low-lying and ancient salt flat, spreading out over about 350 square miles. It took a small community and a significant portion of a Native American reservation with it. But the deluge nourished a thriving community based on tourism. People flocked to the Sea to float its salty waters and bask in the searing sunlight. They stocked the lake with fish, surrounded it with vacation rentals, and raked in the cash. Unfortunately, the Salton Sea has no outlet and sits on a huge deposit of salt. As the years passed and the water evaporated, the Sea got saltier and saltier until barely anything could survive in it. (Today it’s at about 60 grams of salt per liter, which is close to double the salt that’s in the ocean.) Runoff from nearby irrigated croplands filled it with fertilizer and weed killer. Within 50 years the Sea was toxic. Today it’s a stinking pool of death. The water is the color of dried blood and the beaches are white with fish bones and barnacle shells. Flies swarm the shores, feasting on the red algae and rotting flesh. The stench is unbelievable, rotting fish and stinging salt tinged with the earthy and tangy chemical smell of weed ‘n feed.
The Sea is surrounded with abandoned buildings and single-wide trailers—the once prosperous vacation villages now ghost towns. A few homes remain occupied, but even those are on the verge of being forsaken. Their residents are subject to the unbearable stench and frequent dust storms. The nearby croplands are drying up, leaving a fine poisoned powder that rolls across the lake on windy days. And there are a lot of windy days. The air quality in the valley is so bad that whole communities have come down with asthma and other respiratory ailments in the past 10 to 15 years.
In short, the Salton Sea is hell on earth. I imagine the entire world was like that after the Permian-Triassic extinction event, only worse.
At 3 degrees of warming, the world won’t completely dry up into a desolate hellscape like the Salton Sea or the post Permian-Triassic world, but at 6 to 8 it will. And that’s what many scientists think we’re going to see. Because the IPCC’s prediction of 3 degrees warming doesn’t take into account a huge source of carbon—permafrost.
For the past few million years, cool temperatures near the North Pole have locked nearly 1.8 trillion tons of carbon into permafrost—frozen mud. Now that things are heating up, that mud is melting and bacteria are starting to break down all the dead plant matter in that mud. That bacteria is similar to the bacteria that thrived around the Permian-Triassic event. As it munches on debris, it releases carbon in the form of methane. Giant bubbles of methane gas have already exploded out of the permafrost in parts of Siberia, hurling rocks hundreds of meters and leaving huge sinkholes. Nobody knows how much, but the sinkholes are meters across.
This is really bad. Methane is about 30 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than CO2. If all the carbon that’s trapped in permafrost were to escape, the amount of carbon in our atmosphere would double. Again, last time levels were that high, most of the world was a desert.
All this points to runaway heating. Extra CO2 and methane in the atmosphere heats up the poles, which melts the ice and permafrost, which releases more CO2 and methane. Plus, there isn’t that bright-white snow to reflect the sunlight’s energy back into space, which makes things warm up even more. Heat also triggers droughts, which lead to forest fires, which puts more carbon into the air. All that carbon makes the oceans more acidic, which poisons a lot of the algae that normally absorb carbon. Put it all together and we are likely looking at a 6 to 8 degree rise in global temperatures by the end of the century. Those numbers are accepted by the IPCC and nearly every climate scientist in the world. Oh, and the US military.
In 2018 the US Department of Defence announced that climate change directly threatens key military bases across the states. Many naval bases could be flooded by rising sea levels and desert military bases could dry up and crumble to dust. The same report also stated that climate change will provoke wars across the globe, and that the US military is busy formulating strategies to keep us safe.
You might think that 3 degrees of warming isn’t a big deal. Yeah, so summer will get hotter. People will have to finally move out of Phoenix. Miami will lose its beach-front property. But the damage caused by 6 to 8 degrees of global warming will be apocalyptic.
First, there’s the erratic and fierce weather. More heat in the atmosphere means more energy for storms. Typhoons, hurricanes, floods, tornados all intensify. We’ve already seen several “100-year” storms and floods in the past decade alone. Climate scientists have linked Hurricane Harvey, the 2017 US winter heat wave, the 2016 Louisiana floods, and Hurricane Sandy to global warming.
These storms cause a tremendous amount of damage, both physical and economic. They can displace millions, who crowd into nearby towns and cities. Most climate scientists expect the frequency and severity of these devastating storms to increase. Imagine flooding yearly, or severe hurricanes every few years. The cumulative damage could render parts of the country too risky for civilized life.
Then there’s the droughts. As weather patterns shift, vast areas that used to enjoy steady rainfall will dry up. In fact, it’s already happened. The 2006 to 2011 drought in Syria has been tied to climate change. It was the worst the region has seen in 900 years. About 75 percent of the country’s farms failed and 85 percent of it livestock died. More than 1.5 million people migrated from dessicated farmlands to cities. Of course the drought isn’t solely responsible for the devastating civil war that followed, but it certainly didn’t help the situation.
Droughts like the one that baked Syria could render large swaths of current croplands barren. Climate scientists agree that if we don’t do anything, most current cropland in the world will be gone by 2080. Southern Europe will dry up. Iraq, Syria, and the Middle East will be dessicated. Large, currently fertile swaths of Africa will turn to desert. Same in South America. China’s breadbasket won’t produce anymore bread. Here, in the US, the midwest will return to its Dust Bowl state, only worse. In fact, a 2015 NASA study predicted midwest droughts worse than any in a thousand years.
In the Pacific Northwest, where I live, droughts could turn the forests into kindling. Forest fires are already a problem—a few years ago a fire raged through the Columbia Gorge for three months, burning 50,000 acres of woods. It rained ash in Portland and the air was unsafe to breathe. That fire was lit by a kid playing with fireworks, but dry forests catch fire quickly and lots of things can set them off.
But forest fires here are nothing compared to the forest fires that could sweep through the Amazon. Imagine millions of acres of rainforest burning to the ground, releasing even more carbon into the atmosphere.
All these extreme weather events, droughts, and heat waves will make many major population centers uninhabitable. New York’s climate could become more like Bahrain, a sweltering desert. If you think summers in New York are awful now, just imagine them four degrees hotter. They will be positively deadly.
And California, where I grew up? Los Angeles was already almost a desert, and it will continue to dry out. The San Francisco Bay Area, once a heaven-on-earth with breezy temperatures and cool summer days, will be sweltering. Today, in San Francisco, on June 11, 2019, it’s 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celcius). It’s never 100 degrees in San Francisco. Yesterday it was a record-shattering 97 degrees. The previous record of 88 was in 1985. The average high for that date over the last 100-plus years is 66 degrees.
Today, where I am in Portland, OR, temperatures will soar to 97. Temperatures like this are unheard of in early June. Portland really only experienced this kind of heat a few times a year, and later in the summer. Now it’s common.
When it gets into the 100s, it becomes nearly impossible to do anything outside. Heat stroke becomes a real problem. During the European heat wave of 2003, as many as 2,000 people died every day. If the planet warms by 4 degrees, that heat wave will be a normal summer in Europe. And places like Bangkok, where it’s normally close to 100 degrees with 90 percent humidity in the summer, will be apocalyptically deadly. In fact, being outdoors during the summer will be unhealthy across much of the globe.
The situation on land will be awful, but in the water it could be even worse. Remember the ocean acidification and de-oxygenation we talked about during the Permian-Triassic extinction? That’s happening today, and with more carbon and hotter temperatures it’ll happen again. Between 1751 and 1996, surface pH dropped from 8.25 to 8.14, which doesn’t seem like much, but is significant when you’re measuring pH. Basic system models have shown that if pH levels continue to drop at the same rate, a lot of ocean life could start collapsing before the year 2100. This while we continue to overfish and dump garbage into the sea.
And remember, these are all projections from the IPCC, the US Department of Defence, and even Exxon-Mobil.
The year 2100 is just 80 years away, which is within the lifetime of my possible future grandchildren. Hell, if I can give up booze and cut my calorie intake in half I might just make it that long. But at 122 I may not have enough brains left to comprehend it all. I barely do now.
All of what I have described so far is terrible, but it could be nothing compared to the social unrest triggered by climate change. Some say the Syrian civil war was in part fueled by the long drought and rising temperatures in the area. That conflict has killed as many as 500,000 to date and displaced almost 8 million. Syrian refugees have fled the region to seek shelter across Europe. They haven’t exactly been welcomed with open arms. The refugee crisis has been used by political parties to stoke fear and fuel divisive nationalism. And, of course, refugees put an economic strain on the communities they settle in, at least until they can get settled and start contributing.
Imagine climate refugees in the billions. What kind of social upheaval might that cause? Or war?
I’ll let your imagination and nightmares run wild, because I think I’ve done enough.
So what can we do about all this? Is there anyway to cool things off? Short answer: yep. Long answer: maybe.
Many scientists are betting on carbon capture technologies. These giant vacuums would suck carbon and methane out of the atmosphere, shoving it into underground storage tanks. They could, over time, get CO2 and methane levels back to pre-industrial levels. Of course if the permafrost belches another few trillion tons of methane into the air, no amount of giant vacuums would be enough.
There are also crazy plans to seed the skies with reflective dust clouds that would cut down on the amount of sunlight that hits the earth. That dust would cause more acid rain, but you gotta choose your battles.
There are even plans to build a giant sunshade to stick between the sun and the earth. Of course it would need to be many times larger than any structure ever build by humans, and made of a heretofore unknown material… but it could work in principal.
Then, of course, there’s carbon-free energy. We’re talking solar, wind, wave, geothermal, and nuclear. Switching to these forms of energy is a logical first step. It’ll take significant effort and a complete reimagining of how we live, but it can be done. It will be a difficult project, fraught with setbacks, strife, and complications. But it can be done.
In the next episode I’ll be chatting with former guest John McCone about transitioning our world to solar power. John has spent a lot of time researching how it could be done, and what the new solar world could look like.
This was a difficult one and it would be easy for me to plunge into a deep dark hole of existential dread. But I remain optimistic.
One: death comes for us all, and there’s nothing we can do about it. At least with global warming we can formulate a plan and work to make things better.
Two: humans are nothing if not adaptable. We have a huge toolbox full of tech that could rescue us. Whether it’s renewable energy, fusion reactors, thorium reactors, geoengineering, bioengineering, or something else, we can fix it.
Three: now I have something to really concentrate on. This is a huge problem and we’ll need all hands on deck to even begin to solve it. I’ll do what I can—mainly reporting on climate change and whipping up fantastical sci-fi scenarios to inspire others to take action. And I’ll keep encouraging my kiddo to study math, science, and engineering. He’s much better at it than I ever was and he has a real chance of making a difference in the world. Of course he wants to be a YouTuber when he grows up, so that’ll be an uphill battle. But that’s how it goes.
That’s it for this episode. If it didn’t scare you enough, head over to NY Mag and read David Wallace Wells’ article The Uninhabitable Earth. It’s masterfully written and utterly terrifying. Link in the show notes.
You can learn more about me at my website, Dustindriver.com. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or through the Google Play store. It’s also on Podbean.
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Thanks for listening, and as always, stay mental.