In my previous post I explained that catastrophic climate change was now unstoppable and that as a consequence the collapse of human civilisation inevitable. The question then arises how long have we got left. Less time than you think. A lot less.
This lot think there could be 10 degrees of warming beyond preindustrial levels by 2026. While this guy believes there won’t be a human left on earth by the same date. Even 10 years ago using the relatively conservative model predictions from the IPCC Gwynn Dyer in his book Climate Wars was suggesting that there could be civilisation challenging food crises by 2040-2050.
Now it seems that that time line will be even shorter. A recent study indicated that based purely on projections of population increases and changes in diet (people eating more meat) that by 2027 the world won’t be able to produce enough food to feed itself. And by 2050 with the population projected to reach 9 billion the world would need to increase food production by 70 – 100% in order to feed everybody. That just isn’t going to happen.
And that doesn’t take into account climate change or any other environmental factors. We are currently on track for a warming of up to 6 degrees by 2100 and there is a less than 5% chance we will keep warming below the 2C target. Most scientists accept that human civilisation will no longer be sustainable at temperatures above 4C. Drought and heatwaves will cripple agricultural production in too many places leading to mass migration, wars and collapse. Some projections have suggested we could have warming of 4C as soon as 2060 and it is virtually impossible to envision our current way of life lasting into the next century.
Of course climate change isn’t the only environmental challenges we currently face. The Stockholm Resilience Centre has identified 9 planetary boundaries of environmental processes and systems which we are dependent on for our survival and which are being threatened by human activities. Four of those have already been breached and others are perilously close.
There have been 5 mass extinctions in the earth’s history. Some scientist assert that the 6 extinction event is now underway, with the extinction rate due to human activities at least a thousand times greater than the background rate. These aren’t just cuddly cute creatures but the plants and animals that we depend on for the air we breathe, water we drink and soils we grow our food in. Deteriorations in biodiversity will threaten their ability to continue doing so. Loss of habitat also contributes to natural disasters such as droughts, floods and landslides and can assist in the spread of diseases such as Ebola.
Two of the other immediate threats to our continued existence are soil loss and water shortage. A recent UN study predicts that by 2050 more than half the population could struggle to obtain water for at least one month a year. Meanwhile a third of the world’s agricultural land is already acutely degraded with 24bn tonnes of soil being lost every year. The UN has warned that their could be as few as 60 harvests left before the worlds soils reach their limit of agricultural productivity.
A perfect storm is building. As climate change combines with the other ravages we are perpetrating on the natural world I find it very difficult to conceive of a scenario where human civilisation will survive into the next century. Many believe that humanity itself will soon follow it into the dustbin of history. Indeed given that many of the countries which will be worst affected by the unfolding disaster, Pakistan, India, China and even the USA all have huge armies and loads of nukes it’s not hard to imagine a situation where human extinction is a distinct possibility. However for the vast majority of us whether we all die or a small band of hardy souls hang grimly on is going to be a purely academic. The odds of surviving are pretty small. In any case surviving on a decimated desolate planet is going to be so deeply unpleasant that you’d be better off dead.
All that assumes that climate change will continue in a linear fashion getting progressively worse over decades. It is looking extremely likely that it won’t. In the past there have been very rapid changes in the earth’s temperature. As much as 5-7C in as little as two to three years. There is no reason to think that very rapid warming couldn’t happen now. We are now releasing carbon into the atmosphere at 10 times the rate of the most rapid release in at least the last 66 million years. Numerous climate tipping points are at the point of being triggered if they haven’t already. Potentially the most serious of which are the millions of tonnes of carbon frozen in the seas in the form of methane hydrates. As the ice has melted and seas warmed these have already started bubbling up into the atmosphere. It seems that we are a matter of months away from an ice free arctic (in the summer). This has the potential to initiate a qualitative change in the rate of climate change unleashing a series of self reinforcing feedbacks which precipitate a burst of climate change. This burst would likely destroy most of life on earth including us.
So how long do we have? Of course many have tried to predict the future and failed miserably. However I would be very surprised if human civilisation lasted beyond the 2040s and it could go much sooner. It seems likely that an ice free Arctic could provide the trigger. That could happen as soon as the next few year and is very likely to happen sometime during the 2030s. In any case you could argue that rapid climate change has already begun. Fully 25% of the increase in global temperatures which has happened since 1850 occurred in the 3 years from 2014 to 2016. The number of climate related natural disasters has also increased threefold since 1980 and greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere at record rates.
Whilst the exact end date of human civilisation is up for debate it is becoming increasingly clear that life on earth is going to quickly become far more unpleasant. Many of the things many people (at least those who are able to access this article) take for granted are going to become increasingly less available, such as water, cheap food and international travel. Famines will unleash floods of refugees, states will fail and wars spread around the globe. Food shocks will likely cause the world economy to collapse.
As hard as it may be to imagine with Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen stalking our nightmares this is probably as good as it’s going to get for the next million years or so. So better to join me in making the most of what little time we have left and live your life to the fullest. Fill your existence with love, follow your dreams, change the things that you’ve been meaning to change and make the most of now.