Our climate is changing rapidly, whether you like it or not. Unfortunately, denial seems to be one approach many are taking to deal with this reality. Apathy and nihilism are two other popular options. Then there’s acceptance, which comes with far more responsibility and agency. Acceptance may be the hardest attitude to adopt, but it is definitely the most necessary one.
Earlier this month, New York Magazine’s deputy editor David Wallace-Wells shared some mournful misgivings about this very subject in his article, “The Uninhabitable Earth.” He pulled no punches, predicting large-scale doom and gloom at the end of this century. The story, which relied heavily on interviews with members of the scientific community, quickly met with strong reaction.
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“Based on my research on climate communications, this article is exactly what we don’t need,” Per Espen Stoknes, a Norwegian psychologist and author of What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, told DeSmog Canada. Instead of fear-mongering, Stoknes argued, we should be “calling attention to the urgent need for a deep rethink of where we are and letting go of some cherished Western notions that we’ve been stuck in over the last century.”
For Joe Romm, responding to the piece on Resilience.org, the issue comes down to confronting denial. “We need to be talking a lot more about climate change in general,” he wrote, “and why this country in particular has embraced policies and politicians that — if they continue to prevail — will destroy America and modern civilization as we have come to know it.”
In his article, Wallace-Wells argues that because of climate denialism, scientists have grown weary of speculation. As a result, Wallace-Wells takes it upon himself to describe the most frightful of future catastrophes that are uncertain at best, and almost assured at worst.
“If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise,” he writes, “you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today.”
And so, in the spirit of acceptance, below are nine of Wallace-Wells’ most disturbing predictions about our (very possible) near-future.
1. Permafrost melt: Permafrost may soon need to change its name. That’s because the frozen Arctic soil is starting to thaw, which will invite a whole host of problems. Specifically, explains Wallace-Wells, the release of “1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere.” In turn that carbon could evaporate as methane, a gas that multiples the earth’s “warming power 86 times over.”
2. Extreme heat: Increased temperature is the climate change consequence we’re most familiar with. Wallace-Wells reminds us that it may be even worse than we thought. Global temperature could extend beyond more conservative estimates, reaching closer to eight degrees when taking into account a number of elements not usually factored into calculating this number. “Air-conditioning can help,” says Wallace-Wells, “but will ultimately only add to the carbon problem.”
3. End of food: Another serious implication of increased temperatures is the effect it could have on the world’s food crops. For one, the author writes, “if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them.” That’s not to mention the provision of protein, which is already enough of a problem given the methane released by the global meat industry. Wallace-Wells also gives a shout-out to droughts, which toward the end of this century and “without dramatic reductions in emissions” will occur “nearly everywhere food is today produced.”
4. Ancient plagues: Yes, it’s as biblically bad as it sounds. As the Arctic ice shelves continue to melt, a whole host of diseases “that have not circulated in the air for millions of years—in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them” will be released. Of course, in that case our immune systems would be helpless. And that’s not to mention existing diseases, which Wallace-Wells points out, “concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases” due to the fact that they are changing in both form and geographic location due to warming temperatures.
5. Unbreathable air: By midcentury, as the planet gets warmer and more ozone forms, “Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog,” writes Wallace-Wells, citing projections by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Then there’s the damage being done to the Amazon—the forest responsible for 20 percent of the planet’s oxygen—which due to drought, could become more vulnerable to “devastating, rolling forest fires.”
6. Perpetual war: Wallace-Wells points out that between diminished resources and increased migration caused by flooding, “social conflicts could more than double this century.” As a result, “nearly every climate scientist” Wallace-Wells interviewed noted that the U.S. military “is obsessed with climate change.”
7. Permanent economic collapse: The term “fossil capitalism” refers to a growing theory among historians that “the entire history of swift economic growth…is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power,” Wallace-Wells explains. And now, after all these years, we’re facing the consequences, which include climate change and an uncertain economic future.
8. Poisoned oceans: “Barring a radical reduction of emissions,” writes Wallace-Wells, “we will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century.” This is one of the more irrefutable facts we know about climate change. To it, Wallace-Wells adds the less familiar phenomena of ocean acidification, a process whereby the ocean sucks up an increasing amount of the world’s carbon. We’re already beginning to see the consequences of this in the form of coral bleaching.
9. Extinction: This is the very worst of worst-case scenarios, but it’s a reality humanity needs to seriously think about. As Wallace-Wells notes, only one mass extinction in history was caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gases. That took place around “252 million years ago” when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, ending with “97 percent of all life on Earth dead.” At present, Wallace-Wells warns, we are “adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate” than conditions during that previous extinction. “By most estimates,” notes Wallace-Wells, “at least ten times faster.”
To some, it may sound a little too fire-and-brimstone. But it’s a discussion that must be had sooner rather than later. As Physics Today’s Steven T. Corneliussen suggests, Wallace-Wells has attempted to answer a “perfect” question: “What is a plausible worst-case scenario for climate change this century?” Based on the scientific evidence we have so far, these nine plagues perfectly fit the bill.