Climate change threatens to end human civilization within this century, possibly within a few decades. While this might seem like an exaggeration or scare-tactic, it is actually a sober assessment— one shared by a wide array of experts. Indeed, climate change is already causing civilization to break down in some parts of the world.
How, and when, does climate change threaten civilization? There are parts of the answer that are known, and parts that are still unknown.
- Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses trap heat. Scientist John Tyndall discovered this in the 1860s! Trapping infrared energy is just one of CO2s basic properties.
- Humans are putting unprecedented amounts of greenhouse gasses, especially CO2 into the atmosphere, which is causing the earth to warm. Over the last century, the earth has already increased in average temperature by 1.3 degrees F. (.7 degrees C). Because of greenhouse gasses, the earth is hotter than it has been for 70-80% of the last 11,000 years.
- The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is releasing their 5th report in September, 2013. They are stating that they are 95% certain that human activities–the burning of fossil fuels– is causing the observed warming.
- Warmer temperatures encourage invasive species, which damage ecosystems and agriculture, and make vector borne, tropical diseases, such as West Nile and Malaria, more common in a larger geographic areas.
- Warming is already having wide-ranging impacts on the climate and the weather. These include: more severe weather events, such as floods, droughts and more intense storms.
- This extreme weather causes its own cascade of problems: For example, droughts damage agricultural yields and make wildfires more frequent and brutal. Intense storms damage infrastructure, which takes time and investment to rebuild. Flooding increases the likelihood of waterborne diseases.
- Scarce resources, especially food and water, spur civil unrest and cause civil war. Hungry and thirsty people become desperate.
- Scarce resources, especially water, cause countries and regions to have conflicts and wars over water.
- Extreme weather, rising oceans, and resource scarcity will displace huge numbers of people, creating climate change refugees. The International Organization for Migration estimates that 200 million people will migrate due to climate change by 2050.
- Large numbers of refugees are politically and economically destabilizing for host nations. They require intensive, expensive government assistance in settlement, or else they stay in crowded, dirty refugee camps.
- Recurring severe weather will cause increasing damage to infrastructure and private property. Just in 2012, Hurricane Sandy cost $65 billion and droughts in the Midwest and Plains cost $35 billion.
- At first, governments and private insurance will rebuild after these unnatural disasters, but they won’t be able to keep pace long. As a report by Harvard researchers and the Insurer Swiss Re described, “parts of developed countries would experience developing nation conditions for prolonged periods.”
Climate change is a multi-front assault on civilization. Humanity’s near future will be characterized by scarcity, disease, unnaturally severe disasters, refugees, and civil and international wars. Civilization can only tolerate so much– the center cannot hold forever– and order may turn to chaos.
- How the ravages of climate change will unfold. The climate is a non-linear system, meaning changes don’t happen at a steady pace. Instead, there will be sudden, unexpected changes. Scientists cannot tell us precisely, how much flooding there will be in 20 years; they use different models that indicate predict different outcomes. We know that there will be flooding, and that it will increase as climate change marches forward. But we do not know, cannot know, exactly what to expect, or when.
- How reversible the damage is. The system has tipping points which, if exceeded, trigger positive feedback loops which accelerate the damage, making it quickly irreversible.
- There is only one question that matters, and it is the question of our time: Will humanity fight back? Will we rise to the challenge of climate change? Will we come together and demand action from their leaders? The threat is fearsome, but humanity still has the power to shape the future.