Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” is a contributor to WRAL TechWire.  Brain takes a serious as well as entertaining look at a world of possibilities for Earth and the human race.  He’s also author of “The Doomsday Book: The Science Behind Humanity’s Greatest Threats.” 

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RALEIGH – If you go on Amazon Prime right now, you can stream the movie “World War Z” starring Brad Pitt. It is an apocalyptic zombie movie, yes. If this is not your cup of tea, I understand. But if you watch it, you will find that it is a movie about a rapidly spreading plague, and the plague’s effects on humanity.

In the movie, the nature of the plague is thus: if a zombie bites another human being, the bitten person turns into a zombie in 12 seconds. This new zombie is then highly, highly motivated to find and bite other humans. This rapid turn-around time and the high motivation combine to make this plague quite virulent.

In the movie, Jerusalem has managed to stay uninfected. Why? Because the city has preemptively constructed an immense concrete wall around the city, perhaps 100 feet high, long before the plague arrived. And the obvious question is: how did they know to build the wall? No other nation took this sort of preemptive action. Why did Israel actually take concrete action at such an immense scale, long before the plague had reached Israel, and long before any other part of humanity was acting?

There is a character in the movie named Jurgen Warmbrunn (played by Ludi Boeken) who is the architect of Jerusalem’s unique safe zone. Jurgen delivers this prophetic quote:

“The problem with most people is that they don’t believe that something can happen until it already has. It’s not stupidity or weakness, it’s just human nature.”

This quote absolutely applies to much of humanity today when it comes to climate change.

To put it another way, yesterday was a beautiful day in Raleigh, NC where I live. Blue and sunny skies, with comfortable temperatures, light breezes, low humidity, and good air quality. Absolutely a perfect day for going outside to enjoy nature. If you were at the beach, or hiking on a nature trail in the forest, or just walking around the block, it was a glorious day.

The average person on a day like this might legitimately ask, “How can we be in the middle of a climate catastrophe?” And yet we are. Humanity is standing on the brink. In a decade or two, unless humanity makes a serious 180-degree turn in behavior, that beach will be gone, flooded by a 10-foot rise in sea levels. That forest will have burnt to the ground, as temperatures rise to bake it, dry it out and then a spark ignites it. The block may potentially be abandoned or may look like a war zone, as water and food become scarce, as frightened people become irrational and lawless.

Why will this happen? Because, in the big picture, humanity right now is doing little to nothing to avert a climate catastrophe. Humanity should have taken action decades ago, but we did not. Humanity must take action today, but we likely will not if current trendlines continue. And therefore, the climate will cross over the tipping point, fall over the precipice, and it could be too late.

In Jurgen’s words, “we don’t believe that something can happen until it already has.” There have been warning bells in nature about the possibility of a climate catastrophe, but the bells are not loud enough yet. Scientists stand in the background beating their drums about what is coming, but their drums are not loud enough. Some people are plugging their ears. Some people are actively spreading disinformation.

For most of humanity there has not yet been an event big enough, a crisis powerful enough, to shock humanity into real, tangible, global action that will make any real difference at all.

True terror: Ten worst things climate change will soon deliver to our world

The Reality of Electric Cars

Let me offer an example. Here is a recent headline: “Electric vehicles could take 33 per cent of global sales by 2028: report.”

The article opens with: “Electric vehicle sales could reach 33 per cent globally by 2028 and 54 per cent by 2035, as demand accelerates in most major markets, consultant AlixPartners said on Wednesday. EVs accounted for less than 8 per cent of global sales last year, and just under 10 per cent in the first quarter of 2022.”

If we assume that this prediction comes true, then is it good news? Yes, of course. It is better than an alternative universe where there are zero electric cars being produced. But the reality is that it is far too little and far too late. Look at the automotive reality in the United States today:

  • There are 270 million automobiles in the U.S., the vast majority of them being gasoline-powered.
  • Tesla, the world’s largest electric car manufacturer by far, produced less than a million cars in 2021.
  • 17 million new cars are sold in the U.S. per year.
  • This means that in 2028, 6 million new electric cars per year will be arriving in the U.S. Weighed against the 270 million existing gasoline cars, that’s roughly 2%. A drop in the bucket.

Therefore, this feel-good headline simply will not have any real effect in the grand scheme of things. There will still be hundreds of millions of gasoline-powered cars releasing a gigaton of carbon dioxide per year in the United States.

What we need is massive action right now that has an obvious, real effect on the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the amount of methane being released.

In a previous article we discussed a real thing that humanity could really do that would have a real, tangible effect on global warming. Humanity could ban beef cattle worldwide.

It would only take humanity two or three years to eat the billion+ cattle walking the Earth today. And through this action we would eliminate approximately the equivalent of 4 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. However:

  • Is humanity actively taking this action now to ban beef cattle, at a global level? No.
  • Is humanity actively considering taking this action now, at a global level? No.
  • Is this idea on the table, and world leaders are seriously considering the idea of considering it at a global level? No.
  • Is this idea even in the same building as the aforementioned table? Not really.

This is perhaps the easiest real thing humanity could do, and it is not even on the table.

Therefore the question is, is there any giant climate catastrophe that could happen that might be big enough to get humanity’s attention? That might shock humanity into action? That would give humanity the impetus to take climate change seriously, and take real, concrete, meaningful steps to avert the worst-case-scenario? Here are three things that might do it, and please feel free to suggest others in the comments.

Doomsday, climate change and cattle: The case for banning beef worldwide

A Massive Category 6 Hurricane Hits Houston, TX

What if a massive Category 6 hurricane hits Houston, TX? You might be thinking that there is no such thing as a Category 6 hurricane; that the scale only goes to Category 5. But no, we are about to add Category 6 to the scale, with 200 MPH winds, because climate change is heating up the oceans over which hurricanes spawn and gather their energy. Here is a headline: New lab to simulate 200 mph hurricanes in quest to make storm-resistant homes.

Now imagine that a Category 6 hurricane makes landfall around high tide in Houston, TX, population 7 million for the metro area. The last time a major hurricane hit Houston was in 2017 with Hurricane Harvey. It was only Category 4, and it was catastrophic. Watch this video to relive the catastrophe.

Yes, a Category 6 hurricane would be a major catastrophe for the 7 million residents. But more importantly Houston is home to a big portion of America’s ability to refine oil into gasoline. According to this article:

“The majority of the refineries in the state of Texas are clustered near major sea ports along the Gulf Coast, predominately in the Houston area. The 10 refineries in the Houston metro process 2.6 million barrels of crude oil per calendar day – 45.4 percent of the state’s total production and 14.3 percent of the nation’s production. The entire Gulf Coast Region – including Corpus Christi, Port Arthur and Beaumont – accounts for 87.3 percent of the state’s total production and more than a quarter of production in the United States.”

Not only would Houston be affected, but what about the refineries? If they go down, even for a short while, it would affect the whole country, and would have ripple effects around the world.

If a Category 6 hurricane destroyed Houston and brought the United States to a halt (or significant slow-down) because of a fuel crisis, would that be enough of a crisis to cause humanity to take action on climate change?

Prepare for ‘Category 6’ hurricanes

A Massive Global Heating Event Kills Tens of Millions of People in a Week

In the science fiction novel The Ministry for the Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, the book opens with a heating event in India that takes the wet bulb temperature over 95 degrees F and kills on the order of 20 million people in one blow.

In March of this year the world watched as a real heatwave struck India. The book is portraying the next level of heat, where it is inevitable that the temperatures kill people who are not protected by 24×7 air conditioning, and no power failures.

Would 20 million deaths be enough? In the book, it is enough to cause India to take unilateral action by injecting many thousands of tons of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to lower global temperatures by 1 degree C. It is a form of global geoengineering.

This does nothing to solve the problem. The problem is too much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. But it does provide temporary relief of the symptoms by lowering global temperatures.

If 20 million people in India died in a heatwave, would it be enough for humanity to take real action on climate change?

Geoengineering could be key to combating climate change – check out these ideas

A Massive Food Shortage Kills 100 Million People Through Famine

Already the world is seeing problems in the global food supply. Ukraine normally produces a great deal of the world’s wheat exports, but its crop is curtailed this year because of the Russian war on Ukraine. India was hoping to help backfill the gap in wheat supplies, but its crop has been curtailed by the India heat wave this year. The United States is normally able to export wheat, but Kansas is seeing problems this year as in this article: Hot, dry conditions scorch Kansas wheat — putting crops and farmers at risk.

“Drought is likely to cut wheat harvests by one-third in Kansas… It’s fields like these leading industry groups to predict a 100 million bushel drop in Kansas’ wheat harvest this year. That’s 30% less than last year’s harvest.”

Wheat prices have soared. Wheat stockpiles have retracted. See this video for details.

What if, in a year or two or five, climate change conspires to create a multi-prong wheat shortfall that leaves 100 million people to starve to death?

Or what if 10 million climate refugees show up at the border of the United States, coming up from Mexico and Central America, where food, water and heat conditions have deteriorated to the point of becoming insufferable? And what if another 10 million refugees show up at Europe’s borders for similar reasons?

Would any of this be enough for humanity to take real action on climate change?


What Will It Take for Real Action at a Global Level to Occur?

Would mass starvation or mass migration be enough to get humanity to take action? Would enormous and previously unheard of Category 6 hurricanes destroying cities be enough? Would a mass casualty event caused by heat be enough?

Or will humanity continue to sit on its hands while the world heats up with each new gigaton of carbon dioxide that we collectively release into the atmosphere?

Is there any crisis big enough to do it? A crisis big enough to shake humanity to its core so the world begins to take real action? Please feel free to leave a comment with your thoughts.

Doomsday, shrinking rain forests and us – why we must turn the tide


Note: This column was originally published in June of this year.

World Bank: High food, energy prices could last ‘for years’

More from Marshall

Our sad world: Spiraling down into Doomsday one headline at a time in 2022

Fighting climate change: We must do obvious, dramatic things to give young people hope

Doomsday, shrinking rain forests and us – why we must turn the tide

Slap yourself and pay attention: The Doomsday Glacier is a global risk