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 – Let’s imagine that all of us, the readers of this TechWire column, have been named caretakers of humanity on planet Earth. We give ourselves a name like The High Council on Global Human Wellbeing (HCGHW) because we have a big goal: to improve life for all humans across the planet. We meet once a week on Zoom, and we have a screen that acts as our dashboard into the current state of the world.
If the HCGHW were really to exist, then each time we looked at the dashboard during Q1 of 2023, we would be dismayed. There are so many signs flashing bright red right now; So many parts of the world experiencing distress. Let’s do some doomscrolling and take a look at the major issues that have cropped up between January and March of 2023.
Four Big Events that Have Made Huge Headlines in 2023
Several big events have made huge headlines, and therefore everyone has heard about them:
- The gigantic earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Perhaps 50,000 people died, and millions of people lost their homes.
- The train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio. It created a huge environmental disaster in the area. Residents may never fully recover their health or home values.
- The rapid collapse of Silicon Valley Bank. It took less than a week for the bank to go out of business in the first Twitter-fueled run on a bank.
- Massive flooding in California from multiple atmospheric rivers.
See this video on the ongoing floods in California, which may still get worse in this unfolding tragedy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxt5wGaLJRI
Now let’s look at a dozen other trouble spots that humanity is facing…
#1 – All the Ice Is Melting
Sea levels are rising faster than ever before, and there are major chinks in the armor that will cause sea level rise to accelerate:
- Why East Antarctica is a ‘sleeping giant’ of sea level rise – https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20230309-climate-change-the-sea-level-rise-locked-in-east-antarctica
- East Antarctic glacier melting at 70.8bn tonnes a year due to warm sea water – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/14/east-antarctic-glacier-melting-at-708bn-tonnes-a-year-due-to-warm-sea-water
- Greenland temperatures surge up to 50 degrees above normal, setting records – https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2023/03/07/greenland-record-warmth-ice-sheet/
- ‘Everyone should be concerned’: Antarctic sea ice reaches lowest levels ever recorded – https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/mar/04/everyone-should-be-concerned-antarctic-sea-ice-reaches-lowest-levels-ever-recorded
- Antarctic Researchers Report an Extraordinary Marine Heatwave That Could Threaten Antarctica’s Ice Shelves – https://insideclimatenews.org/news/12022023/antarctic-ice-shelves-marine-heatwave/
The first article puts it this way:
“If all of Denman melted, it would raise global sea levels 1.5m (4.9ft). That would leave low-lying countries like Bangladesh mostly underwater and displace hundreds of millions of people. How soon could it happen? It’s hard to say without knowing, for instance, how much of the warm water flowing under the ice tongue is making it all the way to the grounding line. ‘Most of the uncertainty about how much and how fast future sea levels will rise comes from how the East Antarctic ice sheet is going to behave under a warming climate,’ Borreguero says.”
Add the threat of melting in East Antarctica to all the problems already unfolding in West Antarctica, e.g. the Thwaites Glacier, and we have a recipe for utter disaster from rising sea levels. All coastal cities, and some entire countries, will be lost. There are three things here that make humanity look both idiotic and evil:
- The fact that we have not generously funded the scientists who could research and understand the threats from places like Denman and Thwaites.
- The fact that no measures are being deployed to stabilize these glaciers.
- The fact that we are still burning fossil fuels at a prodigious rate with no real plan or deadline to globally ban fossil fuels. Seethis article ( https://wraltechwire.com/2023/03/10/doomsday-or-fossil-fuels-mankind-has-a-choice-to-make-says-author-marshall-brain/ ) for details.
It is unbelievable that humanity, specifically the leaders of developed countries, are sitting on their hands with no visible plan to solve this crisis by banning fossil fuels and taking other measures.
See also: Rising sea levels could swamp the US coastline by 2050, NASA predicts – https://www.space.com/us-sea-levels-rising-faster-than-thought
#2 – The Profits of Oil Companies Are Completely Out of Control
Why is all the ice melting? Because of fossil fuels and the carbon dioxide they release.
As discussed in this article ( https://wraltechwire.com/2023/03/10/doomsday-or-fossil-fuels-mankind-has-a-choice-to-make-says-author-marshall-brain/ ) last week, humanity has to make a choice: either we ban fossil fuels quickly, say by 2030, or we face a planetary doomsday scenario from global heating. To add fuel to the fire, we are allowing oil companies to rake in unbelievable, obscene profits while they actively destroy the planet:
- Saudi oil giant Aramco posts record $161 billion profit for 2022 – https://www.cnbc.com/2023/03/12/saudi-oil-giant-aramco-posts-record-161point1-billion-profit-for-2022.html
- Big Oil [Exxon Mobil, Chevron, BP, Shell] rakes in record profit haul of nearly $200 billion – https://www.cnbc.com/2023/02/08/big-oil-rakes-in-record-annual-profit-fueling-calls-for-higher-taxes.html
If humans were a rational species, two things would be happening:
- All these profits would be stripped away from the oil companies and could be used to extract carbon dioxide pollution back out of the atmosphere. At a cost of $100 per ton, $361 billion could extract 3.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide. Or it might fund solar farms. At a cost of $1 per watt for solar power from solar farms, these profits would fund 360 gigawatts of solar power per year. Per year.
- Humanity would be in the process of actively banning fossil fuels worldwide with a deadline like 2030 for a complete ban.
#3 – Plastic in the Oceans Is Out of Control
Plastic waste, much of it from single-use plastics carelessly littered by humans, is overwhelming the world’s oceans:
- Plastic pollution in oceans has reached ‘unprecedented’ levels in 15 years – https://www.france24.com/en/environment/20230310-plastic-pollution-in-oceans-has-reached-unprecedented-levels-in-15-years
- Oceans littered with 171 trillion plastic pieces – https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-64889284
- New disease caused by plastics discovered in seabirds – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/03/plasticosis-new-disease-caused-by-plastics-discovered-in-seabirds
The third article is impossible to believe, but true:
“When birds ingest small pieces of plastic, they found, it inflames the digestive tract. Over time, the persistent inflammation causes tissues to become scarred and disfigured, affecting digestion, growth and survival.”
In other words, birds are eating bits of plastic instead of food and the plastic is killing them. Again, the world’s leaders sit on their hands while a catastrophe unfolds. The first part of a solution would be a worldwide ban on single use plastics, but the probability of this happening is nearly zero.
#4 – The Colorado River Catastrophe Becomes More Dire
This article from the Washington Post sounds the alarm:
Officials fear ‘complete doomsday scenario’ for drought-stricken Colorado River – https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/2022/12/01/drought-colorado-river-lake-powell/
“The first sign of serious trouble for the drought-stricken American Southwest could be a whirlpool. It could happen if the surface of Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir along the Colorado River that’s already a quarter of its former size, drops another 38 feet down the concrete face of the 710-foot Glen Canyon Dam here. At that point, the surface would be approaching the tops of eight underwater openings that allow river water to pass through the hydroelectric dam… If that happens, the massive turbines that generate electricity for 4.5 million people would have to shut down — after nearly 60 years of use — or risk destruction from air bubbles. The only outlet for Colorado River water from the dam would then be a set of smaller, deeper and rarely used bypass tubes with a far more limited ability to pass water downstream to the Grand Canyon and the cities and farms in Arizona, Nevada and California. Such an outcome — known as a “minimum power pool” — was once unfathomable here. Now, the federal government projects that day could come as soon as July.”
See this video for more details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F9rQyZQhpE
If you watch this video, you might conclude that agricultural water use in the western United States is the core problem, and a solution may be available if humans could stop the insanity: https://youtu.be/f0gN1x6sVTc
#5 – Melting Permafrost is a ticking time bomb
This video from PBS is an easy way to understand the permafrost problem that humanity faces: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XpqZTqIKMxs
If the tipping point represented by permafrost gets started, there will be no turning back. It’s yet another powerful reason to ban fossil fuels.
#6 – The Amazon Rainforest is on the brink of collapse
Has the Amazon Reached Its ‘Tipping Point’? – https://www.nytimes.com/2023/01/04/magazine/amazon-tipping-point.html
“But even these consequences pale next to the fallout from putting the Amazon’s carbon back into the atmosphere. For all the slashing and burning of recent years, the ecosystem still stores about 120 billion tons of carbon in its trunks, branches, vines and soil — the equivalent of about ten years of human emissions. If all of that carbon is released, it could warm the planet by as much as 0.3 degrees Celsius. According to the Princeton ecologist Stephen Pacala, this alone would probably make the Paris Agreement — the international accord to limit warming since preindustrial times to 2 degrees — ‘impossible to achieve.’ Which, in turn, may mean that other climate tipping points are breached around the world. As the British scientist Tim Lenton put it to me, ‘The Amazon feeds back to everything.’”
Allowing the Amazon rainforest collapse would be complete idiocy on the part of humanity, but we appear to be sleepwalking right into it while the wolrd’s leaders once again sit on their hands. See this video for more details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CR5xL9WoVm8
#7 – The Arrival of a Mass extinction Event is undeniable
- Sylvia Earle: ‘We are on the brink – a million species may be lost’ – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/feb/09/sylvia-earle-we-are-on-the-brink-a-million-species-may-be-lost
- Biodiversity: ‘Neither the magnitude nor the speed of the collapse of insects were anticipated by scientists’ – https://www.lemonde.fr/en/opinion/article/2023/02/13/biodiversity-neither-the-magnitude-nor-the-speed-of-the-collapse-of-insects-were-anticipated-by-scientists_6015473_23.html
- Huge chunk of plants, animals in U.S. at risk of extinction – https://www.reuters.com/business/environment/huge-chunk-plants-animals-us-risk-extinction-report-2023-02-06/
#8 – The American Healthcare System is collapsing
After Covid, the American healthcare system is struggling:
- The Coming Collapse of the U.S. Health Care System – https://time.com/6246045/collapse-us-health-care-system
- Too critical to collapse: Today’s primary care crisis – https://thehill.com/opinion/healthcare/3883168-too-critical-to-collapse-todays-primary-care-crisis/
- According to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, 100,000 nurses in America left the workforce between 2020 and 2021 – https://www.boisestate.edu/news/2023/02/17/answering-the-call-boise-state-provides-the-nurses-idaho-needs/
The first article puts it this way:
“The massive financial drain imposed by staff shortages and use of locums has led to many health care facilities reaching the point of financial instability. Daily reports of massive quarterly losses by both internationally known and local hospitals where billions of dollars are being lost in an industry which was already working on a slim margin will lead to many additional facility closures. This has affected not only rural hospitals with slim operating margins, but larger urban healthcare facilities as well. The loss of such important services in hospitals and associated outpatient facilities will impact care for our communities for future generations.”
See this video for more details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WzwHJbAGVc
#9 – Florida is in trouble
Florida has several problems that are leading to an exodus:
- Florida’s Great Displacement – The state’s climate exodus has already begun –https://www.businessinsider.com/florida-residents-moving-leaving-climate-change-refugees-hurricanes-flood-2023-2
- Florida property reinsurance rates expected to jump 40% to 50% in June – https://www.wkrg.com/state-regional/florida/florida-property-insurance-rates-expected-to-jump-40-to-50-in-june/
- Hurricanes & insurance: How prices could ignite mass migration from Florida – https://wraltechwire.com/2022/12/16/hurricanes-insurance-how-prices-could-ignite-mass-migration-from-florida/
- The American climate migration has already begun –https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2023/feb/23/us-climate-crisis-housing-migration-natural-disasters
A big hurricane this year similar in size to Hurricane Ian last year could be the beginning of the end for Florida. Insurance rates will skyrocket or insurance companies will collapse. Combine that with rising sea levels and much of Florida will become economically unviable.
#10 – The Horn of Africa is in a death spiral
This article describes the situation in the horn of Africa:
Nearly 130,000 facing starvation in Horn of Africa: WHO – https://phys.org/news/2023-03-starvation-horn-africa.html
“’Most parts of the region are battling the worst drought in at least 40 years while other parts have been affected by flooding, leading to widespread hunger,’ she said. ‘We are seeing a surge in disease outbreaks and the highest number of malnourished children in years,’ she said. Around 11.9 million children aged under five are likely to face acute malnutrition this year. The region is facing measles, cholera, malaria, dengue, hepatitis E and meningitis outbreaks. ‘The numbers of reported disease outbreaks in the Greater Horn of Africa have reached their highest-ever level this century, with health systems in most of the seven countries being hard-pressed to cope,’ said Aelbrecht.”
A paradoxical combination of severe drought in some areas paired with flooding in other areas has ruined crops and killed millions of livestock.
- Climate Change is Driving Millions to the Precipice of a ‘Raging Food Catastrophe’ – https://insideclimatenews.org/news/11122022/kenya-somalia-africa-famine-hunger-climate-change/
- Africa’s food crisis is the biggest yet – five reasons why – https://www.reuters.com/graphics/AFRICA-HUNGER/lgpdkknwlvo/
#11 – Haiti, population 11.5 million, is imploding due to gang violence and anarchy
This video from PBS summarizes the unbelievable and tragic situation in Haiti in just a few minutes: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7imyUw1z6s
#12 – The world must ban fossil fuels, but seems unable to do so
Humanity appears to be addicted to fossil fuels, and therefore the carbon dioxide that fossil fuels create. Methane is another big problem. Both are the cause of global heating. These emissions will destroy the planet.
- World risks descending into a climate ‘doom loop’, warn thinktanks – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/feb/16/world-risks-descending-into-a-climate-doom-loop-warn-thinktanks
- Revealed: 1,000 super-emitting methane leaks risk triggering climate tipping points – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/mar/06/revealed-1000-super-emitting-methane-leaks-risk-triggering-climate-tipping-points
- Romney: We Must Get Serious About Reducing Global Emissions – https://www.romney.senate.gov/romney-we-must-get-serious-about-reducing-global-emissions/
- Only halving emissions by 2030 can minimize risks of crossing cryosphere thresholds – https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-022-01566-4.epdf
- US is hotbed of climate change denial, major global survey finds – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/may/07/us-hotbed-climate-change-denial-international-poll
Somehow, we must cure the addiction.
In this article we looked at 12 different areas of discomfort. Let’s review:
- All the ice is melting
- Fossil fuel profits are out of control
- Plastics in the oceans are out of control
- The Colorado river problem is dire
- Melting permafrost is a ticking time bomb
- The Amazon rainforest is on the brink of collapse
- The arrival of a mass extinction event is undeniable
- The American healthcare system is collapsing
- Florida is in trouble
- The Horn of Africa is in a death spiral
- Haiti is imploding
- The world must ban fossil fuels but seems unable to do so
Are any of these solvable? By accomplishing #12 on a rapid timeline, combined with some aggressive geoengineering, humanity could likely make a big dent in half of the remaining problems. Unfortunately, there appears to be little concrete movement on #12 in any reasonable timeline. We can dream that rising public awareness combined with more eye-opening catastrophes can tip the scales in the right direction and lead to a global ban on fossil fuels.
#4 is particularly interesting. The Colorado river problem is probably solvable, except that a combination of human greed + an inability to compromise + unrestricted irrational behavior (like alfalfa) + history likely leads us to a catastrophe rather than a solution.
Will humanity ever be able to get its act together? Can humanity learn to act rationally? Or are we doomed as a species by greed, shortsightedness, and apathy? These are great questions. We can only hope that the former somehow prevails.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vxt5wGaLJRI – Catastrophic flooding in California puts millions at risk
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j7btQhkSYJw – 11 million people under flood alerts in California
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F9rQyZQhpE – Water crisis looms over Southwest as Colorado River dries up
- https://youtu.be/f0gN1x6sVTc – Who’s really using up the water in the American West?
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CR5xL9WoVm8 – How the Amazon has started to heat the planet | It’s Complicated
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WzwHJbAGVc – America Has a Healthcare Crisis, and It’s Hurting Rural Towns
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f7imyUw1z6s – Fear, violence and chaos grip Haiti as gangs seize control