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 we were to sit down together and create a list of the Top 5 biggest threats to humanity in the coming years, summer heatwaves would definitely be on this list. Heatwaves might even be ranked #1. Why? All we have to do is look at some of the biggest headlines this week and we can see the giant problem that humanity faces from intense summer heatwaves. Here are ten:
- Heatwaves and Fires Scorch Europe, Africa, and Asia
- Heat wave kills more than 1,900 people in Spain and Portugal
- Extreme heat prompts alerts in 28 states as Texas, Oklahoma hit 115 degrees F
- Alarm as fastest growing US cities risk becoming unlivable from climate crisis – Some of the cities enjoying population boom are among those gripped by a ferocious heatwave and seeing record temperatures
- Britain not built to withstand 40 deg C; infrastructure most likely to fail
- Humanity faces ‘collective suicide’ over climate crisis, warns UN chief – António Guterres tells governments ‘half of humanity is in danger zone’, as countries battle extreme heat
- Europe’s mightiest river is drying up amid a record heatwave, causing shipping issues and deepening the continent’s energy woes
- ‘We simply can’t cope’: Fires erupt around London as U.K. records hottest day ever
- Western France is facing a “heat apocalypse”, experts have warned
- Texas residents asked to ‘immediately’ conserve water amid drought, extreme heat
These are not fringe doomsday websites here; these are all legitimate, mainstream media outlets. They are screaming at us about a heat disaster for our planet and our species that is unfolding in real time. Thousands of people are dead. Forests and cities are ablaze. Infrastructure is collapsing: Roads are melting, train tracks are buckling, runways are closing, electricity is failing. This short video demonstrates the unprecedented high temperatures we are seeing here in the U.S. as well as in Europe and Africa – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z3WlssUqe6s
Extreme heat is like a gun pointed in our collective faces. It’s like a noose tightening around humanity’s neck. This kind of intense heat is happening much sooner than scientists had predicted,
And thus, the gigantic question for the human species is this: When will humanity wake up? Will humanity be able to get our collective act together and actually do anything significant and concrete about climate change? Or will we primarily sit idly by with half-measures and milquetoast efforts while conditions get worse and worse and worse right before our very eyes?
We will get to these existential questions in a moment, but first let’s take a look at how bad things are going to get.
The Ten Biggest Problems with Intense Summer Heatwaves
Here, in a nutshell, is the dreadful future that humanity is facing: As planet Earth warms up, these heatwaves will become more and more frequent and more and more intense. The problems that the heatwaves cause will become worse and worse.
There is this weird “fun fact” that came out this week as Europe’s heat intensified. Maybe 5% of homes in a European country like England have air conditioning, while maybe 90% of homes in the United States have air conditioning. People have been living in Europe for thousands of years, and “modern people™” have been living in Europe since the industrial revolution, and temperatures like these simply have not happened. Temperatures historically have been so moderate in the summer that air conditioning simply was not seen as necessary. Not anymore – now A/C is going to become a necessity because of climate change.
But the problem is that air conditioning has an Achilles heal – the power grid. Without electricity, air conditioning is dead. What if one week we have intense summer heat in a major metro area, and then the power grid fails?
This gets to the second problem with heatwaves, which is that they will soon be so intense that they become deadly without air conditioning. There are two ways we see this expressed in the news. One way is the “95 deg F wet bulb temperature kills humans dead” problem. The other is the “heat index over 125 deg F kills humans dead” problem. The problem being discussed is the same in both situations, and it is this: If the temperature plus the humidity rises above a certain level, then human beings basically cook to death. It doesn’t matter if we are sitting in the shade with plenty of water and sweating profusely – at a certain point the temperature is so high that our bodies overheat and people die from this heat.
Therefore, it is easy to imagine two different scenarios in an intense summer heatwave:
- A killing heatwave happens in an area where air conditioning is rare, say because of poverty, and millions of people die.
- A killing heatwave happens in a modern city, but then the power grid fails so air conditioning is useless, and millions of people die.
If the heat index is above 125 and there is no air conditioning, then people will be dying in droves because their deaths are unpreventable.
The third problem is that we ain’t seen nothing yet, as expressed in this article:
“When our children are our age, they will yearn for a summer as ‘cool’ as 2022, because long before the century’s end, 40C-plus (104F) heat will be nothing to write home about in the climate-mangled world they inherit.”
The heatwaves we see today will soon seem minor by comparison to what we will see in the future. The heatwaves will become more frequent and more intense.
The fourth problem is called “the urban heat island effect”. In any city, the combination of concrete and asphalt and lack of trees means that a city will get much hotter than the surrounding countryside. A major heatwave that hits a city intensifies the heat’s effect. This video helps you see how bad this heat island effect can get – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YX3C3eq2MJY
The fifth problem is that wildfires will become more frequent and more intense. Last year in Australia alone, 59 million acres of forest burned to the ground.
The sixth problem is that more and more animals will be dying. Those Australian wildfires in 2021 killed something like 3 billion animals. This year in Kansas, thousands of cattle died from the heat as they were standing in a field. In Canada’s heatwave in 2021, about one billion shellfish died – essentially, they cooked in their shells because the Canadian heat was so intense in 2021. This video shows the carnage – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVetsyssi2M
As heat gets ever higher, combined with water-stress from drought, plants will start succumbing as well. Forests will turn to scrubland or grassland or desert.
The seventh problem: Crop failures. Crop failures will be getting more frequent and more intense with these heatwaves. Grain crops like wheat are sensitive to heat in two ways. First, as we saw in both India and Kansas this year, high heat shrivels the crop. The wheat kernels cannot fully develop in the intense heat, so the grain is poor quality and there is less of it. Second, a ripe wheat field can light on fire and burns quite readily because wheat straw and wheat kernels are perfectly flammable. In yet another piece of tragic news out of the war in Ukraine, Russian forces are lighting Ukrainian wheat fields on fire this year before they can be harvested. And it is not just grains – as seen above, everything from cattle to shellfish are dying.
The eighth problem is drought. Things like heatwaves and heat domes are usually accompanied by drought. The American Southwest is drying out. Countries in Southern Europe like Italy and Spain are drying out. The horn of Africa is drying out. And so on.
The ninth problem is that the combination of extreme heat + drought + crop failures is going to start a wave of mass migrations. People living in poor countries closer to the equator will have two choices: They can stay in place and die where they stand, or they can start moving north. Many of these climate refugees will die along the way, but millions will make the journey and arrive at the border of a modern country. What do the modern countries do? Shoot the people as they approach in waves? The whole situation is utterly tragic to think about.
The tenth problem is that these heatwaves melt the glaciers and ice sheets even faster. So last week we saw this horrible headline:
“Several days of unusually warm weather in northern Greenland have triggered rapid melting, made visible by the rivers of meltwater rushing into the ocean. Temperatures have been running around 60 degrees Fahrenheit — 10 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year, scientists told CNN.”
The obvious side effect is that sea levels will be rising ever faster, threatening coastal cities and beaches everywhere. Once the Thwaites Glacier collapses, it will truly be a global, irreversible doomsday event as sea levels rise many feet in just a few years.
I could go on, but you get the idea. The heatwaves that we see all around the world today are just a taste of what is coming. And what is coming will get more and more awful unless humanity reacts to the climate crisis. What is the worst case scenario that climate change can deliver to human civilization? We can see it clearly in these heatwaves and the ten effects of heatwaves described above. Humanity must take action – startling, intense, meaningful, effective action.
What Might Humanity Really Do Right Now to Curtail These Deadly Heatwaves?
Let’s imagine that a flotilla of alien spaceships arrived in Earth orbit, the alien soldiers landed, and then the soldiers started to kill off human beings all over the planet. What do we hope would happen? We would hope that all of humanity, all the nations on Earth, would join together to fight the common enemy with an intense effort to save the species and the planet from annihilation.
Really, humanity is at the point where global heating and these heatwaves represent this same type of planet-wide threat. And therefore we should be fighting this threat with an intense war-like response. Humanity, and especially the developed world, must come together and solve the climate change problem as best we can with maximum effort.
To demonstrate what I am talking about, here are six concrete steps that humanity should absolutely take right now:
- Humanity should ban beef cattle worldwide and eliminate the billion+ beef cattle roaming planet Earth. Relatively speaking, this is a trivially easy step that would have a real and immediate effect on global heating. See this article for details.
- Humanity should put a $1.50 fee on every gallon of gasoline burned in a car engine, and put similar fees at every other place in the economy where fossil fuels get burned: airplanes, trains, cargo ships, cruise ships, power plants, farm equipment and everything else. Then we should use the massive amount of money generated by the fees to extract the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuels back out of the atmosphere. This could get humanity to net zero carbon emissions very quickly in relative terms. See this article for details.
- Humanity must prevent the Amazon Rainforest from collapsing. Banning beef cattle will actually be a big helper in this area. And then we should turn the Amazon rainforest (and other critical rainforests around the globe) into globally protected parks. We should eliminate human activity in the rainforests, replant the areas humans have destroyed so they can recover, and do everything possible to prevent the disaster that will occur if the rainforests collapse. See this article for details.
- Similarly, humanity should invest billions of dollars to prevent the Thwaites doomsday glacier and other ice sheets from collapsing. If the Thwaites glacier collapses, it is irreversible. It will cause trillions of dollars in damage and create millions upon millions of climate refugees trying to escape innundation. See this article for details.
- Humanity should invest billions of dollars to rapidly accelerate the installation of clean energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.) along with energy storage technologies. In World War II the nations of planet Earth ridiculously ramped up the production of guns, bullets, bombs, airplanes, warships, tanks, etc. We should invest in that same kind of intense global effort around clean energy. The fact that the Western world wants to cut off the use of Russian fossil fuels is a great additional incentive to do this.
- We are at the point where humanity should give serious consideration to geoengineering possibilities. For one example, injecting hydrogen sulfide into the stratosphere is something that could cool the planet quickly with existing technologies. The world should invest the billions of dollars necessary to study and implement the best and safest geoengineering ideas. Think about the progress that SpaceX has made in the last ten years in the field of rocketry. It has done this because of intense focus, intense research, and intense investment. Duplicate this same kind of success in the field of geoengineering. See this article for more details.
There are many, many other things that humanity can and should do. This is the low-hanging fruit.
Will humanity reach a tipping point where we, as a global species, finally start enacting real, dramatic, effective change to save ourselves and our planet? Will the doomsday scenario represented by these present and future heatwaves be enough to kick humanity into action? We will be able to watch and see. Let’s hope so, because the alternative will be horrible for all of us.
If you want to learn more, please see this article for additional details and solutions.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hVetsyssi2M – Canada heatwave cooks up to one billion shellfish alive
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdX5CkT8m-g – Heat wave and fires badly damaging Tunisia’s grain harvest
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncd-n6vd5xI – Climate change fuels drought, starvation worldwide
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J9SpjpigMjA – Megadrought out West expected to intensify: NOAA l ABC News
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g4K41NczMfI – World War Z – Jerusalem Wall
Note: This column is a repeat from 2022. Marshall will return.