Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” –  takes his weekly Doomsday column in a different direction today: Space and aliens. Think H.G. Wells and “War of the Worlds” – but a much different kind of invasion. “The Day the Earth Stood Still” comes to mind. Marshall 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.” Brain has written several posts recently about the threat of climate change. His exclusive columns written for TechWire are published on Fridays. This column is a repeat from 2022. Marshall will return.

Note to readers: WRAL TechWire would like to hear from you about views expressed by our contributors. Please send email to: info@wraltechwire.com.


RALEIGH – Did you hear about the wildfire smoke in New York City? Of course you did. We all did. That’s because New York City is a global media center, an important economic hub for the world, and one of the largest cities on the planet. And the news was stark, startling, amazing:

From the third article:

“Smoke from the wildfires raging across Canada has created a thick haze across New York City’s iconic skyline, nearly fading out the Statue of Liberty and high-rises. The quality of air has become so bad in the past few days that now, the city has some of the worst air pollution in the world. Being exposed to pollution at the levels currently being experienced can cause headaches, irritated eyes, asthma attacks, difficulty breathing and more, particularly for the elderly, children and those who are immunocompromised.”

See this video for details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LkuNHOqrbZg

And there is a chance that these fires are just the tip of the iceberg – that the fires will continue, possibly worsen, as we get into the hotter and dryer summer months:

“Canada has had the worst start to its fire season on record, with more than nine million acres burned so far this year—about the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. More than 400 blazes are currently spewing smoke into the atmosphere across the country, with more than 200 of them raging out of control.  Hot and dry weather conditions have left forests across Canada primed to burn. The blazes started out west in Alberta and British Columbia this spring and worsened during a major heat dome event in May. Smoke from those fires swept down into the western U.S., causing air quality to plummet in Montana and Colorado. Then fires erupted farther east in Nova Scotia and Quebec, with authorities ordering many communities to evacuate.  The result has been a brutal start to the fire season. ‘We haven’t seen a year where the area burned has increased so rapidly so early in the spring,’ says Richard Carr, a fire research analyst with Natural Resource Canada’s Canadian Forest Service.”

We are seeing a direct result of climate change and it is directly affecting millions of people in the United States. In the worst-case scenario, people in NYC will find there are days and possibly weeks throughout the summer when they are not be able to go outside without masks and eye protection. They will likely need to buy indoor filtration systems since the smoke leaks into homes, apartments, and offices. Tourism could plummet.

But it is not enough to cause action

Here is the strange thing. All of this smoke in America’s most important city is not enough to spur any real action on climate change. We do not see a million New Yorkers out protesting in the streets. We do not see any real action from politicians. Even though the smoke makes the city untenable if it continues, no one is proposing that we do anything significant about it.

Compare this reaction to the reaction after the attacks on September 11, 2001. Two airplanes stuck two buildings in New York City and the entire nation was up in arms about it. Think of everything that came in the wake of 9/11 – All kinds of changes and safety measures were put into place, with their own significant costs in terms of time and money.

  • The best-known aftereffect is the creation of the TSA (Transportation Safety Administration), which travelers now see and deal with at every airport. Passengers can no longer carry most knives, especially box cutters, onto airplanes. The TSA costs about $8 billion per year.
  • Cockpit doors are now armored and locked, with protocols meant to prevent hijackings.
  • There is a no-fly list maintained by the Terrorist Screening Center that prevents tens of thousands of people from getting on a plane.
  • The Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS) ramped up quickly, hiring thousands of new air marshals. FAMS costs approximately $1 billion per year to operate.
  • And don’t forget the wars in the Middle East. The United States invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, with unfathomable costs in lives (hundreds of thousands of lives lost) and money (trillions of dollars).

This is a lot of real activity in response to a single attack. In contrast, every week there is a new list of climate-related tragedies, and each week humanity generally ignores them. This week has contained headlines like these:

  1. Spike in ocean heat stuns scientists: Have we breached a climate tipping point? – https://www.msn.com/en-us/weather/topstories/spike-in-ocean-heat-stuns-scientists-have-we-breached-a-climate-tipping-point/ar-AA1cuy15
  2. Water rationing is introduced after temperatures hit 30C on hottest June 13th EVER: Met Office declares vast swathes of UK are officially in a heatwave – https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12191253/Water-rationing-introduced-temperatures-hit-30C-hottest-June-13th-EVER.html
  3. Extremely dry spring leaves southern Albertan farmers on the road to ‘zero production’ https://globalnews.ca/news/9761043/dry-spring-southern-albertan-farmers-zero-production/
  4. Historic heatwave pummels Mexico and the Caribbean, heat to engulf most of Texas and parts of Louisiana – https://watchers.news/2023/06/13/historic-heatwave-pummels-mexico-and-the-caribbean-heat-to-engulf-most-of-texas-and-parts-of-louisiana/
  5. North Atlantic Ocean has reached record-high surface temperatures – https://www.newscientist.com/article/2378026-north-atlantic-ocean-has-reached-record-high-surface-temperatures
  6. Siberia swelters in record-breaking temperatures amid its ‘worst heat wave in history’ – https://edition.cnn.com/2023/06/08/asia/heat-wave-siberia-climate-intl/index.html
  7. Climate Crisis Is on Track to Push One-Third of Humanity Out of Its Most Livable Environment – https://www.propublica.org/article/climate-crisis-niche-migration-environment-population
  8. Hundreds of Menhaden fish die at Quintana Beach County Park – https://www.fox26houston.com/news/hundreds-of-menhaden-fish-die-at-quintana-beach-county-park
  9. Fears of hottest year on record as global temperatures spike – https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jun/15/record-temperatures-global-heating
  10. 2 out of 3 North American bird species face extinction – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/2-out-of-3-north-american-bird-species-face-extinction-how-we-can-save-them

None of these 10 things has been enough to spur any real action either. It is not like the world’s leaders are gathered to hammer out a global climate intervention. There is no global call to ban fossil fuels, which are the primary cause of all these catastrophes.

Unfortunately, humanity needs a true catastrophe, a true crisis

It seems that the only thing that will cause humanity to take significant action, the only thing that will cause us to change, is a true and large-scale catastrophe. We need an event that is large enough, dramatic enough, compelling enough, to cause a true reaction.

September 11, 2001 was such an event. September 11, 2001 was an event with enough magnitude that real change happened. The entire United States came to a halt, then took real action, and the entire world noticed.

Is there any climate-related event that could have this dramatic of an impact? Is there any climate-related event that could cause the entire nation, and preferably the entire world, to stop and then change course on climate change? Is there anything that would cause humanity to devote itself to solving the climate change problem? Here are five dreadful examples:

  1. A massive climate-driven crop failure encompassing multiple regions. It causes massive inflation in food prices and a mass starvation event. Maybe this would get the world’s attention and cause real action?
  2. An abrupt water shortage that causes multiple cities (e.g. Las Vegas + Phoenix) to shut down and need to be evacuated. 10 million people are forced out of their homes and and they arrive in unprepared cities across the country. Maybe this would get the world’s attention and cause real action?
  3. A heating event plus power failure kills a significant number of people in Texas, followed by a similar event in Europe, and then India. Maybe this would get the world’s attention and cause real action?
  4. The jet stream collapses and causes weather mayhem in several countries. Or the gulf stream and AMOC collapses and causes the same. Maybe this would get the world’s attention and cause real action?
  5. A glacier collapse in Antarctica causes a quick and significant rise in sea levels around the world. This might be too much – it might cause so much property damage and migration that economies collapse. But maybe this would get the world’s attention and cause real action?

Is something of this magnitude necessary to get humanity’s attention so we take real action? Is anything enough? Or will we hang on without significant action until the bitter end, until the entire ecosystem is collapsing around us? See this video for details: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fHSodCnXKVE