Editor’s note: Marshall Brain – futurist, inventor, NCSU professor, writer and creator of “How Stuff Works” – is a contributor to WRAL TechWire. 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.
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RALEIGH – Last week we took a deep dive to see just how bad climate change has become in 2023: Just how bad is climate change? It’s far worse than you think.
The article makes two big points about the climate change situation that humanity is now facing because of all the carbon dioxide we have added to the atmosphere.
First, there are 22+ different things that are going wrong today because of climate change. The list includes:
- Massive heat waves across the planet
- Global heating of 1.5 degrees C in 2023
- Huge, unprecedented, long-lasting wildfires in Canada
- Wildfires burning in the Amazon rainforest
- Arctic Tundra thawing out and tripping a climate feedback loop
- Other climate feedback loops getting ready to trigger
- The acceleration of Arctic warming
- The coming Blue Ocean Event in the Arctic to make Arctic heating even worse
- All the mountain glaciers are melting
- Rivers are drying up
- Aquifers are drying up
- Reservoir lakes are drying up
- Aquifers and farmland are becoming contaminated with salt water
- Massive droughts across the planet
- Massive floods in other parts of the planet
- Crop failures
- Heating and melting in Antarctica
- Heating and melting and rain in Greenland
- Significantly rising ocean temperatures
- Threats from the Thwaites glacier and other big Antarctic glaciers
- Sea level rise around the world
- Mass extinction events in every area
Second, because the world’s leaders have failed us on climate change, all these things will be getting worse and worse with each passing year. If we get together again next year in October, after humanity has released another 37 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, are any of these 22 things going to get better? No, of course not. What about in three years, after humanity has released another 100 gigatons of carbon dioxide? What about in 10 years, after humanity has released another 300 gigatons of carbon dioxide? In 10 years, we can predict that things will be utterly disastrous. Everything will all be getting worse and worse as time passes, and as humans do more and more damage to the ecosystem. There may be occasional variations or respites of these climate conditions, but the trends are all going to be worsening. And the worsening will be accelerating.
Just in this past week, in the past seven days since the last article was written, these dreadful new headlines have appeared:
- The first global temperature data is in for the full month of September. This month was, in my professional opinion as a climate scientist – absolutely gobsmackingly bananas – https://twitter.com/hausfath/status/1709217151452954998
- See also: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/commentisfree/2023/oct/05/global-heating-weather-temperatures-climate-impact
- See also: https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2023/10/03/september-global-temperature-record-climate
- Texas drought has deepened amid this year’s brutal heat – https://www.texastribune.org/2023/10/02/texas-drought-agriculture-wildfires/
- The Mississippi River is starving for rain. Its prospects are grim – https://www.cnn.com/2023/09/28/weather/mississippi-river-saltwater-rain-forecast-climate
- Canada left battered by ‘never before seen’ wildfire season – https://phys.org/news/2023-10-canada-left-battered-wildfire-season.html
- See also: https://www.axios.com/2023/09/29/canadas-hellish-wildfire-season-defies-the-calendar
- Microplastics Are Present In Clouds, Confirm Japanese Scientists – https://www.ndtv.com/world-news/microplastics-are-present-in-clouds-confirm-japanese-scientists-4430609
- Climate change and NYC: Historic rains buckle city’s infrastructure, again – https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/nyc-flooding-climate-change-infrastructure-limitations-rcna118170
- See also: https://apnews.com/article/northeast-storm-rain-new-york-flooding-subway-a16ad4720eddd6c0f7ea3b761f414e80
- Climate change, El Niño and Russia’s war have sent food prices soaring as countries limit exports – https://www.euronews.com/green/2023/09/29/from-onions-to-rice-theres-a-contagion-in-staple-food-restrictions-is-climate-change-to-bl
- Humans Can No Longer Ignore the Threat of Fungi – Climate change could make fungal diseases more potent and widespread than ever before – https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2023/09/fungal-disease-climate-change-threat/675515/
- U.S. Heat Deaths Will Soar as the Climate Crisis Worsens – https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-s-heat-deaths-will-soar-as-the-climate-crisis-worsens/
- Climate change could impose ‘substantial financial costs’ on U.S. household finances, Treasury warns – https://www.cnbc.com/2023/10/02/climate-change-could-devastate-household-finances-us-treasury-warns.html
- At Canada’s largest Atlantic puffin colony, chicks are dying of starvation – https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/puffin-starvation-threat-climate-change-1.6978773
- More than 100 dolphins dead in Amazon as water hits 102 degrees Fahrenheit – https://www.cnn.com/2023/10/01/americas/amazon-river-dolphins-dead-temperatures-drought-intl-hnk/index.html
- Photos: Amazon rainforest faces a severe drought affecting thousands – With river levels dropping, water transportation has stalled and hundreds of dead fish are contaminating drinking water – https://www.aljazeera.com/gallery/2023/9/28/photos-amazon-rainforest-faces-a-severe-drought-affecting-thousands
- Pinning point five collapsed, the sea ice barrier buttressing Thwaites and Pine Island Glacier – https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2023/9/29/2195755/-Pinning-point-five-collapsed-the-sea-ice-barrier-buttressing-Thwaites-and-Pine-Island-Glacier
- See also: https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2023/9/13/2193040/-Brunt-glacier-rapidly-accelerates-into-the-Weddell-Sea-after-pinning-point-lost-to-iceberg-A81
20. This video describes one situation in Antarctica:
The graph from the first link is impossible to believe, yet this is our reality in 2023:
The first global temperature data is in for the full month of September. This month was, in my professional opinion as a climate scientist – absolutely gobsmackingly bananas. JRA-55 beat the prior monthly record by over 0.5C, and was around 1.8C warmer than preindutrial levels. pic.twitter.com/mgg3rcR2xZ
— Zeke Hausfather (@hausfath) October 3, 2023
Zeke Hausfather comments: “This September would not have been out of place as a typical July this decade in terms of global temperatures.” September’s temperature is 1.8 degrees C above expectations. It’s like the ecosystem is going off the rails.
Rational human beings can look at all this bad news, extrapolate, and see what is coming. All this bad news together, along so many different dimensions, is the reason why we can say that civilization will be collapsing. The question is: how will the collapse of civilization unfold? What will take humanity to the breaking point?
How will civilization collapse?
One thing to understand is that right now, currently, climate change has not really taken a deep bite out of humanity yet. Yes, it is bad that one third of Pakistan flooded last year. Yes, it is bad that New York City was flooding last week. Yes, it is bad that drought is drying up the Mississippi River, the Amazon River, and most of Texas. Yes, it is bad that 100 innocent dolphins cooked to death this week in the Amazon because of the heat. But none of these things are catastrophic. Nothing truly catastrophic has happened to humanity because of the effects of climate change.
The second thing to understand is that the truly catastrophic stuff is coming. It is inevitable. At this point it is unstoppable. Examples include:
- What happens when the Amazon rainforest collapses and releases another 100 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and a million species go extinct?
- What happens when a large glacier in Antarctica collapses and significantly raises global sea levels in a short period of time?
- What happens when all the ice in the Arctic disappears, and we experience the first Blue Ocean Event?
- What happens when positive feedback loops in places like the Tundra really engage?
- What happens when droughts and floods and heat increase enough to cause major crop failures?
- What happens when an equatorial area becomes so hot that it is uninhabitable?
- What happens if a monster Category 5 hurricane hits a major city like Miami (6 million people) or Jacksonville (1.7 million people)?
- What happens if drought is so severe that a major city in the United States runs out of drinking water? What happens when people turn on their kitchen faucets or try to flush their toilets, there is zero water flowing from the municipal water system?
It is upcoming events like these that will be truly catastrophic and will lead to collapse. Let’s look at three examples.
Example 1 – Heat and drought and floods combine to cause major crop failures in multiple breadbasket regions
There are 8 billion people on planet Earth. If we assume that each of them needs 2,000 calories per day to survive, it means that humanity needs to produce 16 trillion calories per day, or roughly 6 quadrillion calories per year.
This “6 quadrillion” number does not account for wasted food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about 30% of food is wasted in the United States:
Food Waste FAQs – https://www.usda.gov/foodwaste/faqs
“In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply. This estimate, based on estimates from USDA’s Economic Research Service of 31 percent food loss at the retail and consumer levels, corresponded to approximately 133 billion pounds and $161 billion worth of food… Food loss occurs for many reasons, with some types of loss—such as spoilage—occurring at every stage of the production and supply chain. Between the farm gate and retail stages, food loss can arise from problems during drying, milling, transporting, or processing that expose food to damage by insects, rodents, birds, molds, and bacteria. At the retail level, equipment malfunction (such as faulty cold storage), over-ordering, and culling of blemished produce can result in food loss. Consumers also contribute to food loss when they buy or cook more than they need and choose to throw out the extras.”
At the global level, the UN estimates the number is 17% (https://www.unep.org/resources/report/unep-food-waste-index-report-2021 )
If we use 17%, then it means that humanity actually needs to produce more like 7 quadrillion calories per year.
If the world’s human population needs to produce 7 quadrillion calories in a year for everyone to have enough to eat, what if one year humanity only produces only 5 or 6 quadrillion calories because of the effects of climate change? Then it means we are 1 or 2 quadrillion calories short, and lots of people are going to starve to death. It means famine and starvation and wasting syndrome (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wasting ) for a big slice of the global population. For everyone else it means an explosion in food prices.
You might have heard the idea that, “There are only nine meals between mankind and anarchy” attributed to Alfred Henry Lewis. A human being cannot live very long without food. Therefore, a human being will take incredible steps to obtain food, because the alternative is death. A large population that is starving is going to be primed for riots, chaos, and bloodshed. It is the kind of stuff that will cause societal collapse.
Think back to the great toilet paper crisis of 2020. This video can help you remember how crazy things got:
Imagine this kind of dynamic multiplied by 1,000 when it comes to food. Now add in the gun situation and the looting situation in the United States. It is easy to imagine where we end up in a food shortage.
Here is what global wheat production looks like on Planet Earth for the top 10 producers:
Wheat Production by Country 2023 – https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/wheat-production-by-country
“Top 10 Wheat Producing Countries (in tons of wheat produced 2020)*
- China — 134,254,710
- India — 107,590,000
- Russia — 85,896,326
- United States — 49,690,680
- Canada — 35,183,000
- France — 30,144,110
- Pakistan — 25,247,511
- Ukraine — 24,912,350
- Germany — 22,172,100
- Turkey — 20,500,000
China will typically produce 134 million tons of wheat in a year. In round numbers this is 0.4 quadrillion calories. The point being that if a major producer gets significantly hit by the effects of climate change and there is a crop shortfall, humanity has a major problem. It is the same kind of situation for other commodities like rice and corn. If two or more major producers get hit simultaneously, things will spin out of control rapidly.
With the way climate trendlines are heading today, it is only a matter of time until we see a major crop failure. At that point, whole countries can see their civilizations collapse. If food riots get completely out of control, all bets are off.
Example 2 – A giant hurricane hits Miami or Jacksonville
Think back to Hurricane Katrina when it hit New Orleans in 2005. This article offers a perspective:
Internally displaced persons in the United States – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internally_displaced_persons_in_the_United_States
“Internally displaced persons in the United States are people from the Gulf States region in the southern United States, most notably New Orleans, who were forced to leave their homes because of the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and were unable to return because of a multitude of factors, and are collectively known as the Gulf Coast diaspora and by standard definition considered IDPs. At their peak, hurricane evacuee shelters housed 273,000 people and, later, FEMA trailers housed at least 114,000 households.”
Why were there “only” 114,000 FEMA trailers? This article provides a perspective on the problem:
Hurricane Katrina – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_Katrina
First, Congress had to allocate money:
“Early in September, Congress authorized a total of $62.3 billion in aid for victims.”
Then FEMA had to act:
“FEMA provided housing assistance (rental assistance, trailers, etc.) to more than 700,000 applicants—families and individuals. However, only one-fifth of the trailers requested in Orleans Parish were supplied, resulting in an enormous housing shortage in the city of New Orleans. Many local areas voted to not allow the trailers, and many areas had no utilities, a requirement prior to placing the trailers.”
You can begin to imagine the problems FEMA faces in a situation like this:
- FEMA has to obtain hundreds of thousands of trailers
- FEMA has to furnish the trailers
- FEMA has to acquire land to hold all the trailers, often fighting local resistance
- FEMA needs to transport all the trailers to these sites
- FEMA needs to supply utilities for all the trailers
- FEMA needs to supply food and other sundries (e.g. toilet paper) for the people in the trailers
- And so on…
This is like building a whole new city from scratch in a very short period of time.
It is important to bring all this up because one day, a city like Miami or Jacksonville will get hit by a Category 5 hurricane. But now sea levels are higher because of climate change, and the hurricane is likely to be supercharged by all the heating in the ocean. Therefore, an unbelievable amount of wind and rain and storm surge will hit Miami with full force.
The Miami metro area has about 6 million people, roughly 5 times more than New Orleans. Think about the scale of it:
- There is likely to be a trillion+ dollars in property damage
- Millions of people could lose their homes
- Evacuation ahead of the hurricane will be complicated by enormous, unbelievable traffic jams. Therefore many people may be unable to evacuate.
- The insurance industry is likely to go bankrupt
- The shock to the banking system as a million mortgage payments go unpaid will be extreme, and the collateral will be gone due to storm damage
- Imagine the situation that FEMA will face trying to house and feed millions of people
- It would be insane to rebuild Miami afterwards because of the threat of sea level rise that is coming our way due to climate change.
Think about how societies have collapsed in the past. In nearly all cases, the land remained intact. For example, when the Roman Empire collapsed, all the land in the Roman Empire remained intact. In this case, the entire city of Miami is likely to disappear because of that last item in the list above. It would be completely irresponsible to rebuild Miami.
It is therefore easy to imagine millions of people trying to stream out of Miami, but where are they going? It’s not like the existing cities in the United States have places for millions of new people to live. Especially since many of these people will not have jobs. It is easy to imagine the systemic shock of an event like this breaking America as a civilization. There simply is not enough money or reserve capacity or resources to handle the blow.
It might be possible to handle the blow if we prepared for it. But we know this is not happening. People are moving into Miami at a frantic pace right now:
- Miami Real Estate on Pace for Second-Biggest Sales Year Ever – https://www.miamirealtors.com/2022/10/20/miami-real-estate-on-pace-for-second-biggest-sales-year-ever-single-family-home-inventory-rises-for-fifth-consecutive-month/
- Florida Attracting People, Business At A Fast Pace – https://www.gflalliance.org/news/2023/02/28/in-the-news/florida-attracting-people-business-at-a-fast-pace/
“With the addition of nearly 1,000 residents a day, the state is motivated to attract businesses of all industries. Even in current economic conditions, Florida is forecasted to create more than 250,000 jobs in 2023”
This article can provide additional insight on the situation in Florida:
Hurricanes & insurance: How prices could ignite mass migration from Florida –
Example 3 – A glacier in Antarctica breaks free and raises global sea levels by 3 feet or more
All the mayhem described in the previous section is caused by one major hurricane hitting one major city. What if we multiply by 10 or 20 because of rapid sea level rise and its destruction of many coastal cities at once? This article describes the scenario:
It’s time to start moving coastal cities to higher ground – here’s why –
A major glacier like the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is going to break free, and it is going to raise sea levels in a profound way. Unfortunately, the world’s leaders appear completely unwilling to do anything about it. It is interesting to look at this quote from the article:
“Maybe, instead of letting New York City (and all of the world’s coastal cities) be destroyed in a cataclysmic flood, the nations of the world should unite together to stabilize the Thwaites Glacier before it collapses into the ocean and raises global sea levels by 10 feet. The nations of the world should allocate a trillion dollars and hire a million scientists and engineers to solve the climate change catastrophe that humanity is facing.
The human species is displaying its worst deficiencies and tendencies when it comes to climate change. We are displaying:
- The human tendency to wait until there is a crisis to act. Once the Thwaites Glacier collapses into the ocean, there will be a crisis. But there will be nothing humanity can do because it is irreversible. See https://wraltechwire.com/2022/09/16/climate-change-doomsday-irreversible-tipping-points-may-mean-end-of-human-civilization/ for details.
- The human tendency toward corruption. All the fossil fuel corporations are making gigantic amounts of money by selling fossil fuels, even as these fossil fuels are causing the climate change catastrophe. The money is corrupting rational thought processes within these companies and beyond.
- The human tendency to accept bribes. The fossil fuel companies are funneling huge amounts of cash toward politicians so that many politicians look the other way.
- The human tendency to try to listen to both sides, even when one side is delusional. Climate deniers can be very loud (see below), but they are completely wrong. They are as wrong as the people who believe that the world is flat. Climate deniers will scream about climate change being a hoax right up until the day that the Thwaites Glacier starts collapsing.
- The human tendency toward “out of sight, out of mind”. The Thwaites Glacier is a long way away and therefore easy to ignore. The problem is that the Thwaites Glacier will affect every coastal city once it collapses.
- The human tendency to ignore reality and kick the can down the road as long as possible, along with…
- The human tendency to wait until the last minute to do things, AKA procrastination.
- The human tendency toward inertia, resistance to change, and maintaining the status quo, also known as “rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic.”
- The human tendency to be collectively stupid at times. As this article points out: “collective behavior can also lead to collective stupidity… Usually collective intelligence only makes sense if people have an ability to judge the question and competence to answer it. You also need honest decision-making where people are not trying to bias or manipulate the responses. In addition, you need high diversity amongst people so that errors are not correlated. Given all these factors, you then have the potential for collective intelligence, but there is still no guarantee.”
Consider this: Why hasn’t the United Nations, after issuing dozens of urgent climate change reports, already moved its headquarters out of New York City to a safe elevation? Do they not understand or believe their own reports? It is a great example of the deficiencies described above.
Despite all these natural human tendencies, the time to act is now. Prudent and competent leaders of corporations, government entities and households must begin to take action today to get out of harm’s way and move to higher ground before the Thwaites Glacier collapses.”
What should the world’s leaders be doing?
If our leaders had courage and foresight, they would address the situation head on with major steps like these:
- Our Leaders would take immediate steps to cool the planet down with geoengineering techniques. The excessive heat is causing so many problems that there needs to be immediate relief.
- Our Leaders would replace fossil fuels with carbon neutral synthetic fuels by inventing techniques and rapidly scaling up production. This would allow the rapid decarbonization of agriculture and transportation. This might cost a trillion dollars or more. We should allocate the money and do it.
- Our Leaders would upgrade the grid and rapidly decarbonize electricity production with renewables and modular reactors.
- Our Leaders would eliminate absurdities like private jets and SUVs, then move toward more efficient public transit systems.
- Our Leaders would move to protect vulnerable areas like rainforests, Antarctica, the Arctic circle, etc.
- Our Leaders would stabilize Greenland and the AMOC
- Our Leaders would eliminate all cattle
- Our Leaders would rapidly advance educational initiatives worldwide so that all humans are highly-educated beings
- Our Leaders would start efficiently extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and oceans
- Our Leaders would find ways to reduce the risks from crop failures and diminishing fresh water supplies
- Our Leaders would eliminate both wealthy people and poverty
- Our leaders would look at highly vulnerable cities like Miami and begin the process of decommissioning them
- And so on
Unfortunately, our leaders appear to be doing nothing of the sort. There is no aggressive effort to limit the effects of climate change. Instead, global Fossil Fuel emissions are increasing rather than declining. Our leaders seem to be completely ineffective.
It is as though we (humanity) are riding in an airplane, and we can see that the pilots (world leaders) are steering the airplane so that it will run right into the side of a mountain. We are sitting in our seats sipping our drinks and doing nothing to stop the catastrophe that we should all see coming. All this behavior is completely inexplicable. Why are the pilots steering the plane toward the mountain? Since they are, then why isn’t humanity overpowering the pilots and steering the plane away from the mountainside before we collide?
What will we do when Miami gets destroyed by a major hurricane? Or when a major crop failure creates famine worldwide. We know these things are coming. When they arrive, what will we do? As it stands now, we are likely to watch civilization as we know it collapse, despite all the warnings we have received.