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.” 

Is this a time for optimism or pessimism when it comes to climate change? This is a time for deep, deep pessimism. In this article we will talk about the reasons why pessimism is warranted, and the actions it should be prompting humanity to take.

Given that pessimism is currently the correct position to take, this headline and article from last week are especially frustrating:

I thought most of us were going to die from the climate crisis. I was wrong.

The subhead for the article is this: “In an extract from her book Not the End of the World, data scientist Hannah Ritchie explains how her work taught her that there are more reasons for hope than despair about climate change – and why a truly sustainable world is in reach.”

The article is extremely optimistic about the future. The following paragraph is symptomatic:

“That means that, for every unit of energy we consume, we emit much less CO2. But that’s not the only change. We also use much less energy overall. Per capita energy use has fallen by around 25% since the 1960s. Year after year, more efficient gadgets have come into our lives. First, it was improvements in the energy ratings of white goods, then it was the trend of replacing inefficient lightbulbs. Then it was double-glazed windows and home insulation to stop heat leaking out into the street. When I was a kid, our family television – we “only” had one – was a massive box that seemed to be two metres deep. The screen was so small you had to sit really close to see anything. Our car was a gas guzzler. Not a gas guzzler like we see with SUVs today. My parents would never have bought one of those. No, our car was secondhand and it was a “banger”. It was inefficient: you could hear the engine roar and feel it overheating. The miles per gallon were terrible.”

Everything in the preceding paragraph is real, and all of it is true. Even so, all of it is insignificant in the big picture. The reason why it is insignificant is because of these five facts:

  1. Humanity has spent the last century, and particularly the last 50 years, destroying Earth’s ecosystems.
  2. This destruction is happening on multiple fronts, including: carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, methane in the atmosphere, plastics on land and sea, ocean acidification, planetary overheating, and so on.
  3. Much of the destruction is already baked in. Meaning: even if humanity could somehow immediately stop the processes of destruction that are underway, much of the destruction has already happened irreversibly, and the destruction has momentum that will take decades more to stop.
  4. Humanity is doing very little actual work to stop the processes of destruction. For example, there is no hope of “immediately stopping the processes of destruction” (or anything close to that) given current trends.
  5. Thus, humanity stands on the brink of at least ten imminent catastrophes. To write the article above and present this tone of optimism, the author has ignored these imminent catastrophes. Any one of these catastrophes would be terrible. In combination they have the potential to be civilization-ending.

Potential catastrophes that are coming our way

Let’s look at several catastrophes that are heading our way, and what they will mean for humanity.

The most obvious catastrophe is a multi-faceted crop failure that cuts global food production to the point where millions of people are dying of starvation. The crop failures might be caused by heat waves, droughts, floods, or wars.  In one part of the world (e.g. India), a wheat crop fails. In another part of the world (e.g. China), a rice crop fails. In another part of the world (e.g. the United States), a corn crop fails. In another part of the world (e.g. Brazil), a soybean crop fails. If these failures combine in the same year, it is possible that there simply are not enough calories produced planet-wide to feed 8 billion people.

What will happen? Yes, there will be millions of people, probably concentrated in the poorest countries, who experience famine and die. As sad as this is, it will be insignificant compared to other effects. The cost of food worldwide will skyrocket during the shortage. People will start hording food, increasing the supply problems and the price increases. Starving people tend to get desperate, so there will be riots, wars, mass migrations, etc. as people seek to avoid starvation for themselves and their children.

Now go back and re-read the paragraph above excerpted from the optimism article. In the context of a global food catastrophe, does it matter that some people have better TVs or double-glazed windows? Of course not.

Another imminent catastrophe is the collapse of the Amazon rainforest. Right now, humanity is doing everything in its power to destroy the rainforest. In addition, climate change is causing an immense drought. When the rainforest collapses, all the trees will die and burn. A hundred gigatons of carbon dioxide will enter the atmosphere. It will not matter if humanity has stopped burning fossil fuels when a hundred gigatons of carbon dioxide suddenly appear from rainforest collapse.

Another imminent catastrophe is a Blue Ocean Event (BOE) in the Arctic, closely followed by the collapse of Arctic permafrost. This will be a one-two punch for planet Earth. Without the ice in the Arctic, global weather patterns will go haywire. And once the permafrost collapses, a huge surge of methane will enter the atmosphere to heat the planet up even more.

Another imminent catastrophe is the collapse of major glaciers in Antarctica, which will cause enormous sea level rise. Imagine what will happen in just one American city: Miami.

The glacial collapse in Antarctica will raise sea levels enough to destroy Miami.

Six million people must evacuate the city and move somewhere else, where there are already major housing shortages.

Banks must write off all the losses in unpaid mortgages, unpaid commercial real estate loans, destroyed infrastructure and so on. This will be impossible, so there will be a banking collapse.

Now multiply this effect times 100 because coastal cities all over the world will be experiencing the same thing.

Another imminent catastrophe is a series of rogue heat waves killing millions of people in places like India, China, Africa, the Middle East, and so on. The problem here will be mass migrations out of these regions. These migrations will cause pandemonium for developed nations. Imagine a million people arriving at America’s southern border, or a million people trying to force their way into Europe.

It is not like there are any massive efforts to prevent these catastrophes from happening. For example, there is not a global task force of 50,000 engineers and scientists building infrastructure to prevent glacial collapse in Antarctica. Nor is there any global task force with a trillion dollars in funding attempting to eliminate fossil fuels, or extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, or deploy global geoengineering solutions. Right now, humanity is standing around waiting for these catastrophes to arrive, and then will be dumbstruck when they do – most people lack any awareness of what is coming, and/or they willfully deny it. Meanwhile, we have prominent authors who are telling us that, “there are more reasons for hope than despair about climate change.”

Where might these optimistic articles be coming from?

Let’s imagine that a miracle was to happen: the nations of the world get together and agree to eliminate fossil fuels on planet Earth over the next ten years. To accomplish this goal, the nations allocate $10 trillion to fund the rapid research, development, manufacturing, and deployment of technologies that completely replace fossil fuels with green, carbon-neutral technologies across the globe.

This sort of miracle would be amazing and wonderful for Planet Earth, but it is never going to happen. Why not? Because there are the entrenched and incredibly rich/powerful fossil fuel companies who will fight it every step of the way. These companies make obscene amounts of money from destroying the planet with fossil fuels, and they have no desire to see the obscene amounts of money come to an end. How do we know? All that we have to do is follow the money, as seen in stories like these:

Exxon minimized climate change internally after conceding that fossil fuels cause it
Big Oil’s Denial and Delay Is Endangering Our Future
New files shed light on ExxonMobil’s efforts to undermine climate science
Oil lobbyists swarm COP28 climate summit, seeking to tip outcome
House Speaker Mike Johnson Doubts Climate Science
The Fossil Fuel Industry Is Paying the GOP Handsomely to Deny Climate Change
Oil and gas executives want us to accept climate change so they can keep profiteering
Inside the PR Machine That Made Climate Denial Work

It is easy to go to Google and find a thousand articles in this genre. They document the extreme efforts being made to keep fossil fuels in play and to keep the fossil fuel profits rolling in. The point is that these giant fossil fuel companies can use a dozen powerful levers to delay and derail any attempts to slow the usage of fossil fuels. They have tools like media companies, vast PR efforts, advertising, lobbying, campaign contributions, donations, placement at climate summits, disinformation campaigns, etc. to keep themselves in business. They have billions of dollars to fund these efforts.

What humanity should be doing

Imagine that we wanted to give humanity, especially young people, a real reason for optimism. We would show them significant and undeniable efforts at massive scale to change the trajectory of climate change. Here are five examples:

First, we would strip away all the profits and wasteful spending (stock buybacks, extreme salaries, dividends, etc.) from fossil fuel companies. Every time a fossil fuel company makes a profit, the money would be taken and used for example to extract legacy carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This would add up to hundreds of billions of dollars per year.

Second, we would attach a fee of $1.50 to every gallon of gasoline sold to fund the extraction of its carbon dioxide emissions back out of the atmosphere. We would do the same kind of thing for every pound of coal and every unit of natural gas, and do it globally. This simple step alone would end human emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Third, humanity would fund a massive effort to research and deploy geoengineering solutions to cool the planet. 2023 taught us that global temperatures are accelerating, and we need to cool things down before feedback loops like a Blue Ocean Event and glacial collapse cause irreversible and massive damage.

Fourth, humanity would end single-use plastics worldwide. For example, replace single-use plastic water bottles with glass or aluminum. If we were to go back to the 1970s, every bottle in a grocery store was glass. Revert back to this standard. And have people pay a deposit on every container so that there is an incentive to pick up any litter.

Fifth, protect the Amazon rainforest. End human activity in the rainforest and allow the rainforest to regrow and heal. See this video to understand the destruction that is happening today:

These are the kinds of activities that would have a real effect on climate change. We could do all these things, and dozens more. When we see real efforts like these happening, it will be a time for guarded optimism.