Most evolving lineages, human or otherwise, when threatened with extinction, don’t do anything special to avoid it.
– George C. Williams
American evolutionary biologist George C. Williams died in September 2010 at the age of 83 years. I doubt he knew we were facing our own imminent extinction.
By the time Williams died, I had been sounding the alarm in this space for three years. I was not alone. The warnings I will mention in this short essay were hardly the first ones about climate catastrophe likely to result from burning fossil fuels. A little time with your favorite online search engine will take you to George Perkins Marsh sounding the alarm in 1847, Svente Arrhenius’s relevant journal article in 1896, and young versions of Al Gore, Carl Sagan, and James Hansen testifying before the United States Congress in the 1980s. There is more, of course, all ignored for a few dollars in a few pockets.
The projected rate of climate change based on IPCC-style gradualism outstrips the adaptive response of vertebrates by a factor of 10,000 times. Closer to
home Homo sapiens, mammals cannot evolve fast enough to escape the current extinction crisis. Humans are vertebrate mammals. To believe that our species can avoid extinction, even as non-human vertebrates and non-human mammals disappear, is classic human hubris wrapped in a warm blanket of myth-based human supremacy. The evidence indicates humans will join the annihilation of “all life on earth,” as reported in the journal literature on 13 November 2018. Even tardigrades, the go-to survivor for those who deny the impacts of abrupt climate change on life, are unlikely to survive, according to a paper in the 9 January 2020 issue of Scientific Reports. If the organisms on which we depend do not survive, if even tardigrades do not survive, then humans will not survive. We depend greatly upon invertebrates for our continued existence, yet an “insect apocalypse” is under way, as reported in a review paper in the April 2019 issue of Biological Conservation and subsequently confirmed in a 30 October 2019 paper in Nature.
The uncontrolled meltdown of the world’s nuclear power facilities is sufficient but not necessary for the near-term loss of life on Earth. “Only” abrupt climate change is necessary to rid Earth of all life. In fact, it appears air travel alone will catastrophically overheat the planet: “The contrails left by aeroplanes last only hours. But they are now so widespread that their warming effect is greater than that of all the carbon dioxide emitted by aeroplanes that has accumulated in the atmosphere since the first flight of the Wright brothers.” According to a paper in the 27 Jun 2019 issue of Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, cirrus clouds engendered by air travel have caused tremendous planetary warming, a trend likely to accelerate in future scenarios that include industrial civilization. Adding to the existential risk from commercial air travel is a peer-reviewed publication pre-printed 12 December 2019 indicating its effects on atmospheric circulation are sufficient to endanger all life on Earth.
The response to these warnings, throughout history? Shift the baseline. Ignore the abundant science. Throw caution to the wind. And, for the IPCC, retain a remarkably conservative approach (according to the remarkably conservative peer-reviewed literature).
The corporate media, governments, and most climate scientists continue to adhere to the 2 C target proposed by economist William Nordhaus in 1977: “If there were global temperatures more than 2C or 3C above the current average temperature, this would take the climate outside of the range of observations which have been made over the last several hundred thousand years.”
The corporate media in the United States is epitomized by the New York Times, a newspaper that admits it sends major scoops to the US government before publication, to make sure “national security officials” have “no concerns.” Although the Washington Post has yet to admit to the same, I suspect both primary mouthpieces of American Empire are equally guilty of serving the state rather than the people.
We know quite a bit more about climate science than we did in 1977. And real scientists knew, even way back then, that economists were not to be treated as scientists. It’s small wonder Nordhaus shared the politically motivated Nobel Prize in Economics earlier in 2018. I wouldn’t have been surprised had he been given the Nobel Peace Prize, thus joining fellow
partners-in-crime specialists-in-genocide Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama.
Earth is at least 1.73 C above the 1750 baseline marking the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. This global-average temperature is the highest ever with Homo sapiens present, according to a 2017 paper in Earth System Dynamics by James Hansen and colleagues. In other words, our species has never experienced a hotter Earth than the one currently driving the ongoing refugee crisis as habitat for humans disappears. Earth is not quite at the 2 C limit (sic) established by Nordhaus, yet we have entered a “new climate regime,” as pointed out in pre-print of the June issue of Earth’s Future: “Overall, our results suggest that we have entered a new climate regime in which the occurrence of extraordinary global-scale heatwaves cannot be explained without human-induced climate change.”
According to an overview published by European Strategy and Policy Analysis System in April 2019: “An increase of 1.5 degrees is the maximum the planet can tolerate; should temperatures increase further … we will face even more droughts, floods, extreme heat and poverty … and at worst, the extinction of humankind altogether.” In other words, according to this major synthesis, we’ve passed the point beyond which human extinction might occur.
In response to the ever-accelerating crisis known as abrupt climate change, the conventional approach is to shift the baseline. Instead of admitting the planet is nearly 2 C above the 1750 baseline, governments and many scientists have determined the baseline is actually 1981-2010, or later. Adherence to the Precautionary Principle is clearly unfashionable.
We have known for decades that the 2 C number set in stone by Nordhaus is dangerous. We were ”running out of time” to deal with greenhouse gases in 1965, according to the chief of the American Petroleum Institute. Fourteen years later, it was Edward Teller informing Big Oil they needed to change. Exxon accurately predicted where we were headed in 1982, and not only failed to heed the warnings, but kicked the warnings and the future of humanity to the curb. Al Gore and Carl Sagan testified to Congress in 1985 that we must act now on climate change. In late June 1989 Noel Brown, the director of the New York office of the United Nations Environment Program indicated we had only until 2000 to avoid catastrophic climate change. About 16 months after Brown’s warning, the United Nations Advisory Group on Greenhouse Gases set 1 C as the absolute upper limit in October 1990. Climate speaker and writer David Spratt said 0.5 C was the upper limit in October 2014.
It was undoubtedly too late to reverse abrupt, irreversible climate change in 1977 when Nordhaus shared his genocidal opinion. It certainly was too late to change course in 1989. And comforting words aside, we haven’t done anything to prevent our own extinction in the wake of warnings distant or near.
In October 2018, the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated we have until 2030 to hold global-average temperature at 1.5 C above the ever-shifting baseline. Yes, that’s correct: The United Nations is recommending a global-average temperature well below the current temperature as a “target.”
A review of the role and importance of methane hydrates in the East Siberian Arctic shelf (ESAS) by Shakhova and colleagues was published 5 June 2019 in Geosciences. Among the conclusions of this research: ESAS “has recently been shown to be a significant modern source of atmospheric CH4, contributing annually no less than terrestrial Arctic ecosystems …. Releases could potentially increase by 3–5 orders of magnitude.” Any such significant release of methane obviously would cause a near-term loss of habitat for humans on Earth. An ice-free Arctic will be equivalent to 25 years of carbon dioxide emissions, according to a paper in the 20 June 2019 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.
According to a paper in the 7 June 2019 issue of Science, the amount of methane in the atmosphere (CH4) began to rise in 2007 after a 7-year period of near-zero growth. Recent research shows that a second step change occurred in 2014. From 2014 to at least the end of 2018, the amount of CH4 in the atmosphere increased at nearly double the rate observed since 2007.
Even the corporate media are finally reporting the bubbling of subsea methane. On 8 October 2019, Newsweek quoted Igor Semiletov of Tomsk Polytechnic University: “This is the most powerful gas fountain I’ve ever seen.”
It gets worse, of course: United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres says we have until 2020 to turn this ship around. In early October 2018, according to the Guardian, “the next three months are crucial for the future of the planet.” Of course, nothing of significance was done at the planetary level because nothing of significance could be done. Ever willing to continue distracting the masses, the Prince of Wales concluded we have 18 months to deal with climate change in mid-July, 2019. The only known means by which humans can change the global-average temperature in any direction between now and 2020 (or 2021) is the reduction of industrial activity, which will alleviate the aerosol masking effect and therefore drive the global-average much higher very quickly. The impact of the aerosol masking effect has been greatly underestimated, as pointed out in an 8 February 2019 article in Science. As pointed out by the lead author of the paper in Science on 22 January 2019: “Global efforts to improve air quality by developing cleaner fuels and burning less coal could end up harming our planet by reducing the number of aerosols in the atmosphere, and by doing so, diminishing aerosols’ cooling ability to offset global warming.” The cooling effect is “nearly twice what scientists previously thought,” and this 2019 paper cites the conclusion by Levy et al. (2013) indicating as little as 35% reduction in industrial activity drives a 1 C global-average rise in temperature. Additional support for the importance of the aerosol masking effect comes in the 18 July 2019 issue of Geophysical Research Letters and also from the 27 November 2019 issue of Nature Communications. Additional research indicates loss of aerosols exacerbates heat waves. So, too, does the ongoing, abrupt loss of Arctic ice. This Catch-22 of abrupt climate change, termed the McPherson Paradox, takes us in the wrong direction regardless of the direction of industrial activity if we are interested in maintaining habitat for vertebrates and mammals on Earth. Reduction or loss of the aerosol masking effect means loss of habitat for human animals, with human extinction soon to follow.
It gets unimaginably worse by the day, of course. Recent information from the peer-reviewed journal literature finally caught up to me in concluding the Sixth Mass Extinction could annihilate all life on Earth. A paper in Scientific Reports draws this conclusion based upon the rate of environmental change, consistent with my own conclusions. More than a decade after I began pointing out in this space the importance of interactions between organisms, particularly the relatively unknown yet important microbes, microbial life is deemed important in a synthetic paper in the 18 June 2019 issue of Nature Reviews Microbiology: “[Microbes] support the existence of all higher lifeforms and are critically important in regulating climate change.” Five-and-a-half years after I described the horrors of interacting factors, a paper in the 21 December 2018 issue of Science concludes such interactions are tremendously important. Following up on 10 January 2019, a paper in the same publication points to ocean temperatures increasing much faster than expected, thereby ensuring 2018 as the year with the warmest oceans ever recorded on Earth. As one result, Antarctica is losing ice mass at six times the rate of 40 years ago, according to a paper in the 14 January 2019 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Further confirmation that Antarctic ice is diminishing rapidly comes from work published in Geophysical Research Letters on 16 May 2019. According to a paper in the 1 July 2019 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the decrease in Antarctic sea ice during the 2014–2017 period far exceeded the more widely publicized decay rates experienced in the Arctic, thereby reducing Antarctic sea ice extents to their lowest values in the 40-y record. Antarctic ice melted at the highest rate ever observed on 24 December 2019, according to Newsweek, with strong scientific support. Not surprisingly, Antarctica is setting records for high temperatures, provoking one climate scientist to indicate it is occasionally “warm enough to wear a T-shirt.”.
Climates “like those of the Pliocene will prevail as soon as 2030,” based on the stunningly conservative Representative Concentration Pathways of the IPCC (RCPs), and this rate of environmental change will destroy habitat for humans and most other species on Earth. Any informed peek at RCPs will reveal the rapidity with which global overheating makes them obsolete.
Meanwhile, “roughly 430 million years ago, during the Earth’s Silurian Period, global oceans were experiencing changes that would seem eerily familiar today. Melting polar ice sheets meant sea levels were steadily rising, and ocean oxygen was falling fast around the world.” In other words, the Ireviken extinction event is stunningly similar to the Sixth Mass Extinction in which we are currently participating, according to a paper in the 1 May 2019 issue of Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
Ocean acidification is occurring at a rapid pace, according to a paper in the 26 August 2019 issue of Nature Climate Change. As one result, diatom silica production is rapidly declining. This rapid demise in plankton is of primary concern to those of us who depend upon the ocean for food or oxygen.
Finally, a paper in Geosciences dated 23 November 2018 indicates up to 8516 ppm by volume in the Yamal region of Siberia, indicating the great potential for terrestrial permafrost to warm the planet in the near future. An article in the 1 July 2019 issue of Nature Geoscience indicates “a loss of soil carbon of 5.4% per year.” In other words, it is not only the 50-Gt burst of methane described by Shakhova and colleagues as “highly possible for abrupt release at any time” in 2008 that poses an existential threat based on methane alone. A paper in the 30 October 2019 issue of Nature Climate Change indicates abrupt, not gradual, release of methane from terrestrial permafrost. As one who loves life, my gratification from these most conservative of sources is overwhelmed by my sadness at the loss.
A paper in the 3 January 2020 issue of Geophysical Research Letters focused on the importance of clouds. Long a contentious topic in the climate-science community, the study and Zelinka and colleagues found that a doubling of atmospheric carbon dioxide beyond the 1750 baseline of 280 ppm would contribute to the loss of clouds, thus accelerating feedbacks and substantially warming Earth in the near term. What the paper fails to reveal is that the atmospheric carbon dioxide equivalent already exceeds, by a wide margin, 560 ppm.
To put it simply, our fate as a species is sealed. We’re headed for extinction in the very near term despite warnings dating more than 150 years. It’s a tragic tale. And, as foretold by evolutionary biologist George C. Williams, our species hardly made a squeak as the hammer dropped.
This essay is updated periodically to accommodate recent evidence. It was last updated 7 February, 2020.
Guy R. McPherson, Professor Emeritus, University of Arizona. He can be reached through his website: guymcpherson.com