Tag: <span>Global Warming</span>

The Apocalypse Will Not Be as Cool or as Deadly as You Hope

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Every so often someone reads one of my posts. And sometimes this same person will even talk to me about it afterwards. Most often this happens with something I wrote recently, but every so often it happens with something I wrote quite a while ago. This makes the discussion somewhat difficult because whatever I wrote is fresher in the mind of the individual I’m talking to than it is in my own mind. That difficulty aside I’m delighted that something I wrote several months ago is still being consumed, and I’m overjoyed when they point out an idea, or a refinement or even a criticism that I hadn’t considered. Which is what happened a couple of days ago.

As it turns out, the actual episode he listened to doesn’t matter that much, because the discussion ended up covering a topic which appears in many if not most of my episodes. And while it’s a topic that has made a lot of cameos in previous episodes, after this recent discussion I think it has at last solidified to the point where it’s finally ready for a starring role.

The subject is endings. Whether it’s the ending of death or the ending of civilization, or even the ending of all life on the Earth. But my subject is also to a certain extent about extreme thinking in general. We might even give it the title “Thinking About the Middle is Difficult.” We might, but we didn’t because, whatever it’s accuracy, that title is kind of lame. The actual title I choose is cooler as evidenced by the fact that it actually has “cool” in the title.

To begin with, bad events come in different forms. I have, on many occasions, talked about various cataclysms, catastrophes and disasters. All of which are bad, but not equally bad. I’ve talked about a peaceful dissolution of the United States into fiefdoms; I’ve speculated about a jobless future where people have lots of time, but little meaning; I’ve spoken about how hard it is for a nation to remain intact; I’ve dissected global warming; sounded the alarm about nuclear war, and examined the probability of earth being struck by a comet. All of these are significantly different in their impact, (no pun intended) but if you’re a fan of the status quo, and are happy going to a job, collecting a paycheck and binging The Big Bang Theory on the weekend, then it’s easy to lump all catastrophes into a single category of, “Well I sure hope that doesn’t happen!” Those who are a little bit more sophisticated might have two categories, catastrophes which are survivable and catastrophes which aren’t survivable. But even here things get fuzzy. Many people automatically equate lots of people dying with everyone dying, but when you’re talking about humanity’s extinction the difference between most and all is entirely the point.

And it is here that I would like to introduce one of the major themes of this post. People want their catastrophes to be simple. They don’t want cataclysms that require numerous demanding sacrifices, but which, for someone with sufficient resources who makes all the right choices, are ultimately survivable. They want cataclysms where it doesn’t matter what they do. They want to be able to sit on the couch and watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones secure in the knowledge that TV, or something better, will be around forever, or, alternatively, they want to know that one day it will all end suddenly and they’ll be dead and free of care without ever having to actually exert themselves in between those two points. Perhaps this portrait of the average individual is a stretch, but if it is, it’s not much of one.

As an example of what I mean by this, let’s look at global warming, if it’s going to be a disaster people want it to be a true apocalypse. Something which scours the Earth of the wickedness of humanity. Though actually, as I already pointed out, this vague longing for global warming to wipe out humanity is really not about whether people are wicked or not, it’s about the fact that it’s far easier to toss up your hands and say, “Well we’re all going to die, and there’s nothing we can do about it.” Then it is to really figure out what you should be doing and then do it.

John Michael Greer, who I reference frequently, described the state of people’s thinking about global warming in this way:

It’s a measure of how drastic the situation has become that so many people have fled into a flat denial that anything of the kind is taking place, or the equal and opposite insistence that we’re all going to die soon so it doesn’t matter. That’s understandable, as the alternative is coming to terms with the impending failure of the myth of progress and the really messy future we’re making for those who come after us.

All of which is to say that people don’t really like doing hard things. And they don’t want to consider a messy future, they want a simple future or no future at all, which, as it turns out, is pretty simple. As I have already pointed out, any plan for preventing global warming is ridiculously difficult, meaning, as Greer said, most people default to one of the two extremes. Specifically, there’s no plan which grants the truth of global warming, but also allows us to prevent it, while still continuing to live as we always have. Lots of things are going to continue, just about regardless of what happens, but sitting on the couch, enjoying the bounty of technology: watching TV, being cooled by central air, and distracted by your iPad, is not necessarily one of those things.

What will continue? Or, to frame the question in a form closer to my subject, what won’t end? To begin with, life, almost regardless of the catastrophe, will continue. From the simplest microbe to most complex water flea (31,000 genes as compared to humans 23,000), life is remarkably tenacious. The poster child for this tenacity is the Tardigrade, also known as water bears. Allow me to quote from Wikipedia:

Tardigrades are one of the most resilient animals known: they can survive extreme conditions that would be rapidly fatal to nearly all other known life forms. They can withstand temperature ranges from 1 K (−458 °F; −272 °C) (close to absolute zero) to about 420 K (300 °F; 150 °C) for several minutes, pressures about six times greater than those found in the deepest ocean trenches, ionizing radiation at doses hundreds of times higher than the lethal dose for a human, and the vacuum of outer space. They can go without food or water for more than 30 years, drying out to the point where they are 3% or less water, only to rehydrate, forage, and reproduce.

You may be thinking that this is all fine and dandy, but it doesn’t matter, how tough the tardigrade is, if the Earth itself is destroyed like Alderaan in Star Wars, or more realistically by some giant comet, the tardigrades will perish like all the rest of us. While that would certainly slow things down. It by no means guarantees the end of life. To illustrate my point, one of the big worries about any trip to Mars is contaminating it with earth-based bacteria. Given how tenacious life is, most scientists think Earth-life gaining a foothold on Mars is more a matter of when than if. There are some, in fact, who will allege the exact opposite, that life started on Mars and then spread to Earth. Either way, the point is, many scientists think that life spreading from one planet to another is not only possible, but very likely, particularly when you consider that it has had billions of years in which to do so.

Before leaving this topic, it’s instructive, and interesting, to describe how this sort of thing happens. The details are fascinating enough that they could easily form the basis for completely separate post. But, essentially, every time there’s a large enough impact, material is flung into space, and if the impact is big enough things can get flung all the way out of the Solar System. You might be skeptical at this point, and that would only be natural. I mean even if material from Earth gets ejected all the way out of the Solar System, how much material is it really and how much of it would actually end up on an exoplanet as opposed to floating in the interstellar vacuum forever? Because unless you can show that a significant amount actually ends up on another planet, then you’ve just moved the extinction of life from the end of the Earth to the end of the Solar System.

Well, as it turns out some scientists decided to run the numbers, with respect to the impact 65 million ago that wiped out the dinosaurs. And what they found was very interesting.

The scientists wanted to know how much of the ejecta from this impact would have ended up in various locations. Among the locations they looked at were the Jovian moon Europa (a promising candidate for life) and a super-earth orbiting Gliese 581.

For the answer to the first they discovered that almost as much material would have ended up on Europa as ended up on the Moon, because of the assistance Europa would get from Jupiter’s gravity. The scientists estimated that 10^8 (100 million) rocks would have traveled from Earth to Europa as the result of that explosion. But what was more interesting is what they discovered about the Gliese 581 exoplanet. According to their calculations 1,000 Earth rocks would have ended up there, though after a journey of a million years. A million years is a long time, and astrobiologists generally think even the most hardy life can only last 30,000 years, but given all of the above do you really want to bet that life is confined to the Earth and nowhere else?

That ended up being quite the tangent, but the impact/ejecta stuff was too interesting to leave out. The big thing I wanted to get across is that whatever the cataclysm it probably won’t wipe out all life. Also given its frequent appearance in this space I should also point out that this is another reason why Fermi’s Paradox is so baffling. (Well not for me.) All of this is to say that even if all life on the Earth is completely destroyed, whether in 5 billion years when the Sun expands or in 7.5 billion years when it engulfs the Earth or whether Earth’s surface gets completely sterilized by a high energy gamma ray burst, life will find a way, as they say.

But when people imagine apocalypses what they are mostly worried about is the end of all humans, not the end of all life, and admittedly humans are not as resilient as the tardigrades. Unlike them we can’t handle hard vacuum, or temperatures from 300 °F to −458 °F. Even so humanity is a hardy species, with lots of tools at its disposal. Humans have survived ice ages and supervolcanoes and that was when the most technologically advanced tools we had were fur clothes and flint spears. Now, we have vast amounts of knowledge, and underground bunkers, and seed vaults, and guns and nuclear power. Of course the last item is a double edged sword, because in addition to (relatively) clean power it has also given us very dirty weapons.

In the past I have used nuclear war as something of a shorthand for THE apocalypse, as an event which would mark the end of current civilization. And consequently you may have gotten the impression that I was saying that nuclear war would mean the end of humanity. If you did get that impression I apologize. What I intended to illustrate was that large enough disasters are just singularities of another sort.

As you may recall when people started to use the word singularity, in this context, they were borrowing an idea from astrophysics, specifically the idea that you can’t see past the event horizon of a black hole, singularity being another word for black hole. And this is mostly what nuclear war is, something, past which, it’s impossible to predict, but while it’s the case that a post nuclear world would be difficult to imagine, there are some things we can say about it, and one of them is that humanity would survive. It might be only a small percentage of humanity, which makes it an inconceivable tragedy, but nuclear war all by itself would not mean the end of our species. As I said, you may have gotten a different impression in previous posts, and if so I apologize, mostly I was just using it as shorthand for a very, very bad thing. In fact if you only take one thing from this post it should be this, nuclear war would not mean the end of humanity.

Why is this important? Because it’s another example of the same thing we saw with global warming, people assume that it’s either not going to happen or that if it does they’re going to be dead so it doesn’t matter.

Though, there also seems to be a third group who feel like if it does happen and they do survive that it will be awesome. That it will be one long desert chase scene involving impossibly cool cars with flame throwing double-necked guitar players attached to the front, like in Mad Max. Or that it will involve lots of guns and zombies like in the Walking Dead. Or perhaps that it will be some sort of brutal, all-encompassing dictatorship, like in Nineteen Eighty-Four. But if it is, they always imagine that they would be part of the resistance. What they don’t imagine, as part of any apocalypse, is slowly sinking into despair and eventually overdosing on heroin. Or standing in long bread lines, waiting for a small amount of food, with no guns or glamorous resistance fighters any where to be found. Or unemployment at above 20%, and being homeless and hungry. And of course all of these things have already happened or are happening in decidedly non-apocalyptic situations. It’s sheer madness to assume that things would be better during an actual apocalypse. But once again, people assume it either won’t happen or they’ll be dead, not that they’ll have to wake up every day with an empty stomach, not knowing where their next meal is going to come from.

You may have noticed that this post has been largely free about discussions of specific apocalypses or catastrophes. And in that way I have contributed to the problem I’m trying to solve, though in my defense I’m going to say that it was done intentionally to illustrate the point. Also there are so many potential unforeseeable disasters, that the one’s we can name and describe might not be the ones to worry about. But perhaps, as we’ve been discussing it, you can see that visions of the future end up in one of three categories. Either the future will be awesome, or it will basically be the same (TV, couches and central air will all still exist) or the world will end, and we’ll all be dead. What this post is trying to point out is that far more likely than the world ending suddenly and irrevocably, is the world continuing, but going through some kind of crisis. Whether that’s temporary or long term, whether it’s nuclear war, or something like the 2007 crisis, in all of these situations there would be a good chance you would survive. Even in a nuclear war you would have a better than even chance of surviving. The question is not would you survive, but how long would you survive. My go-to disaster book, Global Catastrophic Risks, illustrates the point, in a quote about the effects of an all out war on America.

In addition to the tens of millions of deaths during the days and weeks after the attack there would probably be further millions (perhaps further tens of millions) of deaths in the ensuing months or years. In addition to the enormous economic destruction caused by the actual nuclear explosions, there would be some years during which the residual economy would decline further, as stocks were consumed and machines wore out faster than recovered production could replace them… For a period of time, people could live off supplies (and in a sense, off habits) left over from before the war. But shortages and uncertainties would get worse. The survivors would find themselves in a race to achieve viability… before stocks ran out completely. A failure to achieve viability, or even a slow recovery, would result in many additional deaths, and much additional economic, political, and social deterioration. This postwar damage could be as devastating as the damage from the actual nuclear explosions.

Notice that this assessment is not just a repeat of Private Hudson’s quote from Aliens. “That’s it, man. Game over, man. Game over!”, but rather a very sober assessment which points out that a lot of people would live and it would be really horrible.

In bringing this up, my primary point is not that people are inadequately prepared for the eventuality that they might survive a nuclear war, preferring instead to believe that they would be instantly killed, though that statement is certainly true. My primary point is that people are equally unprepared for smaller catastrophes.

I started this post off by mentioning a conversation I had had with a friend, and a desire to talk about endings in general. In that conversation we didn’t talk about the end of life, or the end of humanity, we talked about the eventual end that comes to us all, death. Which even more than the end of life or the end of humanity is an end everyone should be worried about.

Specifically the conversation was about how non-religious people dealt with death, and he, being a non-religious person, claimed that they don’t ignore it, that most of them have come to terms with the fact that they are eventually going to die. I replied that I was unconvinced. That if this was really the case, how many had taken some concrete action to illustrate that fact? If I were to survey the non-religious and ask them whether they had come to terms with their mortality, how many would say yes? If I then asked all of those people whether they had life insurance, or a graveyard picked out, or if they had a living will? How many of the group who answered yes to this first question would answer yes to the second? And maybe that list is too bourgeois for my non-religious friends, particularly those who don’t have any dependants to worry about, but if they don’t like that list what other concrete evidence would they offer to show that they had really grappled with death other than them just saying that they had?

It’s easy to say, whether it’s the possibility of our own death, or the possibility of global warming or nuclear war, well it won’t matter, I’ll be dead. And perhaps with the first that’s true, but that doesn’t mean you’ve come to terms with it. But also, there are of course lots of catastrophes and mini-apocalypses which could happen which won’t kill you, and if your view of the future is limited to: its going to be awesome, it’s going to be the same or I’m going to be dead. I think there’s a good chance you’re going to be very alive, and very disappointed.


You know what’s not disappointing? Donating to this blog. I can personally vouch that several people who’ve done it have described it being followed by a warm satisfied glow. Though It may have been indigestion. Apparently my blog causes both.


How Do You Solve a Problem Like Global Warming?

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I mentioned in my last post that there were several controversial topics that I had never covered, and I promised to rectify that. Well, as they say there’s no time like the present. You can probably guess from the title which topic that will be. Yes, the first subject I’m going to tackle is global warming. I probably don’t need to point out that this is a controversial topic, so I expect to get some flack, but I go where the truth takes me! Or at least where my completely subjective, inadequately informed, culturally biased perception of the truth takes me…

I’m not the only one who’s been talking about global warming recently, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, who I’ve mentioned in this space before, has been spending a significant amount of time on it as well. Before going farther, I know that many people think Scott Adams has gone off the deep end. And I, personally, am a little bit tired of his repeated references to persuasion and hypnotism. Also, I think he sometimes engages in the bias of massaging his predictions after the fact to make them look better, but you know what? He would be the first to admit that he’s biased, and that he has biases he’s not even aware of. And whether or not he massages his predictions, he still called it for Trump over a year in advance, of the election, when very few people were. In other words, if we’re looking at whose side everyone is on in whatever weird battle is currently taking place, I think I’m on Adams’ side (particularly if there are only two sides.)

I bring Adams up because he’s been hammering home a point that I think is critical to understanding the issues and policy associated with global warming, i.e. it may be less about the facts and more about which side is the better persuader. Now, Adams is an absolute fiend for persuasion (as I said I’m a little sick of it) and so he would say something like this, but despite that I think he makes a very important and frequently overlooked point, in short, that global warming advocates may have overshot the mark.

In order to understand why that might be the case we need to begin by defining what global warming is. This may seem like an unnecessary first step, but the problem is that one of the ways in which advocates have overshot the mark is by bundling everything together, and in order to understand things we have to first unbundle the various assumptions if we really want to know what’s going on. The best way to do this is through a series of questions.

The first and most basic question: Is the Earth getting hotter? Much of the debate about global warming occurs at this level. On the one side you’ll see headlines like February 2017: Earth’s 2nd Warmest February and 4th Warmest Month in Recorded History. And on the other side you might see someone claim that there was no appreciable warming from February 1997 through November of 2015. This is the debate about whether any global warming is actually happening. For my own part I’m convinced that it is. The evidence is substantial. But as usual the point is not to convince you to agree with me, but to dissect things in such a way that you understand it better.

At this level what is frequently happening is what Daniel Kahneman, in Thinking, Fast and Slow called the substitution fallacy (also the Masked-Man fallacy), where people substitute an easy question for a hard question. The hard question is “Should we completely remake the world economy to prevent global warming?” That’s a really difficult question, so people substitute, “Is the Earth getting warmer?” That’s an easier question to answer. And of course it should be pointed out that some people go one step farther to, “Did summer seem especially hot?” Often the substitution happens as the question is being asked. It’s far more common to hear, “Should we do something about global warming?” Than any questions involving carbon pricing or emission sequestration. And of course we should probably do something, but that’s pretty broad.

Once we’ve determined that yes, the Earth is getting hotter, the next question is, is it getting hotter because of human activity? The background temperature of deep space is -455 degrees fahrenheit. The average temperature of the Earth is around 57 degrees fahrenheit. Which means that the sun provides 512 degrees of warmth. If the average temperature of the earth goes up to 59 degrees, it’s not insane to argue that perhaps the warmth of the sun increased by 0.005%. I used to see arguments along these lines fairly often, but I haven’t seen them recently. I think the consensus is that the Earth is getting warmer, and humans are causing it through the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide. That’s certainly where I would put my money. Still how often do you see anyone try and separate warming from human activity. I think 99.5% of people don’t make any distinction between the two, and they’re probably totally correct not to, but you can see from even the short example I gave that it’s not ridiculous to do so.

Third, is global warming a bad thing? Or more specifically are the downsides to a warmer planet worse than the upsides? Not all change is bad. If manna started falling from heaven, ending world hunger, then despite the potential increase in obesity I think people would argue, that on the balance, it was a good thing. As far as global warming goes, we hear about a lot of bad things, the flooding of coastal cities, a plague of tropical diseases, worse hurricanes, etc. But we don’t hear much about any benefits. Is it possible that global warming is 100% bad, that everything gets worse with rising temperature? I suppose so, but that seems unlikely. There’s probably some benefits. I completely understand why none of the advocates would want to mention any potential benefits, but there are almost certainly a few of them.

I just recently read a book called Twilight of Abundance. I know someone, somewhere recommended it to me, but I’m not even sure who it was. I probably wouldn’t recommend it, but it was interesting. The author, David Archibald, is a global warming skeptic, and a Malthusian. His big worry is that you have lots of countries, with serious population growth, which already import from half to 90% of their food. And therefore the biggest problem, in his opinion, is feeding those people. He doesn’t believe global warming is happening, but if it is, he thinks it would be a good thing, particularly if it increased the amount of arable land in places like Siberia. As I said I don’t think I’d recommend the book, but I also don’t think his opinions are so out there that they’re not even worth mentioning. Bill Gates was quoted as saying something broadly similar in an article about global warming a while back when he mentioned that if we don’t do something we’ll end up running the “2-degree experiment”. In other words no one is 100% sure what will happen when temperatures go up, it’s an experiment. I totally agree that it would be better if we didn’t conduct the experiment at all, but I think it’s implausible that rising temperatures won’t bring any benefits.

Fourth, now that we’ve established that the planet is warming, humans are causing it, and it’s a net bad thing, we have to ask, “How Bad?” If unchecked global warming will unquestionably cause humanity’s extinction, then that calls for far more extreme measures, than if it’s just going to cause everything to have to move a few more meters above sea level. Obviously, I don’t want to minimize the disruption caused by a sea level rise of several meters, but it’s not the same thing as the end of humanity. And we shouldn’t treat it the same way either. The third question, essentially asked, should we do anything? This fourth question asks how much should we do. If it means the end of humanity then nothing is off limits. But if it’s not that bad then the question of what we should do becomes a lot more complex.

Beyond this point there are other ways to break the issue down. We might ask what the US and China should be doing vs. what countries in Sub-Saharan Africa should be doing. We might get into the fact that sea levels could actually fall in certain places. Or we might get into minutia, like Climategate or cow farts. But I think we’ll stop it here. The key thing I wanted to illustrate was that when people speak of global warming they generally combine all four of these questions into a single assertion that unless we do something radical, anthropogenic human warming will cause the end of humanity. And maybe it will. You know I’m very careful about predicting the future. But if we’re going to speak intelligently about global warming it’s important to examine the various links in the chain. Too many people translate “February temperatures reach record high” into “WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE!!!” And the two are not remotely the same thing.

This is something of a tangent, but before we go any farther it’s important to talk about climate change denial. By not immediately denouncing all denial as a crime akin to torturing kittens, and in fact even using the word “interesting” to describe some of the ideas, certain people may be assuming that I should be considered a “denier” as well. If that’s what you think, I doubt anything I can say will change your mind, which is too bad because reasonable disagreements and debates are one of the best ways to get at the truth, and that can’t happen if we only have access to one side. I would allow that there are certain situations of extreme emergency where debate has to be suspended, but I don’t see any reason for placing global warming in that category.

In any case I think “deniers” have had minimal impact on what’s actually happened. It’s not as if some charismatic denier kept us from taking the easy and obvious steps to prevent global warming. Doing anything about global warming is difficult, costly and politically unpopular even in the absence of doubt. In order to assume deniers have done any damage you have to show me where there was some credible path to stop global warming and it failed specifically because climate change deniers swung things the other way. As in, imagine voters in the Appalachian coal country who voted against something involving global warming specifically because they thought global warming wasn’t real and not because of the far more tangible fear that the legislation might cost them their jobs. I don’t think this has ever been the case. I understand lots of people have doubts about global warming, but that’s almost never the primary reason for doing one thing rather than another. Our hypothetical residents of coal country may have had doubts about global warming in addition to their fear of unemployment, but changing their belief in global warming would not have changed their votes. In any event I reject the idea that you can’t bring up the possibility that something might be wrong. End of tangent.

Having broken down the global warming debate into these various stages, maybe you can start to see why global warming advocates may have overshot the mark, but if not let me provide a metaphor. Imagine if you gave a very difficult test to a bunch of high school students, and told them that if they got a perfect score they could go to a good college, but that if they missed even one question it would be the same as if they missed all the questions. How hard would these high school students try? Sure you might have a couple of overachievers who really gave it 100%, but most kids would check out the minute they came to a question they didn’t know. This, in my opinion, is what the current state of global warming advocacy looks like, particularly when it’s framed as an apocalyptic, extinction level event. It’s a really hard test that we have to ace. And yes there are some overachievers out there who are really trying, but most people are essentially high school students who are going to check out the minute you tell them they can’t have a hamburger.

If you disagree with this metaphor, perhaps you’re not aware of how hard the test is. Fortunately as I was working on this post Vox.com published an article laying out the exact details. Titled: Scientists made a detailed “roadmap” for meeting the Paris climate goals. It’s eye-opening. I agree that it’s eye-opening and I would recommend reading the whole article, but just to give you some highlights:

  • All new cars have to be electric by 2030. Currently, electrical cars are at around 1%, at least in the US. To go from 1% to 100% in 13 years would be one of the most amazing accomplishments ever. How many people do you know that even have a purely electrical car? Now imagine that everyone you know has one…
  • Carbon capture has to get to five gigatons per year by 2050. In other words we have to be removing 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and putting it somewhere where it can’t escape. Currently, as best I can tell we are doing effectively zero carbon capture right now. But, by 2050, the article says, we would have to be capturing twice as much carbon as all the trees and soil on the entire planet.
  • In addition to perfecting carbon capture, there are a host of other technologies we’d have to invent. In particular we have to come up with a low carbon way for producing steel and concrete. We’d have to grow food with zero carbon emissions from land use. We’d have to make a huge investment in nuclear energy or invent much more effective batteries.
  • Finally we have to cut carbon dioxide emissions in half every decade. Currently the US, China and India are responsible for half of all emissions. Imagine that all three countries had to be completely carbon neutral by 2030. And then of course you have to halve it again in 2040, and then you have to halve it again by 2050.

All of this has to be done while at the same time the population continues to grow to 9.7 billion. As perhaps the best illustration of how difficult it is I refer you to another article also from Vox.com, where they talk about a “remarkable slowdown” in emissions. If you look at the article you’ll see that the remarkable slowdown is just emissions being flat for the last few years. If emissions need to go down by 90% while population increases by 50% then staying constant is not a “remarkable” slowdown it’s horrible.

I’ve talked about how difficult it’s going to be, but I haven’t talked about how bad it is if we fail. As I said above if this threatens the extinction of humanity we should do whatever it takes. But as far as I can tell it doesn’t. I haven’t seen a credible scenario on how global warming wipes out all of humanity. I see how it makes things really bad, how progress might be set back 50 years, and even where some people die. But I don’t see any scenario where it kills every last human. A few months ago I read the book Global Catastrophic Risks, which is a comprehensive examination of everything that might wipe out humanity, and while they have a chapter on climate change their conclusion is:

The key point to emphasize in the context of catastrophic risk is that this warming is expected to be quite smooth and stable. No existing best guess state-of-the-art model predicts any sort of surprising non-linear disruption in terms of the global mean temperature.

In other words there’s no tipping point where the Earth suddenly gets 50 degrees hotter. Further on it says:

While it’s true that a global mean temperature rise of 4℃ would probably constitute dangerous climate change on most metrics, it would not necessarily be catastrophic in the sense of being a terminal threat. The challenges they suggest our descendents will face look tough, but endurable.

If global warming is “tough but endurable” what’s really at stake? Generally when you talk about some big potential catastrophe what you’re really talking about is people dying. I am not an expert, but it doesn’t appear that global warming is bad because of all the lives that are stake. Yes, some people will die as a result of global warming whether it’s hurricanes, or tropical diseases or something else. But as I also pointed out it’s possible, maybe even likely that more people will be saved from hunger. I’ve already touched on that idea, but briefly, at a minimum we’re looking at longer growing seasons, an abundance of carbon dioxide, which plants love, and additionally, unlike how it’s often portrayed, a warmer world is a wetter world. So if people’s lives aren’t at stake, what is?

In short, progress is at stake. We’ve talked a lot about progress in this space, from the Religion of Progress, to the idea that progress has reduced deaths. We’ve also talked about how modern progress is sustained by using up the stored solar energy of millions of years in the space of a couple of centuries, which is course what causes global warming. Which means that what global warming really is, is a very costly challenge to this idea of never-ending progress. In simple terms it’s the challenge of having your cake and eating it too. This is why it’s so hard to do anything about global warming. People don’t have some higher want they’re willing to make sacrifices for. They’re not avoiding cake so they can lose weight. Global warming is essentially avoiding cake in order to maybe still have cake in 50 years. Very few people even understand that trade, and even fewer are willing to make it. Not even the people who are ostensibly very concerned with the issue (do a search for global warming and private jets).

As I say, so often I don’t know what’s going to happen. Maybe we will manage to do all the things I listed above. Maybe there will be hidden benefits to warming. Maybe there will be some tipping point and the world will get 50 degrees warmer all of the sudden. And maybe, just maybe the deniers are right. I don’t think so. I think global warming is happening, and I wish I knew what to do about it. But in the end it’s one more reason why the harvest is past, and the summer is ended, and we are not saved.


Solving global warming is not straightforward, or easy. If you’re looking for something easy and straightforward may I recommend donating to this blog. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, it’s just straightforward.