Whistling Past The Graveyard Except for the so-called “alarmists” we are all in denial

The executives of Exxon and other fossil fuel companies, and the Republicans in Congress who carry water for them, are routinely singled out as the villains in the melodrama called Climate Change. But they would not be successful in maintaining their profitability here in the U.S. if we did not keep consuming energy at three to four times the average rate of the rest of the world.

If we really believed that disaster awaited our children and grandchildren, we would do something about it. But even those who are worried about climate change do not have any idea how bad it is going to get and how soon it will happen. And what do you do about it anyway? The problem is so big it seems out of our hands. Furthermore, we have become so dependent on our spendthrift use of energy that changing that habit would be very disruptive to our lives. Add all this together and you get inertia.

Four conditions have helped this situation come to pass.

  • One is the misinformation (lies) spread by the fossil fuel industry.
  • The second is that the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that reports on what science tells us about Climate Change, has consistently understated the severity of the problem.
  • The third is that scientists have been reluctant to speak openly about their deep concerns for fear that they will be mocked just as Climate Change activists are mocked as “alarmists”. Politically inspired public mockery is the last thing a climate scientist wants. It can tarnish her reputation and compromise her employment.
  • The fourth is our reluctance to believe that extreme events will occur. This is natural because they are not common.  And there is also a tendency to reject bad news until it is on our doorstep.

Dr. James Hansen is one exception to the rule about scientists not speaking out about the dangers posed by climate change.  Dr. Hansen is known as The Father of Global Warming because of his pioneering work and because he made it a household idea when his testimony before Congress in 1988 went viral.

For thirty years he was the director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) which is a part of NASA.  Unusual among scientists, he spoke truth to power and had a running battle with government authorities who wanted to muzzle him because his comments painted a true picture of the cause and dimensions of the climate change problem.  This made the fossil fuel industry look bad which complicated the government’s cozy relationship with it, hence the tension between Dr. Hansen and his employer.  Today Dr. Hansen is an adjunct professor directing the Program on Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions of the Earth Institute at Columbia University where he can speak freely without fear of reprisal.

The reticence of scientists may be coming to an end.  In January 2021, seventeen climate scientists coauthored a statement entitled “Underestimating the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future” in which they point out that if unchecked, climate change could become an extinction event for humans, and that we are now at a point where our ability to check it is severely limited.  (Here is a link to the article.) These scientists include Corey Bradshaw, Paul Ehrlich, Andrew Beattie, Gerardo Ceballos, Ellen Harte, Joan Diamond, Rodolfo Dirzo, Anne Ehrlich, John Harte, Mary Harte, Graham Pyke, Peter Raven, William Ripple, Frederik Saltre, Christine Turnbull, Mathis Wackernagel, and Daniel Blumstein.

Increasing emissions are driven by a growing global population and by economic development, but the abuses to which we have subjected the biosphere are about to come back and bite us in a big way.  Roles will be reversed, and climate change will begin to drive down the human population.  The following graph shows the potential impact.

The human population, now just under 8 billion, will continue to grow but at a decelerating rate until 2050 when it will peak at just over nine billion people.  It will then begin an increasingly precipitous decline, dropping to six billion by 2100 and to three billion by 2130.  At this point, the residual warming from past emissions should end and the global temperature should stabilize, but at a level that is five to ten degrees Celsius hotter than during the preindustrial age.  This will present continuing severe challenges to all life, including humans.  At this point (2130) I split the forecast into two lines.  In one the global human population stabilizes at 1.5 billion.  In the other, the population continues to fall, reaching 410 million by 2200.

The economic chaos and the reduction in population caused by climate change will drive down energy consumption and this, along with continuing efforts to replace fossil fuels with non-polluting energy sources, will reduce emissions, as the following graph indicates.  This scenario shows the world eliminating CO2 emissions by 2105.

For the past 30 years we needed to reduce our emissions, but we did just the opposite and doubled them.  Since we did not curb emissions on our own initiative, nature will force the issue.  If we started 30 years ago we might have avoided the painful adjustment that is coming, but now it will be very painful to humans as well as to thousands of other species.  And survival is not guaranteed.

We will not stop this oncoming juggernaut, but we may weaken it a bit, and that could spell the difference between our species surviving or going extinct.  That’s why we need to keep trying to do whatever we can to reduce emissions.