And fear may be the only thing that saves us. Jules Julien. By David Wallace-Wells. The age of climate panic is here.
Last summer, a heat wave baked the entire Northern Hemisphere, killing dozens from Quebec to Japan. Some of the most destructive wildfires in California history turned more than a million acres to ash, along the way melting the tires and the sneakers of those trying to escape the flames. We are living today in a world that has warmed by just one degree Celsius 1. We are adding planet-warming carbon dioxide to the atmosphere at a rate faster than at any point in human history since the beginning of industrialization.
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Scientists have felt this way for a while. But they have not often talked like it. This is a bit strange. That tendency metastasized even as the news from the research grew bleaker. Some scientists even began embracing alarmism — particularly with that United Nations report. The research it summarized was not new, and temperatures beyond two degrees Celsius were not even discussed, though warming on that scale is where we are headed.
The thing that was new was the message: It is O. Even reasonable.
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This, to me, is progress. The first is that climate change is a crisis precisely because it is a looming catastrophe that demands an aggressive global response, now. In other words, it is right to be alarmed.
The emissions path we are on today is likely to take us to 1. As temperatures rise, this could mean many of the biggest cities in the Middle East and South Asia would become lethally hot in summer, perhaps as soon as Coral reefs would mostly disappear. And there would be tens of millions of climate refugees, perhaps many more, fleeing droughts, flooding and extreme heat, and the possibility of multiple climate-driven natural disasters striking simultaneously.
There are many reasons to think we may not get to four degrees Celsius, but globally, emissions are still growing, and the time we have to avert what is now thought to be catastrophic warming — two degrees Celsius — is shrinking by the day. To stay safely below that threshold, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent from levels by , according to the United Nations report. Instead, they are still rising. So being alarmed is not a sign of being hysterical; when it comes to climate change, being alarmed is what the facts demand.
Perhaps the only logical response. This helps explain the second reason alarmism is useful: By defining the boundaries of conceivability more accurately, catastrophic thinking makes it easier to see the threat of climate change clearly.
For years, we have read in newspapers as two degrees of warming was invoked as the highest tolerable level, beyond which disaster would ensue. Warming greater than that was rarely discussed outside scientific circles. And so it was easy to develop an intuitive portrait of the landscape of possibilities that began with the climate as it exists today and ended with the pain of two degrees, the ceiling of suffering.
In fact, it is almost certainly a floor. By far the likeliest outcomes for the end of this century fall between two and four degrees of warming.
And so looking squarely at what the world might look like in that range — two degrees, three, four — is much better preparation for the challenges we will face than retreating into the comforting relative normalcy of the present. The third reason is while concern about climate change is growing — fortunately — complacency remains a much bigger political problem than fatalism. Last fall, voters in Washington, a green state in a blue-wave election, rejected even a modest carbon-tax plan.
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This is a rhetorical question. If we had started global decarbonization in , according to the Global Carbon Project , we would have had to cut emissions by only about 2 percent per year to stay safely under two degrees of warming.
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Only 44 percent of those surveyed in a survey last month cited climate change as a top political priority. But it should be. The fact is, further delay will only make the problem worse. If we started a broad decarbonization effort today — a gargantuan undertaking to overhaul our energy systems, building and transportation infrastructure and how we produce our food — the necessary rate of emissions reduction would be about 5 percent per year.
If we delay another decade, it will require us to cut emissions by some 9 percent each year. A fourth argument for embracing catastrophic thinking comes from history. Fear can mobilize, even change the world. Throughout the Cold War, foes of nuclear weapons did not shy away from warning of the horrors of mutually assured destruction, and in the s and s, campaigners against drunken driving did not feel obligated to make their case simply by celebrating sobriety. Of course, we humans know that all things die — so it seems natural to worry about some ultimate conclusion to existence.
Everything we know has its end baked into its beginning, including our own lives and the life of our great civilisations. Some are more about hope for a reboot on this planet in which humanity starts anew and builds a better world for future generations. There were 19 well-known prophecies including that of global explorer Christopher Columbus saying that the world would end in the 17th century.
Some Christian denominations, for instance, still believe the Rapture is imminent and are preparing to join Jesus in heaven. Islam offers a comparable vision of the Final Hour and Final Judgement. Alongside these traditional doomsday worriers are the theories circulating on the wilder corners of the internet. Some people seriously believe a planet called Nibiru is going to smash into us at any time or think that a shadowy world government is hellbent on wiping out most of humanity. And then there are well-informed scientific doom-mongers who warn of the apocalyptic potential of climate change, artificial intelligence or some other grim existential threat.
Routledge suggested the behaviour of religious doomsday fretters was similar to atheist political activists.
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Believer or not, there is one question everyone wants to know about the so-called doomsday: When will it happen? To show how certain everyone is about this, recorded predictions vary from 66AD right through that huge 10 duotrigintillion number mentioned above.
Some psychologists believe our obsession with the apocalypse is actually detrimental because when we dream up exciting doomsday scenarios, we fail to focus on the real threats facing humanity. But because the consequences are visceral, immediate, and consequential, it is often a risk people worry about greatly.
There are whole centres based around the existential risks that the process of automation and robots could pose to humanity. The future of Numbers : What comes after the giga, tera, peta, exa, zetta and yottabyte? The future of Travel : Commuting is miserable right now — but the future will change that. The future of Space : There is a chance we will be able to travel through dimensions and time. The future of Evolution : What are the hard human limits of athletic world records? The future of Love: People could be happier with open relationships rather than hunting for 'the one'.