By Phil Torres | 12 May 2021
There is no law of nature according to which all technological civilizations must self-destruct, but nor is there any guarantee that the great experiment of civilization will succeed.
How many times do venerable scientists need to scream that unless humanity changes course immediately, we face unprecedented crises – perhaps even our extinction – in the coming decades or centuries?
In 1979, the First World Climate Conference hosted scientists from 50 nations who “agreed that alarming trends for climate change made it urgently necessary to act.” This was followed by numerous warnings in 1992, 1997, and most recently 2015, when 196 parties adopted the Paris climate agreement to “limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.”
In 2019, more than 11,000 scientists from around the globe signed the “World Scientists’ Warning fo a Climate Emergency,” which opens with the ominous declaration that “clearly and unequivocally … planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” That same year, Tim Lenton and colleagues published an article in Nature suggesting that we may be “approaching a global cascade of tipping points that led to a new, less habitable, ‘hothouse’ climate state.” The fact is that “atmospheric CO2 is already at levels last seen around four million years ago, in the Pliocene epoch. It is rapidly heading towards levels last seen some 50 million years ago – in the Eocene – when temperatures were up to 14 °C higher than they were in pre-industrial times.” There is, consequently, reason to worry that “we are in a state of planetary emergency.”
World scientists led by two from @OregonState declare climate emergency, establish global indicators for effective action: https://t.co/SUIiJ4Jrgq. @COFOregonState, @AIBSbiology, @NewsomeTM pic.twitter.com/BdLVJvNuMv
— Oregon State News (@oregonstatenews) November 5, 2019
Indeed, a recent study found that over the past decade, the Brazilian Amazon actually absorbed almost 20 percent less CO2 than it released into the atmosphere, and the 2020 Living Planet Report found that between 1970 and 2016, the worldwide population of vertebrate wildlife – reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, and mammals – declined by a mind-boggling 68 percent. The evidence is overwhelming that we have initiated the sixth major mass extinction event in the 3.8-billion-year history of Earth-originating life, with background rates of extinction reaching upwards of 1,000 times the normal rate. Add to this the apparent fact that humanity may need to “produce more food in the next four decades than … in the last 8,000 years of agriculture combined.”
Meanwhile, the venerable Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which runs the iconic Doomsday Clock, pushed the minute hand of this clock to a record-setting 100 seconds before midnight, which represents doom. As the official Doomsday Clock announcement notes,
“In this extraordinarily dangerous state of affairs, nuclear war and climate change pose severe threats to humanity, yet go largely unaddressed” … This dangerous situation remains – and continues to deteriorate. … It is now 100 seconds to midnight, the most dangerous situation that humanity has ever faced. Now is the time to unite – and act.
This is consistent with Noam Chomsky’s assertion in 2016 that the risk of extinction today is “unprecedented in the history of Homo sapiens,” and Stephen Hawking’s claim that “we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.” It comports with Paul Ehrlich’s prognostication that civilizational collapse is a “near certainty” in the coming decades if humanity continues to destroy the natural world, which itself echoes a famous estimate from Lord Martin Rees, the UK’s Astronomer Royal, that civilization has a mere 50/50 chance of making it through the current century intact.
The most recent cry for humanity to emerge from its slumber was published just a few days ago, on April 29 of this year. Titled “Our Planet, Our Future: An urgent Call for Action” and co-signed by some […] Nobel laureates, it minced no words in declaring that “without transformational action this decade, humanity is taking colossal risks with our common future. Societies risk large-scale, irreversible changes to Earth’s biosphere and our lives as part of it.” This was followed by a dire assessment about how much time we have left to avert a catastrophe. “The future habitability of Earth for human societies,” the authors write,
“depends on the collective actions humanity takes now. There is rising evidence that this is a decisive decade (2020-2030). Loss of nature must be stopped and deep inequality counteracted. Global emissions of greenhouse gases need to be cut by half in the decade of 2021-2030. This alone requires collective governance of the global commons – all the living and non-living systems on Earth that societies use but that also regulate the state of the planet – for the sake of all people in the future.”
— Church and State (@ChurchAndStateN) June 15, 2021
Consider the fact that one out of every three molecules of CO2 in the atmosphere right now was put there by human beings, and about 20 percent of these molecules will hang around for literally thousands of years. Yet the biosphere may require millions of years to bounce back from a mass extinction. In a flash of geological time, Homo sapiens – a Latinate name we gave ourselves that means “wise man” – have radically altered the planet in ways that will leave an indelible mark on the planet.
Indeed, if we destroy ourselves this century and an intelligent alien species discovers our planet in 10 million years, their scientists will notice two changes in the geological record right away: first, a significant loss in biodiversity, and second, a layer of artificial radionuclides around the world from thermonuclear tests in the 1950s. They would then realize that an intelligent species must have evolved and discovered the secret to splitting the atom, and perhaps conclude that we disappeared because of it – or because we destroyed too many of the living systems upon which we depend for survival.
In a 1985 discussion of his book Contact, the famed cosmologist Carl Sagan told his audience that “it’s elementary planetary hygiene to clean the world of … nuclear weapons.” The same could be said about our addiction to fossil fuels, our habits of overconsumption, and our failure to take seriously global-scale catastrophes like pandemics. We need to “clean the world” of these threats or face collapse.
The COVID outbreak, for example, was a surprise attack from nature – but this surprise was not itself a surprise. Scientists very much expected it.
Just consider a CNN article from 2017, which reports that “public health experts believe we are at greater risk than ever of experiencing large-scale outbreaks and global pandemics … Experts are unanimous in the belief that the next outbreak contender will most likely be a surprise – and we need to be ready.” Were we? Obviously not, which is inexcusable because pandemics are what risk experts call “Gray Rhinos,” or high-impact, high-probability events that most people don’t take seriously until it’s too late. Other Gray Rhinos include climate change, ecological collapse, sea-level rise, deepfakes, designer pathogens, superbugs, asteroid impacts, supervolcanic eruptions, and perhaps even artificial superintelligence – the last of which may be the single greatest known threat to human survival this century.
The good news is that there’s no reason to believe that humanity is helpless in the face of such threats. We can prevent the next outbreak, divert asteroids away from Earth, design human-compatible AI systems, and so on. But doing this requires foresight, wisdom, and what the “Our Planet, Our Future” article refers to as “fact-based worldviews.” There is no law of nature according to which all technological civilizations must self-destruct, but nor is there any guarantee that the great experiment of civilization will succeed. The future is ours to create and ours to ruin.
Phil Torres is author, Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and freelance writer with publications in Salon, Skeptic, the Humanist, American Atheist, The Progressive, Humanity+, and many others.
11,000 scientists sign declaration of climate emergency
World Scientists’ Warning of a Climate Emergency
Climate Change: What happens If The World Warms Up By 3°C?
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