Although civilisation has ended many times in popular fiction, the issue has been almost entirely ignored by governments. “We were surprised to find that no one else had compiled a list of global risks with impacts that, for all practical purposes, can be called infinite,” says co-author Dennis Pamlin of the Global Challenges Foundation. “We don’t want to be accused of scaremongering but we want to get policy makers talking.”Twelve ways the world could end (Financial Times via CNBC)
The report itself says: “This is a scientific assessment about the possibility of oblivion, certainly, but even more it is a call for action based on the assumption that humanity is able to rise to challenges and turn them into opportunities. We are confronted with possibly the greatest challenge ever and our response needs to match this through global collaboration in new and innovative ways.”
There is, of course, room for debate about risks that are included or left out of the list. I would have added an intense blast of radiation from space, either a super-eruption from the sun or a gamma-ray burst from an exploding star in our region of the galaxy. And I would have included a sci-fi-style threat from an alien civilisation either invading or, more likely, sending a catastrophically destabilising message from an extrasolar planet. Both are, I suspect, more probable than a supervolcano.
But the 12 risks in the report are enough to be getting on with. A few of the existential threats are “exogenic”, arising from events beyond our control, such as asteroid impact. Most emerge from human economic and technological development. Three (synthetic biology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence) result from dual-use technologies, which promise great benefits for society, including reducing other risks such as climate change and pandemics — but could go horribly wrong.
Assessing the risks is very complex because of the interconnections between them and the probabilities given in the report are very conservative. For instance, extreme global warming could trigger ecological collapse and a failure of global governance.
The authors do not attempt to pull their 12 together and come up with an overall probability of civilisation ending within the next 100 years but Stuart Armstrong of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute says: “Putting the risk of extinction below 5 per cent would be wildly overconfident.”
Here are the leading candidates and their percentages:
- Unknown consequences 0.1%
- Asteroid impact 0.00013%
- Artificial intelligence 0-10%
- Supervolcano 0.00003%
- Ecological collapse n/a
- Bad global governance n/a
- Global system collapse n/a
- Extreme climate change 0.01%
- Nuclear War 0.005%
- Global Pandemic 0.0001%
- Synthetic Biology 0.01%
- Nanotechnology 0.01%
No mention of a Solar Carrington Event? And yet again no mention of Peak Oil? I would give that probability at 100 percent since it's based on known geological reality, but it depends on whether you are considering the end of humanity or the end of modern industrial civilization. It's certainly possible for humans to survive without electricity and oil--we did so for most of our history as a species--but most experts argue that we cannot sustain the number of people currently alive without them, and certainly not our current living standards. That is, there would be a dieoff rather than extinction, so perhaps it was outside of the parameters of this particular study. Its absence is curious, however. Have these Oxford PhD's seriously never read Overshoot or The Limits to Growth?
Earth’s current human population is 7.27 billion and it is increasing at a rate of more than one per second: so fast that this will make you dizzy. By the middle of any given day, for example, there are about 205,000 thousand births, compared to 84,000 thousand deaths. Superficially, Asia and Africa are the most populous continents in the world, with the 10 most populated countries being China, India, the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Russia and Japan. On the other hand, if we consider the human impact on greenhouse-gas emissions, the most heavily industrialized countries contribute more per capita to the burden of overpopulation on climate change. Specifically, in 2012, China, the United States, and the European Union alone contributed about 56 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fuels: 29 percent from China, 16 percent from the US, and 11 percent from the EU. India and Russia were a distant fourth and fifth, at respectively, six and five percent. The rest of the entire world only contributed 33 percent of the total carbon emission! This includes all of Africa, South and Central America, Australia, and all the less industrialized countries of Asia...Breeding Ourselves to Extinction (Counterpunch)
The human population should have crashed from famine in the 1970s but was rescued by modern science. In particular, Norman Borlaug’s green revolution allowed our consumption of food to rely more and more on fossil fuels than on solar energy. We have come to depend on industrial fertilizers that require vast amounts of oil for their production, plus a heavily mechanized agricultural industry that also consumes large quantities of hydrocarbons. Indeed, for many years, the patterns of food, fertilizer, and oil prices over time have been superimposable. Today we can say with confidence, for example, that it takes three quarters of a gallon of oil to produce a pound of beef. Consequently, the idea of cheap oil has become regarded as a guarantee of affordable food. There are three problems with this notion: for one, oil is a finite resource; secondly, in a vicious cycle, cheap and abundant oil will, at best, postpone the inevitable human population crash to a much higher population; and finally, all the oil will eventually wind up in the atmosphere as CO2.
According to a November 2014 report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) that projects the state of the planet and its energy resources to 2040, humans will not have to face a shortage of energy. The IEA projects, that by 2040, the world will consume greenhouse-contributing energy like oil, gas and coal, compared with so-called green energy like wind, solar, and nuclear, in a 1:1 ratio. A world-wide expansion of fracking is expected to keep carbon energy cheap and plentiful. This fact plus a projected two-billion-people increase on Earth mean that energy consumption would increase by 37 percent by 2040. This rate of growth and consumption implies a rapid increase of greenhouse-gas emissions, which in turn translates into a 3.6-degree Celsius global warming by the year 2100. This, according to the IEA report, is a “catastrophic scenario.”
[C]limate change has triggered the collapse of advanced civilisations dating back nearly 3,000 years. Around 1200 BCE, a perfect storm of calamities – including earthquakes, famines, and a drought that lasted 150 years or more – set in motion the breakdown of the late Bronze Age kingdoms clustered around the eastern Mediterranean in an area that includes much of what is now Greece, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey and Syria...It’s also instructive to look back at the last time Earth was inhabited by 500 million humans, in the 17th century, coincidentally also a time of tremendous climate-induced upheavals. ..Historians have called this era the General Crisis because wars raged almost non-stop across the globe, including the Thirty Years War, and the collapse of the Ming Dynasty in China and the Stuart monarchy in England...The extreme weather shift was behind most of the crises that occurred during the 17th century: colder weather, with many more episodes of storm-generating El Niños, contributed to flooding, crop failures, drought and famine, leading to civil unrest, rebellions and war...The prolonged crisis weakened once-dominant states such as Spain, Russia and the Ottoman Empire, and left about a third of the population dead...Climate models predict temperatures could rise by four degrees Celsius (7.2 degrees Fahrenheit) or more by the end of this century, a level that Kevin Anderson of the UK’s Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research described as ‘incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community’.Welcome to earth, population 500 million (Aeon)
‘We will see temperatures higher than any known during human civilisation – temperatures that we are simply not adapted to,’ says Heidi Cullen, chief scientist for the NPO Climate Central in Princeton, and author of The Weather of the Future (2010). ‘With each passing year, our “new normal” is being locked in with the full impacts arriving towards the latter part of this century,’ she says. ‘It’s hard for us to imagine that large parts of the planet would be unlivable outdoors.’
An increase of seven degrees Fahrenheit would see mass migrations from some of the most humid places on Earth – the Amazon, parts of India, northern Australia. Rising sea levels of four feet or more and ferocious storms would flood coastal cities from Tokyo to Mumbai, and submerge low-lying areas such as Bangladesh and Florida, displacing millions. Earth’s most populated areas, that belt of land extending from central China and most of Europe, Africa, Australia, the US and Latin America, would be parched by this century’s end, drying up surface water and killing crops that hundreds of millions depend upon for survival. Nearly half the world’s population, almost 4 billon people, could be enduring severe water scarcity and starvation, numerous studies suggest.
Scorching heat waves and cataclysmic fires will spark food riots, famine and mass migrations of millions. An explosion in insects will trigger widespread outbreaks of typhus, cholera, yellow fever, dengue, malaria and a host of long-dormant or even novel pathogens, unleashing epidemics reminiscent of the Black Death which killed as many as 200 million people in the 14th century. Once-teeming metropolises would become watery ghost towns: Picture Manhattan, Tokyo, São Paulo underwater, sparsely populated colonies of hardy survivors who eke out vampire-like subterranean existences, emerging only at night when the temperatures dip into the low triple digits.
Worse yet, temperatures won’t conveniently stabilise at just seven degrees of warming – Earth’s climate won’t reach a new equilibrium for hundreds of years because of all the heat trapping carbon dioxide that’s already been dumped into the environment. ‘We have only felt a fraction of the climate change from the gases already in the atmosphere,’ said James Hansen, a leading climatologist and director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, recently. ‘Still more is in the pipeline because the climate system has enormous inertia and doesn’t change that quickly.’ The planet will continue to heat up, triggering feedback loops of runaway climate change, until we can kiss most of civilisation goodbye.
As we move into the 22nd century, tropical rain forests – the lungs of the planet – could be enveloped by desertification while alpine forests will be ravaged by fires. In a 2014 paper in Science, the biologist Rodolfo Dirzo at Stanford University and colleagues predicted that we are on the verge of the planet’s sixth mass extinction event, which could wipe out as much as 90 per cent of the species on Earth. The birds and animals that roam the equatorial belt will be gone forever. Australia will revert to a blazing desert once more, empty of humans. The island chains in the South Pacific, from Hawaii to Fiji, will be swallowed by the oceans.
That's timely, as I'm sure many have you seen this widely reported study this week:
The US south-west and the Great Plains will face decade-long droughts far worse than any experienced over the last 1,000 years because of climate change, researchers said on Thursday.US faces worst droughts in 1,000 years, predict scientists (The Guardian)
The coming drought age – caused by higher temperatures under climate change – will make it nearly impossible to carry on with current life-as-normal conditions across a vast swathe of the country.
The droughts will be far worse than the one in California – or those seen in ancient times, such as the calamity that led to the decline of the Anasazi civilizations in the 13th century, the researchers said.
“The 21st-century projections make the [previous] mega-droughts seem like quaint walks through the garden of Eden,” said Jason Smerdon, a co-author and climate scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.
Researchers have long known that the south-west and Great Plains will dry out over the second half of the 21st century because of rising temperatures under climate change.
But this was the first time researchers found those droughts would be far worse even than those seen over the millennia.
Several independent studies in recent years have predicted that the American Southwest and central Great Plains will experience extensive droughts in the second half of this century, and that advancing climate change will exacerbate those droughts. But a new analysis released today says the drying will be even more extreme than previously predicted—the worst in nearly 1,000 years. Some time between 2050 and 2100, extended drought conditions in both regions will become more severe than the megadroughts of the 12th and 13th centuries. Tree rings and other evidence indicate that those medieval dry periods exceeded anything seen since, across the land we know today as the continental U.S.U.S. Droughts Will Be the Worst in 1,000 Years (Scientific American)
US 'at risk of mega-drought future' (BBC)
The United States of Megadrought (Slate) Naked Capitalism comments, "Note that the Anasazi were an advanced civilization in Chaco Canyon, NM, by 1200-1300 standard. The end game of the drought included cannibalism."
The world may not be as close to peak oil as once believed, but peak food, it seems, has already passed.The World Hit "Peak Chicken" in 2006 (Smithsonian) I wonder why this has received so little coverage in the mainstream media. Even this story was covered up by the rather anodyne headline.
Energy experts warned in the late 20th century that the world would soon use up its supply of oil, and that production rates were about to plateau. That gloomy prophecy fell flat when oil production accelerated in the last decade, buying us a sort of contract extension on our energy use habits. However, according to research recently published in Ecology and Society, production of the world’s most important food sources has maxed out and could begin dropping—even as the Earth’s human population continues to grow.
Ralf Seppelt, a scientist with the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research in Germany, and several colleagues looked at production rates for 27 renewable and nonrenewable resources. They used data collected from several international organizations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and analyzed yield rates and totals over a period of time—from 1961 to about 2010 in most cases. For renewable resources like crops and livestock, the team identified peak production as the point when acceleration in gains maxed out and was followed by a clear deceleration.
While annual production is still increasing in all the food resources analyzed—except for wild-caught fish—the rate of acceleration for most of them has been slowing for at least several years. The research team concluded that peak production of the world’s most important crops and livestock products came and went between 5 and 30 years ago. For instance, peak corn came in 1985, peak rice in 1988, peak poultry eggs in 1993, and peak milk and peak wheat both in 2004. The world saw peak cassava and peak chicken in 2006 and peak soy in 2009. This trajectory is troubling, because it means production will eventually plateau and, in some cases, even start to decline.
“Just nine or ten plant species feed the world,” says Seppelt. “But we found there’s a peak for all these resources. Even renewable resources won’t last forever.” While fertilizing soils can help maintain high yields, peak nitrogen—an important fertilizer—occurred in 1983, the study says.
Converting forest, prairie and marsh into farmland may be partially offsetting the per-acre productivity decline in many crops—though this process cannot go on forever. Seppelt and his colleagues found that acceleration of farmland conversion peaked in 1950. What's more, trees support biodiversity and serve as a sponge for atmospheric carbon, so losing more of the world’s forests to agriculture would be a global disaster.
All this might not be a problem if the human population was also stabilizing. Though we recently passed peak population, growth is not decelerating especially fast, and by 2050 there will probably be 9 billion of us and counting. Compounding the increased numbers is the fact that Asian population giants China and India are adopting diets heavier in meat—like the one that the western world has enjoyed for decades.