Some scientists, Guy McPherson included, fear that climate disruption is so serious, with so many self-reinforcing feedback loops already in play, that humans are in the process of causing our own extinction.
August, September and October were each the hottest months ever recorded, respectively. Including this year, which is on track to become the hottest year ever recorded, 13 of the hottest years on record have all occurred in the last 16 years.
Coal will likely overtake oil as the dominant energy source by 2017, and without a major shift away from coal, average global temperatures could rise by 6 degrees Celsius by 2050, leading to devastating climate change.
“Across two decades and thousands of pages of reports, the world’s most authoritative voice on climate science has consistently understated the rate and intensity of climate change and the danger those impacts represent.”
This is dramatically worse than even the most dire predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which predicts at least a 5-degree Celsius increase by 2100 as its worst-case scenario, if business continues as usual with no major mitigation efforts.
Yet things continue growing worse faster than even the IPCC can keep up with.
Scientific American has said of the IPCC: “Across two decades and thousands of pages of reports, the world’s most authoritative voice on climate science has consistently understated the rate and intensity of climate change and the danger those impacts represent.”
And there is nothing to indicate, in the political or corporate world, that there will be anything like a major shift in policy aimed at dramatically mitigating runaway anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
Guy McPherson is a professor emeritus of natural resources, and ecology and evolutionary biology, with the University of Arizona, who has been studying ACD for nearly 30 years.
Near-term human extinction could eventually result from losing the Arctic sea ice, which is one of the 40 self-reinforcing feedback loops of ACD.
His blog Nature Bats Last has developed a large readership that continues to grow, and for six years McPherson has been traveling around the world giving lectures about a topic that, even for the initiated, is both shocking and controversial: the possibility of near-term human extinction due to runaway ACD.
As McPherson has told Truthout: “We’ve never been here as a species, and the implications are truly dire and profound for our species and the rest of the living planet.” He told Truthout that he believes that near-term human extinction could eventually result from losing the Arctic sea ice, which is one of the 40 self-reinforcing feedback loops of ACD. “A world without Arctic ice will be completely new to humans,” he said.
At the time of our interview less than one year ago, McPherson had identified 24 self-reinforcing positive feedback loops. Today that number has grown to 40.
A self-reinforcing feedback loop can also be thought of as a vicious circle, in that it accelerates the impacts of ACD. An example would be methane releases in the Arctic. Massive amounts of methane are currently locked in the permafrost, which is now melting rapidly. As the permafrost melts, methane, a greenhouse gas 100 times more potent than carbon dioxide on a short timescale, is released into the atmosphere, warming it, which in turn causes more permafrost to melt, and so on.
In the near term, earth’s climate will change 10 times faster than during any other moment in the last 65 million years.
While McPherson’s perspective might sound way-out and like the stuff of science fiction, similar things have happened on this planet in the past. Fifty-five million years ago, a 5-degree Celsius rise in average global temperatures seems to have occurred in just 13 years, according to a study published in the October 2013 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. A report in the August 2013 issue of Science revealed that in the near term, earth’s climate will change 10 times faster than during any other moment in the last 65 million years.
Prior to that, the Permian mass extinction that occurred 250 million years ago, also known as “The Great Dying,” was triggered by a massive lava flow in an area of Siberia that led to an increase in global temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius. That, in turn, caused the melting of frozen methane deposits under the seas. Released into the atmosphere, those gases caused temperatures to skyrocket further. All of this occurred over a period of approximately 80,000 years. The change in climate is thought to be the key to what caused the extinction of most species on the planet. In that extinction episode, it is estimated that 95 percent of all species were wiped out.
Today’s current scientific and observable evidence strongly suggests we are in the midst of the same process – only this time it is anthropogenic, and happening exponentially faster than the Permian mass extinction did.
We are likely to begin seeing periods of an ice-free Arctic by as soon as this coming summer, or the summer of 2016 at the latest.
Once the summer ice begins melting, methane releases will worsen dramatically.
Our current extinction event is already greatly exceeding the speed, and might eventually even exceed the intensity, of the Permian mass extinction event.
We are currently in the midst of what most scientists consider the sixth mass extinction in planetary history, with between 150 and 200 species going extinct daily – a pace 1,000 times greater than the “natural” or “background” extinction rate. Our current extinction event is already greatly exceeding the speed, and might eventually even exceed the intensity, of the Permian mass extinction event. The difference is that ours is human caused, isn’t going to take 80,000 years, has so far lasted just a few centuries and is now gaining speed in a nonlinear fashion.
Is it possible that, on top of the vast quantities of carbon dioxide from fossil fuels that continue to enter the atmosphere in record amounts yearly, an increased release of methane could signal the beginning of the sort of process that led to the Great Dying? Some scientists, McPherson included, fear that the situation is already so serious and so many self-reinforcing feedback loops are already in play that we are in the process of causing our own extinction. Worse yet, some are convinced that it could happen far more quickly than generally believed possible – even in the course of just the next few decades.
Truthout caught up with McPherson at the Earth at Risk conference in San Francisco recently to ask him about his prediction of human extinction, and what that means for our lives today.
Dahr Jamail: What are some of the current signs and reports you’re seeing that are disconcerting, and really give you pause?
Guy McPherson: I’ve been traveling, so I’m out of date for the last 10 days. But starting with the snowstorm in Buffalo, New York, that was the biggest snowstorm ever recorded in Buffalo, at 6 feet 4 inches in 24 hours. It’s the largest one ever recorded in the United States.
Australia, meanwhile, is on fire. I just came back from New Zealand, and spring had just turned there because it’s the Southern Hemisphere. The whole time I was there people were commenting on how hot it was, and “how far into summer we already are,” and it was early to mid-spring when I was there.
So there’s all kinds of observational evidence.
“It’s hard for me to imagine we make it into the 2030s as a species.”
We triggered another self-reinforcing feedback loop, number 40, just about two weeks ago; then just a week ago there was a [scientific] paper that came out indicating that for every 1-degree temperature rise, there is 7 percent more lightning strikes. So that contributes to a previously existing self-reinforcing feedback loop, that of fires, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, and especially in the boreal forests. So, as it gets warmer and drier, there are more and bigger fires, and that kicks more carbon into the atmosphere, which of course contributes to ongoing, accelerating climate disruption.
So lightning is yet another piece of that. As there is more moisture in the atmosphere and more heat going into the atmosphere and warming the planet, we have more lightning. The whole atmosphere becomes more dynamic. So, those are things that come to mind.
From your analysis, how long do you think humanity has before extinction occurs?
That’s such a hard question, and we are such a clever species. It’s clear that abrupt climate change is underway. Methane has gone exponential in the atmosphere. Paul Beckwith, climate scientist at University of Ottawa, indicates we could experience a 6-degree Celsius temperature rise in the span of a decade. He thinks we’ll survive that. I can’t imagine how that could be. He’s a laser physicist and engineer, so I think he doesn’t understand biology and requisite habitat that we need to survive.
So it’s difficult for me to imagine a scenario where we’ll survive even a 4-degree Celsius [above pre-industrial baseline] temperature rise, and we’ll be there in the very near future, like by 2030, plus or minus. So it’s hard for me to imagine we make it into the 2030s as a species.
But when I deliver public presentations I try not to focus on any particular date; I just try to remind people that they are mortal. That birth is lethal, and that we don’t have long on this planet even if we live to be 100, so we might want to pursue what we love, instead of pursuing the next dollar.
A more micro-look from that question – what do you see happening in the US, if Beckwith and other scientists who are predicting that rapid a rise of temperatures in such a short time frame are correct?
The interior of continents heats at least twice as fast as the global average. So a 6-degree Celsius rise in the global average means at least 12 degrees Celsius in the interior of continents – that means no question there is no habitat for humans in the interior. So you would have to be in a maritime environment.
“It’s difficult for me to imagine a situation in which plants, even land plants survive, because they can’t get up and move.”
I think even before we get to 6 degrees Celsius above baseline, we lose all habitats. We lose all or nearly all the phytoplankton in the oceans, which are in serious decline already as the result of an increasingly acidified ocean environment. It’s difficult for me to imagine a situation in which plants, even land plants survive, because they can’t get up and move. So without plants there is no habitat.
At a 6-degree Celsius temperature rise in the span of decades, there’s no way for evolution by natural selection to keep up with that. Already, climate change – which at this point has been pretty slow and what we would call linear change – already climate change is outpacing evolution by natural selection by at least a factor of 10,000, so I don’t see any way the planet is going to keep up.
We’re clever. We’ll be able to move around. And if somebody has a bunch of food stored they might be able to persist on that for awhile, but climate change leads to social breakdown, or maybe social breakdown contributes further to climate change . . . in any event, when we stop putting sulfates into the atmosphere, even at the level of the US or Europe or China, that’s going to cause a very rapid global average increase in planetary temperature. According to journal literature, a reduction of 35 to 80 percent in sulfates causes a 1-degree Celsius temperature rise. And in a matter of days, maybe weeks. So when the system comes down, that means we’re above the ridiculous, politically constructed target of 2 degrees Celsius, which has never been a scientific target despite what Michael Mann and other allegedly premier climate scientists say. One degree Celsius has been a scientific target since the UN group on measured greenhouse gases established that as a scientific target in 1990.
Well, it gets worse. According to David Spratt, in a presentation delivered recently, 1 degree Celsius was ridiculous, .8 degrees Celsius apparently was a more reasonable target, and by his estimation .5 degrees Celsius was the Rubicon we should not have crossed. Well, we crossed that Rubicon a long time ago, half a century ago, and he points out that we’ve passed all these tipping points, all these self-reinforcing feedback loops, and that 1 degree is nonsense, and that half a degree is more like it, and that’s in the rearview mirror, and has been for a long time.
What would you say to young couples now who are having children, or are trying to get pregnant?
We have means of preventing that. [McPherson smiles and pauses]
I try to encourage people to pursue their passion, to do what they love, and apparently some people love having children.
“I think our social responsibility is to live here, now, and contribute to joyous lives for those around us. It’s as if we’re in a hospice situation.”
Obviously I think that’s a terrible strategy, given how little time we have on this planet as a species, but who am I to interrupt somebody else’s reproductive rights?
So if you love having children, have children and love them, and no matter how long their lives are, try to make them be joyous years. I think that goes for all of us, and if that means you want to bring children into the world, who am I to stop you from pursuing what you love? That’s what I try to encourage people to do.
Given that we’ve already gone over the cliff, what is our social and spiritual responsibility to ourselves, and to one another, and to the planet, as our extinction approaches?
I think our social responsibility is to live here, now, and contribute to joyous lives for those around us. It’s as if we’re in a hospice situation. I think we should be serving as witnesses to our own demise, as well as to the demise of the many other species we are driving to extinction.
In addition, I believe we have an obligation to not keep making things worse for every other species on the planet. It appears that we’ve thrown ourselves into the abyss, but we don’t need to drag every other species on the planet down with us.
So that’s why I so much appreciate what is going on here, at Earth at Risk, because it keeps the focus on species beyond ours, and the focus on cultures and societies beyond ours. We think it’s all about us, whatever “us” is, and from a cosmological perspective our species just showed up really quite recently, and yet we think it’s all about us.
So maybe we could, for a change, make it not about us, for starters.
Do you feel that the reality of how far along we are with ACD, the reality that you’ve been talking about for years now, is beginning to enter mainstream consciousness?
In a very limited way. Every now and then I see an article or a report in the mainstream media indicating that we may be ahead of some tipping point. So you see reference to the western Antarctic ice shelf falling into the ocean in the not so distant future. You see something about Greenland and the ice melting there very quickly.
“We have a corporate media, and we have a corporate government, and what Mussolini defined as fascism.”
But we don’t have a 24-hour news cycle; we have a 24-second news cycle. So those things come and go very quickly and then boom, we are back on the Kardashians again; we’re back on some aspect of celebrity culture.
And so it’s hard to get this culture focused in any meaningful way on the topics that matter for any period of time.
Why is the discussion about ACD not louder and more widespread? It should be the central conversation we’re all having . . . the entire planet should be basically saying, “What in the hell are we going to do?” and acting on those questions . . . but it isn’t. Why not?
It’s a corporate media. There are a handful of corporations that control more than 90 percent of the media in the country, and to only a slightly lesser extent, the world. So we have a corporate media, and we have a corporate government, and what Mussolini defined as fascism.
There’s no financial benefit to pointing out that people’s lives are short. Instead, there’s financial benefit to selling products that people don’t need, can’t afford and just contribute to further lining the pockets of the CEOs of the corporations. So I think it all comes down to the corporations exerting such profoundly strong control over the messages we are receiving everyday.
Your prediction of near-term extinction is, needless to say, controversial to most people. What do you say to people who call you extreme for talking about this?
I’m just reporting the results from other scientists. Nearly all of these results are published in established literature. I don’t think anybody is taking issue with NASA or Nature, or Science, or the Proceedings of National Sciences . . . the others I report are reasonably well-known and come from legitimate sources like NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], other NASA sources etc. . . . I’m not making this information up. I’m just connecting a couple of dots, and it’s something many people have difficulty with.
For you, what now and why bother? What keeps you going?
I can’t help myself. When I was 6 years old I came home with a Dick and Jane primer, showed it to my 4-year-old sister, pointed to a page, [and] said, “What’s that?” She said, “That’s a dog,” and in total disgust I said, “No, that’s Spot.” I was already outraged because she didn’t know the answer. I turned the page and said, “What’s that?” She said, “That’s a cat.” In a disgusted tone of voice I said, “No, it’s Puff!” I was teaching when I was 6. It’s not what I do; it’s who I am. I can’t seem to help myself.
So serving as a witness, giving this information out, connecting ways that the mainstream media have given up on seems to be what is within me.
And what’s next is moving the next step beyond uber-geek, left-brain science guy presenting the information and reminding people that their lives are short, and instead moving into the heart space, or what some people call the spiritual space of how do we deal with this? What do we do now? How do I act as a human being? What kind of my humanity comes up as a reminder of the fact that our lives are short? Maybe we ought not focus on materialism at the expense of everything else.
So that’s what’s next. And that’s what’s been going on for the last several months, and I’m trying to refine and hone that message and get it out more broadly, and engage with more allies to get that message out, because it’s the most important message left to our species.
Have you seen, through your work, a shift from your going out and presenting all the facts and showing people where we are as a species, to more into what you just described?
Yes, absolutely. And there are a couple of things that are going on there. One, when I started delivering this information, I was the medical doctor with poor bedside manner.
So I would show up in the exam room, looking through my charts, barely making eye contact with the patient, tell them, “It looks like you have six weeks to live; be sure to pay the receptionist on your way out, and I’ve got a golf game to catch, so see you next week, maybe, if you’re still alive then.” And then I’d just leave.
So that was me when I’d deliver a presentation. And people pointed out to me along the way that that’s really, really inappropriate behavior, and for this left-brained science guy that was a difficult pill for me to swallow, but I see that now.
And it was very helpful that a little less than a year ago I participated in a grief recovery workshop, and I realized that what I was experiencing was grief, and specifically anticipatory grief. So the next step is to try to scale up the notion of anticipatory grief, and have it reach more people as well as pointing out that this is what is. That we can’t be stuck any more in what “should be,” we can’t be bogged down by the world of “should.”
Instead, as Byron Katie points out in her latest book, we need to love what “is.” And what “is” is reality. So let’s embrace that, and love this living planet, even as we cause it to become a lot less lively. And experience and bring moments of joy to those around us.
The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).
For over two decades, Truthout’s journalists have worked tirelessly to give our readers the news they need to understand and take action in an increasingly complex world. At a time when we should be reaching even more people, big tech has suppressed independent news in their algorithms and drastically reduced our traffic. Less traffic this year has meant a sharp decline in donations.
The fact that you’re reading this message gives us hope for Truthout’s future and the future of democracy. As we cover the news of today and look to the near and distant future we need your help to keep our journalists writing.
Please do what you can today to help us keep working for the coming months and beyond.