By Robert A. Vella
A controversial report published this month has sparked intense debate over the likelihood that catastrophic climate change will cause the collapse of modern civilization by mid-century. Pushback against the report spans the entire spectrum of opinion on anthropogenic global warming from climate change deniers who ridicule such claims as “alarmist” to government officials and the greater scientific community who don’t want the general public to lose hope. Everyone has an agenda, it seems. Regardless of the furor, this post will attempt to cut through all the emotionalism and assess the situation as objectively as possible. But first, let’s take a look at the report in question.
A harrowing scenario analysis of how human civilization might collapse in coming decades due to climate change has been endorsed by a former Australian defense chief and senior royal navy commander.
The analysis, published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, a think-tank in Melbourne, Australia, describes climate change as “a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization” and sets out a plausible scenario of where business-as-usual could lead over the next 30 years.
The paper argues that the potentially “extremely serious outcomes” of climate-related security threats are often far more probable than conventionally assumed, but almost impossible to quantify because they “fall outside the human experience of the last thousand years.”
On our current trajectory, the report warns, “planetary and human systems [are] reaching a ‘point of no return’ by mid-century, in which the prospect of a largely uninhabitable Earth leads to the breakdown of nations and the international order.”
There are two main issues to examine:
- Could climate change trigger the collapse of modern civilization?
- Could climate change cause the extinction of Homo sapiens?
I’ll address the second question first because it is easier to answer. The last time our species faced an extinction threat was roughly 75,000 years ago when a massive volcanic super-eruption occurred at Lake Toba on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The eruption was orders of magnitude larger than any other in human history. It pumped huge quantities of sulfur dioxide (SO2) and other chemical compounds high into the atmosphere where it blocked sunlight from reaching Earth’s surface for at least several decades. This and other effects resulted in a “nuclear winter” scenario that killed plant life and subsequently many of the animals which fed on it. Genetic evidence indicates that the world’s human population fell from around 2.5 million to perhaps only a few thousand individuals. Since we lived in primitive and widely dispersed hunter-gatherer groups back then, the disaster caused no great shock to our social organization and our numbers began to rise shortly afterwards. See: How Human Beings Almost Vanished From Earth In 70,000 B.C.
Conclusion: If such a sudden calamitous event as the Toba super-eruption didn’t cause the extinction of our species, then the more gradual calamity of climate change should be less likely to do so.
Regarding the first question, I assert there are many misconceptions about modern civilization. Because it is so technologically advanced, so much more socially integrated, and our populations so concentrated in complex urban communities, people tend to see it as more resistant to environmental change. The reality is that modern civilization is less resistant because of its heavy dependence on technology and social integration which has denuded the individual of our ancestral self-survival skills while also enabling the world’s human population to grow to unprecedented and unsustainable levels (currently 7.7 billion). If, for any reason, civilization’s vital infrastructure (i.e. food, water, waste disposal, transportation, communication, etc.) failed or were severely disrupted, the impact to human populations would immediately stress our social organization (i.e. government and other social institutions) to the breaking point. Since the dawn of agriculture, our history is replete with examples of violent unrest when basic human needs are not met; and, this is exactly the threat posed by climate change.
Scientists have been sounding alarms about food and water shortages destabilizing modern society for many years now. In 2015, I quantified the impending crisis in a projected leveling off of global crop yields as the world population continues to rise (see: A statistical projection of Population Decline in the 21st Century due to Climate Change). As these social stresses mount, it fertilizes the growth of political extremism and proportionally increases tensions between nations, regions, and peoples from competition over dwindling resources as well as from desperation to control the masses. Sooner or later, such a combustible tinderbox would ignite from any number of potential triggers (e.g. a volatile leader like President Trump using nuclear weapons). In this situation, we couldn’t rely on reason and rational behavior to prevail.
Conclusion: Unmitigated climate change is more than enough to trigger some sort of societal collapse within the current century. Whether modern civilization would disappear altogether and return humanity back to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle is far less likely. However, I don’t think it would matter much to most people. As the population declines and the “lucky” few retreat into secluded sanctuaries, the unlucky many would see the end of the world was upon them.