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The End of Civilization?

The sky is falling! A new report suggests a high likelihood of the end of human civilization by 2050, according to a pair of recent headlines, one by Nafeez Ahmed for Vice and one by James Felton for IFL Science.

After climate scientists called out Ahmed and Felton for being too alarmist, the Vice headline was changed to New Report Suggests ‘High Likelihood of Human Civilization Coming to an End’ Starting in 2050. Whew! We can all breathe easier knowing that 2050 is only the beginning of the end.

The IFL Science headline remains unchanged. And both articles retain their original alarmist tone.

Ahmed writes:

The results would be devastating. Some one billion people would be forced to attempt to relocate from unlivable conditions, and two billion would face scarcity of water supplies. Agriculture would collapse in the sub-tropics, and food production would suffer dramatically worldwide. The internal cohesion of nation-states like the US and China would unravel.

Felton, describing the year 2050, says:

At this point the human impact is off the scale. Fifty-five percent of the global population are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions beyond that which humans can survive. North America suffers extreme weather events including wildfires, drought, and heatwaves. Monsoons in China fail, the great rivers of Asia virtually dry up, and rainfall in central America falls by half.

This report is not a good choice to read to your children at bedtime.

Both articles are based on a report by the Australian think tank Breakthrough, also known as the National Centre for Climate Restoration, and are reminiscent of a 2017 piece by David Wallace-Wells for New York Magazine. The intent seems to be to create a scenario so frightening that Americans will be forced to do something about climate change. But Wallace-Wells failed to alarm the public into action, and Ahmed and Felton are unlikely to succeed either.

At best, these doomsday scenarios offer us no hope of making the changes necessary to avoid them. At worst, they only provide fodder for deniers. A balanced approach to climate change acknowledges the dangers—and they are significant—but also shows us the path to a sustainable future.

So how do we proceed, recognizing that we're doomed if we don't change course?

The "Green New Deal" proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey created a lot of buzz this spring, but at its core it is a jobs and investment program, which may be a hard sell with the unemployment rate hovering around 3½ percent. What's more, the bill actually put before Congress was non-binding, meaning it merely sets goals and does not allocate funds to achieve them. Although it's more than any recent Congress has attempted, it's not likely to make any real impact.

And not only do Senate Republicans have the numbers to defeat the Green New Deal bill, they have already done so, and are likely to continue to vote down any similar bills in the future.

So if we're going to solve the problem at all, we need to tackle it from a different angle.

A pair of Princeton professors, Stephen Pacala and Rob Socolo, have promoted the idea of stabilization wedges. Using existing technology, there are eight distinct ways we could reduce carbon emissions. They are:

  • Efficiency: This includes both fuel efficiency for our cars and energy efficiency for our homes, offices, and factories.
  • Fuel Switching: Replace coal-burning electric plants with facilities that burn natural gas instead.
  • Carbon Capture and Storage: Capture and store the carbon emissions from the remaining coal plants.
  • Nuclear Power: Double the number of nuclear plants and retire coal-based plants.
  • Wind Power: Generate 10 times the amount of electricity that we are today from wind turbines.
  • Solar Power: Generate 100 times the amount of electricity that we are today from solar cells.
  • Biomass Fuels: Increase ethanol production by 12 times what we are today.
  • Natural Sinks: Protect forests, especially tropical forests, and increase conservation tillage in farmland worldwide.

The biggest advantage of this approach is that the eight wedges are mostly independent, so missteps or failures to make progress in one area will not adversely affect the others. The second biggest advantage is that it does not require government approval to get started. Energy companies with foresight, looking for a competitive advantage down the road, can start converting their power generation now and be ahead of the game as fossil fuels become more scarce.

The good news is that we have the means not just to avoid the dystopian future imagined by Ahmed and Felton, but to wean ourselves from fossil fuels completely. We just need to find the will to do so.

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