This chapter looks at locked in and possible scenarios for humanity’s future. None of these scenarios are in the least attractive. So the next two Parts will look at how we got to this state, with the aim of learning some lessons from history and from human nature. And the final two Parts are my thoughts on the mindset and behaviours which are needed to underpin a better future for humanity (a “New Place to Stand”), and some steps which we in the affluent world might take to help get there.
Where we are now – a summary of summaries
As a brief recap of the last 9 chapters, there are deep-seated issues and trends in all four spheres of human activity.
The personal sphere is marked, but for the fortunate few, by struggle, lack of dignity and many in moderate to extreme poverty. In the governance sphere, the fragile hold of democracy is under threat wherever it is.
The economic sphere, the system which produces and distributes goods and services, is a shambles. The triumph of neoliberalism has created a world in which society is at the service of economics rather than vice versa, and where wealth gushes up rather than “trickling down”.
The biosphere is under attack, and under serious pressure. Humanity’s footprint on the planet is now large, increasing, and damaging. The land, the water, the air, and non-human life are all being degraded at faster and faster rates, putting our foothold on the planet at increasing risk.
And these things are all interconnected. Humanity is destabilising many complex systems, and has little understanding of what consequences there will be, and when they will occur. But there is no doubt that the consequences will be damaging for our planet, and for humanity.
Humanity’s current trajectory
The situation described above has come about in a very short time, driven mainly by the affluent lifestyles of the wealthy countries.
There has been, and continues to be, an enormous acceleration in consumption since the Second World War, far faster than the rate of population growth. We are now consuming the Earth’s renewable resources at a rate one and a half times as fast as it can regenerate them, and the rate is accelerating. As poorer countries industrialise, and more people consume at higher rates, this acceleration is set to continue.
So our current trajectory is disastrous. Many progressives and progressive movements are pushing back against it, but little seems to affect our juggernaut of increasing consumption. The only area where resistance seems to be somewhat effective is global warming, but how effective is it really?
The commonly used measure of “acceptable” global warming is 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by the end of this century. As at 2013, we were already at 0.85 degrees warming, and even if there were no further carbon emissions, would probably reach about 1.5 degrees by 2100. And the three subsequent years have been the hottest on record, taking us over 1.0 degrees warming for the first time by the end of 2015.
The increased weather turbulence and high temperatures we are experiencing, and the increases in ice and permafrost melt and sea level rise, show that even one degree of temperature rise has had a destabilising effect, and 1.5 degrees, let alone 2 degrees, will be significantly worse. Vulnerable countries, which are at early risk from sea level rises and other effects, want the limit set at 1.5 degrees[i].
Our trajectory up to November 2015, based on existing emissions, was towards more than 4 degrees warming[ii]. Pledges and new policies created before the Paris COP21 Conference were estimated to potentially reduce this to 3.6 degrees warming. Countries have been extremely uneven in following through on their pledges until now, however, and this 3.6 degrees increase was more likely to exceeded than met.
A temperature rise of this level is generally agreed to be quite catastrophic for humanity[iii].
In December 2015, at the Paris Climate Conference, countries signed up to new “Intended Nationally Determined Contributions” (INDCs). Climate Action Tracker assesses that, if these new pledges are met, they should limit global warming to between 2.2 and 3.4 degrees, with a median of 2.7 degrees. They estimate that there is a 92% probability of exceeding 2 degrees, and only a 66% probability of remaining below 3 degrees. So, even if the Paris pledges are met, there will still be a long way to go to have a reasonable chance of reaching even a 2 degree target, let alone 1.5 degrees.
The IPCC says that further action to keep the increase below 2 degrees is technically and economically feasible, with modest costs and substantial benefits. And that this is also true for a 1.5 degree target, although as the target gets lower, economic costs get higher. However, as time is lost in taking the necessary steps, both the challenges and the costs will rise.
A 2014 report by the World Bank says that we are already locked in to at least 1.5 degrees of warming by “past and predicted greenhouse gas emissions”[iv]. And other estimates say that, even if we stopped carbon emissions now, we would still be locked into about 1.5 degrees warming, because the carbon stays in the atmosphere for thousands of years, and the warming effects of carbon already in the atmosphere will continue for at least another forty years[v] from now.
Looking at these numbers from another angle, Bill McKibben’s 2012 “Terrifying New Math of Global Warming”[vi], which is highly consistent with the IPCC’s latest findings, tells this story: If we are to have a reasonable (80%) chance of keeping warming below 2 degrees, humanity can “only” put another 565 more gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere by mid-century. This is about the same as all the carbon so far emitted since the beginning of the industrial age 250 years ago, but the acceleration of consumption has been so great in recent decades that it will only take us another 20 years or so to burn through this amount at our current rate.
And fossil fuel companies have five times this amount (2,795 gigatons) in their proven reserves at the moment. McKibben’s figures suggest we need to keep 80% of proven fossil fuel reserves in the ground; the later IPCC figures suggest an even higher figure, 84%[vii].
To keep global warming below 2 degrees, the fossil fuel industry has to be wound down rapidly and, of course, trillions of dollars of “value” wiped off their balance sheets. They are showing few signs of acknowledging the scale of this requirement, but continue to explore for new deposits, and use new and even more destructive methods than previously (such as fracking) to extract existing reserves or new finds.
On the other hand, the idea of a “carbon budget” has now entered mainstream debate, and anti-fossil-fuel such as the divestment movement are beginning to get some traction.
So, an optimistic assessment is that Paris will represent the start of a “slippery slope” towards a lower carbon economy and, as the costs are found to be lower than expected, and the benefits higher, the positive changes will accelerate, and the likely temperature increases will tail off more rapidly, making the 2 degree, and even perhaps the 1.5 degree, target feasible.
A less optimistic assessment is that we’re already locked into at least 1.5 degrees of warming, growth in carbon emissions has shown no sign of slowing except in the immediate aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis, and the fossil fuel industry and other vested interests will continue to resist and slow down the necessary changes, leading probably to well over 2 degrees of change by the end of the century, if not sooner.
But let’s be optimistic for now, and assume that we get well down the more optimistic track over the next 10 to 20 years.
We’re still heading for 1.5 degrees of warming at least (probably 2 degrees), with consequent sea level rises of at least half a metre[viii], possibly 2-3 metres, and even conceivably up to 20 metres. According to one recent study, “the last time CO₂ concentrations in the atmosphere were similar to present levels was about three million years ago. At that time average global temperatures were two or three degrees warmer, large parts of the Antarctic ice-sheet had melted, and sea-levels were a staggering 20 metres higher than they are now.”[ix]
And while communities, regions, and countries will react as crises hit them, they will always be behind the game, because of the lags built into our Earth systems. What we are experiencing today is the effect of our actions of the past, and the effects of what we do today will not be fully felt for tens of years. As an example, and as previously stated, the direct warming effects of CO2 already in the atmosphere will continue for another 40 years.
Our current planning needs to take these lags and these possibilities into account – for example, new long-term infrastructure such as bridges, cities and public buildings needs to be built well inland, in anticipation of the abandonment of low-lying areas.
And it also needs to take into account the greater atmospheric warmth and weather turbulence – infrastructure needs to be either strengthened to withstand more extreme events, or built in such a way that it is more disposable and cheaply replaceable, while remaining safe for human use.
Then we need to consider impacts on the food chain. Global warming itself will have direct effects, through its influence on water cycles, plant health, and fertilisation cycles. Some areas will be better off in agricultural terms, but the overall pattern will be a more hostile setting for agriculture.
This will be compounded by our industrial agricultural methods. On the land, degradation of the soil means that our future ability to feed ourselves is badly compromised.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimated in 2014 that the world has only 60 years on average of useable top-soil left on its current trajectory[x]. That’s now 57 years left, and counting. Also in 2014, a British study estimated that Britain (even without the tropical rain that washes away degraded soil) has only “100 harvests left[xi]”. That’s now 94 or 95 harvests left. On our current trajectory, we will totally run out of ability to feed ourselves from the land well within this century. This will not happen all at once, but progressively, at regional level.
Food chains will also be disrupted in the meantime by further events such as the current collapse in bee populations[xii], forcing hand-pollination or abandonment of food sources, or other unforeseen consequences of global warming and industrial agriculture.
In the oceans, acidification caused by global warming will continue to increase, with one estimate of the impact of this being a 50% decrease in the rate of coral growth by 2050, plus other unquantified effects on marine life. The leaching of phosphorus and nitrogen into both fresh and salt water from intensive agriculture will continue to degrade the quality of water and of water-based life.
We can assume that fisheries collapses will continue – one 2006 estimate was that the fisheries would run out by mid-century[xiii]. While there have been ongoing efforts to manage fisheries better, I have not been able to find any studies that suggest any better outcomes.
Finally, let’s look at the likely impacts of all this in terms of social dislocation. The hotter areas of the world will continue to heat up, making desert and other hot countries less inhabitable – one study suggests the Persian Gulf may simply become unliveable, with heatwave events sometimes pushing temperatures to 70-plus degrees[xiv]. Even if things don’t get this extreme, more and more intense heatwaves will be experienced round the world, along with more and more intense wildfires. Events like the 2003 European heatwave, which killed 70,000 people, will become common-place.
Increased flooding and weather turbulence will continue to damage infrastructure and kill people.
Under the current economic system, food prices will often spiral out of control as availability decreases or costs of production rise, mimicking the events in 2007-08 and leading to greater instability in less affluent countries.
Most of these impacts will be felt first and most keenly in poorer countries. Attempted emigration will continue to increase, as the increasing number of poor seek safer or wealthier places to live, and the affluent countries will need to find new ways to cope with this. The attraction of extremist groups, either to keep the immigrants out, or to try to take political power as the situation deteriorates, will increase.
That’s our current trajectory.
We’ve already seen examples of most of the things described above over the last ten years or so. The least that’s going to happen is that these disruptions and tragic events are going to intensify over the next 30 to 40 years. And no later than mid-century we’ll be reaching a crisis point on food availability, which, even if the worse climate scenarios do not eventuate, will trigger massive unrest and regions with mass starvation, around the world. Tens and hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions, will die before their natural time.
This current trajectory is not going to be changed while the power structures of the world continue as they are. The people who got us into this mess over the last thirty years are not the ones who are going to lead us out of it; the systems they designed or operated are not going to be more effective by just being tweaked, or accelerated.
The banking sector is a good example of what happens when you leave the system in the hands of the people who used it to create a crisis. Remember the “retention bonuses” used after the Global Financial Crisis to keep the very people who had caused the crisis employed, on the grounds that they were essential to the effective operation of the system – despite the fact that they had just conclusively proved that they were completely incompetent? The banks now continue on their merry way, with minor tweaks to the regulatory apparatus to show something is being done, which will salve political consciences until the next banking crisis leads to a repeat of the previous scenario.
And just changing the people won’t be enough – while it improves the situation to have more progressive people at the helm, as long as the basic engine and direction remain unchanged, it takes enormous effort, if not actually being impossible, to alter course as substantially as humanity’s course needs to be altered.
Humanity’s possible trajectories – the really frightening possibilities
What has been described above is a “most likely” scenario for humanity given its current situation and trajectory. Much of it is either locked in (ie it will happen), or is inevitable unless radical change occurs to humanity’s state and behaviours.
But there are far worse scenarios which have a reasonable possibility of occurring. These tend to be associated either with underestimation of the scale of effects, or lack of knowledge about unforeseen consequences (including passing tipping points).
Further substantial loss of tropical forests, more rapid degradation of the land and fisheries, faster temperature rises (particularly as a result of increased methane emissions), unexpected collapses in specific food stocks or breakages in food chains, greatly increased weather turbulence – each of these has a reasonable likelihood of occurring. Each of itself would accelerate the destabilisation, if not trigger completely unexpected breakdowns or catastrophes, and any of them acting together would speed up the process of destabilisation even further.
We will have an increasing number and intensity of crises to deal with. We may experience some which are so large, or worldwide, that they disrupt societies on a regional or global scale.
And such events are likely to be cues for fairly complete social breakdown, with the affluent countries “laagering down” to protect what they already have, while the others struggle to survive.
The current refugee crisis in Europe is an example of the types of scenario we may face on a bigger scale over the next few decades. The initial humanitarian impulses, to support the refugees, are already being challenged by nationalist, xenophobic, and racist impulses. Who knows where this will take Europe.
Under more severe pressure, the “easy” path for the affluent countries to take will be the path nation-states have by and large taken in the past to protect their own interests – lock down the borders, defend them, keep the intruders out, strike back at them, use pre-emptive strikes to deal with real or imagined threats. The international bodies such as the United Nations will be powerless to stop this.
And, repeating what was said above under the “current trajectory”, the people and systems who got us there will not be the ones who get us out. We in the affluent world need to lock in new and more humanitarian relationships with each other and with the non-affluent world, to share more equally in the wealth that the Earth still provides, if we are to survive with any dignity ourselves.
The alternative is rapidly increasing divisions between the “haves” and the “have nots”, and a return to feudal societies held together and defended against the “barbarians” by military power. The truly affluent will enjoy their luxuries in the keep, while their servants grow their food and defend them against the barbarians at the gate.
And the deaths will be in the billions. Starvation will take most, but war and disease will take many. And many of the survivors will remain in deep poverty.
Humanity’s possible trajectories – a more positive view
I am just learning to refuse to be part of the scenarios outlined above – to disentangle myself from an affluent world which is more or less blindly heading for a future which will include the unnecessary death of millions, and may include the death of billions – simply because we will not give up some of our affluence.
The non-affluent world cannot hope to achieve the affluence of the wealthiest billion people without catastrophic consequences such as those described above. The possible alternatives are for the affluent world to just carry on as it is, only making changes at the margin, or to attempt the futile, and probably tragic, task of denying the non-affluent world a chance to reach a reasonable level of affluence while preserving its own, or to give up some of its affluence.
This action would acknowledge that the Earth cannot sustain, for its entire population, the level of affluence currently enjoyed by the wealthy. It would also free up resources for the non-affluent to improve their situations, in ways which are less harmful to our foothold on the Earth. And this, over time, would in turn lead to gradual population reduction through the reduction in fertility rates, increasing the share of material wealth available to each of us.
Either we accept that millions or billions of the non-affluent (and some of the affluent) will most likely die before their time, or we change our consumption patterns. Put this way, it doesn’t seem like a very difficult ethical choice.
Parts 2 and 3 are about how this choice is being made difficult for us, by our history, by vested interests, and by our own natures.
But before I spend more time on the difficulties, let’s anticipate Parts 4 and 5, and look briefly at what COULD happen, if we worked harder and things went better.
Most surveys suggest that populations in general accept that climate change is real and that it will have bad effects on humanity. Many in the non-affluent world experience the effects of climate change and environmental degradation on a daily basis. So there is a base of belief and understanding which can be built on.
And there are now hundreds of thousands of progressive people in the affluent world who are actively campaigning for changes to our systems and behaviour. Some of these are also linking up with progressives in the non-affluent world, to defend land or property or people from the depredations of the hyper-consumption machine. And all these voices are getting louder, particularly on climate matters.
It may be that we are close to a positive tipping point, where public opinion and activism in the affluent world finally force the governance and economic spheres to change their behaviours with the necessary rapidity to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and to go down a more sustainable path of food and personal security.
My own view is that we are not yet close enough to such a tipping point. A great deal of noise is being expended on the appearance of actions which in reality will have only minor effects. The corporate sector in particular, including the fossil fuel sector, makes a lot of noise about “sustainable business practices” and a “sustainable economy” which turns out to be either minor or, in keeping with much history of corporate behaviour, completely misleading. The drivers of the consumption juggernaut show few signs of slowing down.
So I put my hope where it has always resided, in the people, not the system or those with wealth and power. It has been proven time and time again throughout history that the will of the people can prevail, and that mass action can bring down even the most powerful. If we can persuade enough people to push back against our current path, our political leaders and the wealthy will be forced to sit up and take notice.
On the technical rather than the social side, it’s quite simple. We have an abundance of energy from the sun, and also all the material technologies we need, to change our direction and to help us build a more sustainable society. We just need the will to slow the consumption juggernaut and make it happen.
And Nature has already proved that she is quite forgiving if we take more care with what we do – the remarkable recoveries of coral and fish stocks, land areas and bird populations when managed more carefully in recent years have made this quite obvious.
I will expand on all of this in Parts 4 and 5.
So, to summarise Part One in a sentence: The consumption of affluent societies is putting humanity’s foothold on the planet in clear and present danger, and we need to change our behaviours radically to ensure that our species survives.
[ii] Ref IPCC 2013 Report Chapter 12 page 1055, RCP 8.5 (3.7+0.6 degrees relative to 1850-1900 temperatures)
[iii] See for example http://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2012/11/18/new-report-examines-risks-of-degree-hotter-world-by-end-of-century; http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/news/4-degree-temperature-rise-will-end-vegetation-carbon-sink; http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2009/oct/22/science-museum-climate-map
[vi] “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”, Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone, 2012
[xiv] See Dominion Post, 28/10/2015, page B1, “Persian Gulf could become too hot to handle”