Doomsday: The Simple (or Simplistic) Version

I am writing this blog on Saturday, one day before hurricane Irma is scheduled to make an unwelcome visit to Florida. Other unwanted weather events are taking place all around. Human impact, especially the undesirable variety, is taking a toll. The New York Times had a piece today that summarized the combination of some of these events in terms of the feeling of an apocalypse:

CLEWISTON, Fla. — Vicious hurricanes all in a row, one having swamped Houston and another about to buzz through Florida after ripping up the Caribbean.

Wildfires bursting out all over the West after a season of scorching hot temperatures and years of dryness.

And late Thursday night, off the coast of Mexico, a monster of an earthquake.

You could be forgiven for thinking apocalyptic thoughts, like the science fiction writer John Scalzi who, surveying the charred and flooded and shaken landscape, declared that this “sure as hell feels like the End Times are getting in a few dress rehearsals right about now.”

Or the street corner preacher in Harlem overheard earlier this week ranting about Harvey, Irma and Kim Jong Un, in no particular order.

Or the tens of thousands who retweeted this image of golfers playing against a raging inferno of a wildfire in Oregon.

And just last month darkness descended on the land as the moon erased the sun. Everyone thought the eclipse was awesome, but now we’re not so sure — for all the recent ruin seems deeply, darkly not coincidental.

If you thought that, you would be wrong, of course. As any scientist will tell you, nature doesn’t work that way.

Some of our esteemed communicators tried to shift the blame to supposedly sinful behavior:

Meanwhile, some of our key public servants who were appointed to take care of the consequences of these catastrophic events apparently felt insulted when anyone mentioned climate change as a contributing factor that needs addressing:

“Here’s the issue,” Pruitt told CNN in a phone interview. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced.”

“All I’m saying to you is, to use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida.”

But isn’t it our responsibility to try to mitigate the risks not only to ourselves but also to our children and grandchildren?

These catastrophic events are happening right now. They are highly visible and cost numerous lives as well as billions of dollars to repair. All the science that we know points to these events continuing to grow at accelerated rates. Throughout this blog, I have framed this future as “the end of now,” where I define “now” as the lifespan of my grandchildren: toward the end of the century.

As I have repeatedly mentioned, such a possible grand doomsday scenario toward the end of the century still leaves us with enough time now to take steps to mitigate and thus prevent or minimize what could be a much larger catastrophe. The implementation of such options is a legitimate topic of discussion.

David Wallace-Wells’ piece in New York Magazine prompted that sort of dialogue. The response was visceral; some described it as fear mongering while others labeled it “climate disaster porn.”  Here I would like to come to the paper’s defense. What the paper is doing is a legitimate way of describing a possible doomsday, albeit without going into scientific details or offering possible mitigating actions. The paper describes a “simplistic doomsday” and thus many people hate it – including many of my students on the few occasions that I have presented such scenarios.

Wallace-Wells addresses heat death, the end of food, climate plagues, unbreathable air, perpetual war, permanent economic collapse, and poisoned oceans. I will paste some key paragraphs from the first and last sections of his paper as they are not self-explanatory. For the rest I recommend that readers reference the original publication.

I. ‘Doomsday’
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough. Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.


IX. The Great Filter
Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size. Humans used to watch the weather to prophesy the future; going forward, we will see in its wrath the vengeance of the past. Early naturalists talked often about “deep time” — the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. What lies in store for us is more like what the Victorian anthropologists identified as “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience, described by Aboriginal Australians, of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea — a feeling of history happening all at once

The paper obviously incited many objections. The author has added a site at New York Magazine, which is considerably longer than the original article, to try to answer some of these critical comments. It is not a scientific paper and was not published in a scientific journal. It doesn’t conform to some of the most basic requirements of scientific publications, the most important of which is refutability. It doesn’t even qualify as “fake news” – a popular concept these days – because it doesn’t pretend to offer news. Nor is it an opinion. It is a call for action that was designed to shock people to into considering the scenario plausible enough to provoke arguments that might lead to political pressure and movement. This was a good enough reason for a reputable publication such as New York Magazine to offer the author a platform. The described methodology – chatting with scientists – is common among popular science “documentary” books that attempt to describe the future. It cannot be refuted because the scientists are not identified by name. People can only argue with the author. The timing of his descriptions and the scenarios on which his predictions are based are well defined. The timing is toward the end of the century under “business as usual scenarios” that I have discussed many times on this blog.

“The Great Filter” segment summarizes the doomsday scenarios. The effect it describes has officially been named the “Shifting Baseline Syndrome.”  Our future generations might not be even aware that they are in trouble. They might think that this is simply how nature works.

Next week I am going to address the doomsday issue from a much more solid scientific foundation to show more concretely that not only is this coming but we are in the middle of it. I want to emphasize that in spite of the urgency we still have time to act.

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About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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