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Existential Threat Needs Collective Brain Power

Paul Kando

Climate change poses a "near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization," according to the recently published paper Existential Climate-Related Security Risk: A Scenario Approach, coauthored by a climate researcher and a former fossil fuel executive. There is a good chance society could collapse as soon as 2050 if serious changes aren't made within the next decade, the coauthors state.

Danger: Imminent Existential Threat
photo credit: climatedepot.com

Published by the Breakthrough National Center for Climate Restoration in Melbourne, Australia, an independent think tank focused on climate policy, the paper's central thesis is that climate scientists have been too restrained in their predictions of how climate change will affect the planet in the near future.

The current climate crisis is bigger and more complex than any crisis humans have ever dealt with. General climate models — such as the one that the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used last fall to predict that a global temperature increase of 2°C (3.6°F) could put billions of people at risk—fail to account for the complexity of Earth's many interlinked processes. As a result, they fail to predict the scale of the potential consequences of climate change. According to the authors, “the truth is probably far worse than any models can fathom”.

A more accurate (but terrifying) worst-case scenario begins with world governments ignoring the advice of scientists and the will of the public to decarbonize the economy, resulting in a global temperature increase of 3°C (5.4°F) by 2050. The world's ice sheets melt; brutal droughts kill many of the Amazon rainforest’s trees (destroying one of the world's largest carbon sinks); and the planet plunges into a series of feedback loops that produce ever-hotter and deadlier conditions over 35% of the global land area, with 55% of the global population subject annually to more than 20 days of heat conditions lethal to humans.

Meanwhile, droughts, floods and wildfires regularly ravage the land. One-third of the world's land surface turns into desert. Entire ecosystems collapse, including coral reefs, the rainforests and the Arctic ice sheets. The new climate extremes hit the tropics hardest, destroying the region's agriculture and turning more than 1 billion people into climate refugees.

The mass movement of refugees — coupled with shrinking coastlines and severe food and water shortages — stress the socio-economic fabric of the world's largest nations, including the US. Armed conflicts over resources, perhaps even nuclear war, are likely. The resulting "outright chaos" may mean "the end of human global civilization as we know it."

This catastrophic vision of the future can be prevented only if the people of the world accept climate change for the emergency it is and get to work immediately. According to the Australian paper, the effort required is “akin in scale to the World War II emergency mobilization."

The human race has only a single decade left to transition the world from an extractive money - and growth-centered economy — one that fails to meet the basic needs of a large majority, even as it violates many of the natural limits of a finite planet — to a zero-carbon-emissions economic system dedicated to meeting universal human needs without violating those limits.

To my mind, this means more than saying “no” to fossil fuels and the many conveniences of modern life they have made possible. Negatives (saying no) generally don’t attract or sustain a political constituency; and an economic system that fails to serve the needs of the vast majority is bound to be unstable and to fail. Indeed, we need nothing less than an economic system that serves the needs of humanity and does so using renewable, non-carbon energy sources.

So, where to begin? Let’s take a page from the aftermath of a mass shooting in Las Vegas not too long ago. Most of the victims were delivered to hospitals via a spontaneous, self-organized effort by private vehicles. It would have taken much more time for authorities to marshal ambulances for several hundred.

Similarly, to match the urgency of our task, let’s engage everyone in figuring out how best to meet basic human needs — food, water, work, income, housing, health-care, child- and elder-care, transportation, energy, education, equality, justice, political voice, networks of belonging—simply because all problems are best solved by those closest to them. Imagine the force of collective brain power applied to common solutions!

For this to work we need to mentally invert power-relationships. Instead of often self-interested higher-ups “calling the shots”, their proper role is subsidiary — to be supportive of decisions made by people closest to the problems being addressed. There is nothing new or revolutionary about this idea, which dates back to the mid-19th century.

More on this and the role of real democracy in forestalling the demise of human global civilization as we know it next week.