The Earth is currently undergoing the sixth great extinction. A great extinction refers to a period in the world’s biological history where a large proportion of the fauna is destroyed over a short period of time. The KT extinction is the last time it happened; a large comet striking the Earth around 66 million years ago resulted in the annihilation of the dinosaurs and around 75% of all species on the planet. The five other great extinctions were caused by a sudden geological or astronomical catastrophe. The current extinction is unique; it is being caused by mankind.
The Doomsday Clock was created by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1947 as a way of measuring how close humanity is to the termination of its species. It was set then to seven minutes to midnight, with midnight indicating terminal disaster. The closest it has been was in 1953 when it was moved to 2 minutes to midnight after the US and the Soviets developed the H-bomb. Since 2010 it has been constantly moving closer and this year it returned to 2 minutes to midnght for the first time since 1953. In its report in 2015, the Bulletin stated that:
“Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with the speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe.” A better summary of the current state of humanity cannot be found.
The Sagan-Mayr debate
In 1995, following NASA’s cancellation of funding for the SETI project, Carl Segan and Ernst Mayr had a debate about the likelihood of finding intelligent life on other planets.
Carl Segan, a physicist, weighing the conditions required for the evolution of life on another planet (solar stability, location of planet in a safe temperature zone, presence of gas giants, etc) against the vast number of planets in the universe and concluded that the chances are quite high.
Ernst Mayr, a biologist, did not agree. He said that we should consider the one example that we have of intelligent species and evaluate its likelihood of survival beyond a certain period of time. Mayr made the case that while it is indeed possible that intelligent life may have evolved elsewhere in the universe it would annihilate itself after a relatively short period of time.
The history of humanity is a long and bloody story of destruction, death and self-annihilation, and it seems that each new generation introduces a new way by which we will destroy ourselves and all life around us. We poison the air and water, consume food that has been chemically and biologically contaminated, annihilate our environmental infrastructure, destroy the fauna and flora necessary for our survival, and each generation introduces a new weapon of mass destruction into the world that is more devastating than the last generation. Given our endless greed and refusal to take action to prevent this constant destruction, it seems safe to say that our days as a species are numbered. The late Stephen Hawking estimated that we have around 100 years left.
The cause of our destruction will be one of two possibilities: sudden or gradual.
Nuclear war – sudden annihilation
There are believed to be around 15,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, 90% of which are controlled by the US and Russia. Every one of them has more destructive power than the 15 kilotonne Little Boy that destroyed Hiroshima. The most powerful bomb detonated by the US was the 15 megatonne (1000 times more powerful than Little Boy) Castle Bravo. The nuclear fallout was detected across the entire world. There is enough nuclear firepower in the world today to obliterate the world several times over. It has been estimated that the detonation of just five of today’s nuclear weapons is enough to provoke a nuclear autumn and just one of the large bombs could cause a nuclear drought.
We have all heard of the Cuban Missile Crisis that brought us to the brink of nuclear war, but this is not the only situation where the temptation of using nuclear weapons was almost overwhelming. Curtis LeMay wanted to use nuclear weapons in Korea and Khrushcev had tactical nuclear weapons in Cuba during the incident. The fear is always that if the US were to deploy nuclear weapons as part of its regular arsenal of war it would normalize the usage of the weapons, enabling smaller states to do the same. India and Pakistan, for example, were on the brink of nuclear war during the Kargil crisis at the turn of the century and one terrorist state, Israel, is believed to possess around 200 of them – although it has refused to sign the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons Treaty and has violated UN resolutions to allow nuclear inspectors to investigate its arsenal.
All it takes is one itchy trigger finger from a leader of a nuclear power who is just insane enough to instigate a nuclear war. Does anyone reading this believe, for example, that the current US president has the mental capacity and intellectual stability to resist such an action if sufficiently provoked?
Climate change – gradual suffocation
In 2016 the concentration of carbon dioxide in the air exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in four million years. It has not dropped below that value since, and with each passing year a new record high of carbon dioxide concentration is reached. It reached 410 parts per million for the first time last year and continues to increase.
Since the industrial revolution the concentration of carbon dioxide has risen from 280 to 410 parts per million . Consequently global temperatures have risen 1°C, the sea level has risen about a foot and oceans have become more acidic. Ocean temperatures have increased, leading to more severe cyclones. Rain patterns have changed. 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded which was immediately exceeded in 2015, then exceeded again in 2016. This report published last month states that it was the 400th consecutive month of above average global temperatures. The last time there was a single month of below average global temperature was in early 1985.
At the current rate of increase, the concentration of carbon dioxide increase will exceed 450 ppm by 2050 and 500 ppm by 2100. It is generally accepted that somewhere between 450 and 500 ppm so-called major carbon cycle feedback will occur, where carbon is lost from permafrost and the amazon, and the ocean will be saturated and no longer able to absorb the carbon (this has already begun to occur). This will lead to a much more rapid expansion of carbon in the atmosphere likely reaching 550 ppm early in the 22nd century.
The point of major climate catastrophe is 550 parts per million, although the effects will be escalated continuously to that point.
At 550 ppm:
- Oceans will have risen by 70 metres higher than they are today,
- The ocean acidity level will reach deadly levels wiping out a third of the planet’s marine life and destroying the food sources for many more types,
- The habitat for insects such as bees and other germinating insects will be destroyed, severely reducing our ability to grow food,
- There will be a mass extinction of flora and fauna,
- Fresh water will become much more scarce.
In short, we will reach a climate catastrophe the likes of which has not been seen since the most basic marine life existed on the planet.
The science is undeniable. Climate change is occurring, it is manmade and it is getting worse; predictions made by scientists continue to be verified. Opposition to this claim is not scientific, but political, and obviously driven by the well-funded and entirely politically entrenched fossil fuel industry. When the survival of humanity is on the line it is not useful to be gentle about it; climate change deniers are either ignorant, stupid, or greedy and their reckless disregard for the future of humanity must be confronted at every opportunity.
Can we be saved?
In the early 1990s the Earth’s ozone layer had been depleted to the point where there was a harmful increase in the UV light passing through the atmosphere, increasing the risk of skin cancer and other harmful effects. Realising the potential disaster, a few years earlier the world cooperated in signing the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer in 1987. This agreement involved the rapid phasing out of the use of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which was used in aerosol cans and refrigerators. CFCs were known to be the primary cause of depletion of the ozone. The protocol was a remarkable success, and today the ozone layer is recovering well and is expected to be fully recovered by the middle of the century.
This is a promising example of what can be accomplished with worldwide cooperation. The world does not need to suffer the threat of nuclear war and it no longer needs to suffer the destruction of fossil fuels. A truly global effort could abolish both in a remarkably short period of time, perhaps even with enough time left to stave off the imminent global environmental catastrophe.
History, however, teaches us otherwise. There has never been a group of people that has willfully given up its wealth and power for the good of the population. The only way they have even given it up has been through their imminent or actual annihilation. We can look at the history of revolutions around the world where the wealthy elites could have saved themselves and their fortunes if they had just given up a small portion of it to the starving masses. It never happens until they are actually being led to the chopping block. I believe that humanity as a collective species will behave in the same way, and it will end for the same reason.
Can we be saved? My answer is no. Humanity as a species has about 100, perhaps 150, years left. And that’s taking the optimistic view that we will be suffocated and starved by pollution and climate change. We may annihilate ourselves in nuclear war long before that.
Your grandchildren will likely live long enough to witness the beginnings of the climate catastrophe that will occur at the end of this century. What would you do to save the lives of your children? What about your grandchildren? The war machine and the fossil fuel barons are dooming your children to lives of scarcity, suffering, and early death. One wonders why the masses allow them to proceed.