Bleak

– I like succinct and this is that.  It tells the story of where we’re headed in a clear and direct way.  Read at your own peril.

– This was written by Steve Connor in answer to the question, “What Have You Changed Your Mind About“.  It can be found in John Brockman’s book of the same name and also on the Edge.org website along with all the other brief essays on that same question by 150 of the world’s smartest people.

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I was born in the second half of the 20th Century and for most of my life I grew up in the perhaps naïve belief that the 21st Century would be somehow better, shinier and brighter than the last. We even used it as a positive adjective and talked about “21st Century healthcare”, “a 21st Century car” or even a “a 21st Century way of life”. Over the past decade or so my opinion has gradually changed. I now believe that however bad the 20th Century has been — and it brought us the horrors of the Holocaust and nuclear proliferation — this coming century will be far worse.

Writing about science as a career takes you on an extraordinary journey of progression that gives the illusion that everything is on an unfaltering course of improvement. Many other specialisms in daily journalism — politics, arts, legal affairs, crime, education etc. — seem to follow a circular path of reporting which means that the same type of stories appear come round time and time again. But science is all about standing on the shoulders of the giants who came before, and with it the inverted pyramid of scientific knowledge continues its exponential growth. And so it seems self-evident that things can only get better as more questions can be answered and more problems solved.

History too supports the idea of a progressively better world. Vaccines, drugs, better hygiene and housing, clean water and other general improvements in health and wellbeing are now taken for granted. Today, people in developed countries live longer and healthier lives than any previous generation — and so often without the pain that went with living in the age before science. Anyone who doubts the improvements in medical science should read Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys where she describes in some detail how surgeons removed a bladder stone through his penis without the benefit of anaesthetic. (Amazingly, he survived.)

But as the first decade of the 21st Century enters its final years, my optimism for the remaining nine has waned. I no longer see the phrase “21st Century” as being synonymous with progression and betterment. There is no single event or fact that has led to this change of mind, but if pressed I would blame two mutually interacting phenomena — global warming and the inexorable growth in the human population.

This century will see both effects come into deadly play. By mid century there will be half as many people on the planet as there is now — some 9 billion or more — and the resources available to support them will be severely degraded, even without the help of climate change. But we know that the world will be warmer, perhaps significantly so by mid to late century, and this will put intolerable pressure on the only life-support system we know — planet Earth.

I have also changed my mind about the assessments of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. They are much too conservative and have underestimated the future impact of melting polar ice sheets and rising sea levels. The biggest influence on changing my mind on this has been James Hansen, director of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who in 2007 co-authored a 29-page scientific paper published for the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society detailing why the scale of the threat has put the Earth in imminent peril. Hansen believes that nothing short of a planetary rescue will save us from global environmental cataclysm and that we have less than 10 years to act.

The sea ice of the Arctic is melting far faster than anyone had predicted and the record minimum seen in summer 2007 (which followed the previous record minimum of 2005) has shocked even the most seasoned Arctic observers. The stability of the Greenland ice sheet and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the southern hemisphere, which both have the potential to raise sea levels by many metres, is far more precarious than any IPCC report has hitherto suggested. Given that many hundreds of millions of people live within a few metres of sea level, and many of them are already competing for ever-more limited supplies of freshwater, the issue of impending sea level rise will become one of the most pressing problems facing humanity this century.

Added to this is the issue of positive feedbacks within the climate system — the factors that will make climate change far worse as carbon dioxide levels continue to rise. As Hansen and others have pointed out, there seems to be many more positive reinforcers of climate change than the negative feedbacks which could possibly help to limit the damage. In short, we are tinkering with a global climate system that could go dangerously out of control, and at a far faster rate than anyone has imagined as they peer into the crystal balls of their computer models. If it happens at all, the positive feedbacks will begin to exert their global influence early in the 21st Century.

James Lovelock, the veteran Earth scientist and inventor of the Gaia theory, has said that the four horsemen of the apocalypse will ride again this century as climate change triggers a wave of mass migrations, pandemics and violent conflicts. I would very much like to believe he is wrong, that we can somehow act in international unison as a common federation of humanity to address overpopulation and climate change. I wish I could believe that we have the resolve to tackle the two issues that could end the civilised progress of science and culture. Unfortunately, as this moment in time, I’m not ready to change my mind on that.

– To the original: 

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