We’re just two weeks into a new year and a new decade. I’m not about to regale you with all my new year resolutions, because I have none. The change of a number on the calendar doesn’t make me any more likely to make successful changes in my life. In fact, I hold the very thought in disfavour because if you see the need for a change, you should make the change rather than wait for the end of the year to do it. Why wait?
What has me thinking is not the change of the last digit of the year, but the second last. The 2010s have given way to the 2020s. What’s coming?
I’ve been thinking a lot about climate change. I was going to tell you what I think will happen if we continue along the road of lip service to the changes we need to make, and also what will happen if we get down to business and make the changes we really need to make. But frankly, there’s no need to lay out two scenarios because we’re not going to get down to business. Individuals feel inertia in their habits, and the more people you consider, the larger the inertia gets. This is before even considering that our current way of doing things is very profitable to many people. As a result, they’re actively putting the brake on changes. As a result, change is slow.
With our foot-dragging, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is increasing. I’m not sure, but the rate of increase may be increasing as well. The weather is growing more severe, climate is changing, seas are rising. The pleasant inter-ice-age climate in which we developed civilization will soon be over. There will be fewer comfortable places to live and less arable land. Less arable land means less food. Wars will break out over food and water, squandering the precious resources remaining.
A century from now, things will be very different than today. I just can’t decide how different. Either civilization will regress, leaving behind the highest technology we enjoy today, or civilization will completely collapse. Either way, population will drop significantly. I’d suggest the worldwide population will drop by half, with large cities being the most affected. Whether this is a best-case, or a mid-way between the extremes, I can’t decide.
By 2250, I would be absolutely stunned if the world population is significantly greater than 20% of what it is today. And it won’t get better from there. Unless we discover an easy and energy-efficient way to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in a deep-time durable form, there won’t be any coming back from this new normal any time soon … and ‘soon’ is geologically speaking. It’ll take millions of years for natural processes to bring the carbon dioxide levels down. The question is whether we can develop the technology to do it ourselves before we lose the technical and manufacturing means to put it into action in a meaningful way.
I would suggest that biggest impediment to taking action today is the average adult’s inertia. Things seem okay so people go about their business. Although most people are in favour of reducing their nation’s carbon footprint, they are not so enthusiastic when confronted with the bill. I really think a few things have to happen before people change. In no particular order, everyone over 40 has to age and die. People currently younger than 40 have far more skin in the game and were therefore more willing to make a greater sacrifice. Also things have to get worse. To my amazement, there are still deniers out there. All but the most hard-core will come around when things get much worse and there’s no denying the truth. At that time, the tide will carry those hard-core, regardless.
It’s our habits and what we consider problematic. No one I know would think of not recycling. At the same time however, most people I know don’t consider the carbon dioxide created by a trip via aircraft. This has to change and it won’t while the older among us are still around. I do wonder how much it will change as you young age, however. When I was very young, the first energy crisis struck. We all learned to turn lights off when we weren’t in the room. A small thing, to be sure, but the young don’t worry about even this any more. And by young, I mean anyone under 30.
I’m thinking things will have to get much worse, far past the point of no return (if we’re not there already) for people to change their habits.
So severe climate change is coming. In my mind, there’s only one question. Will it damage civilization and set technology back a few centuries? Or it destroy civilization and set technology back a millennia or two? Either way, a lot of people are going to die and everything is going to be a hell of a mess for a very long time to come.