The Uninhabitable Earth
The world we live in is on the verge of dramatic and disastrous change. We have damaged our environment almost beyond repair. Complacency and negligence have finally caught up with us; soon, our once-prosperous ways of life will grind to a halt and collapse.
The reason for this boils down to the best-known consequence of climate change: melting polar ice caps causing a rise in sea levels. Without reducing emissions, we’ll see our oceans rise between 1.2 and 2.4 meters in the next century.
These numbers might sound pretty harmless at face value, but they’re fatal. Bangladesh – currently home to 164 million people – will be underwater. Among other destinations drowned will be all of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Saint Mark’s Basilica in Venice.
But this isn’t just a problem on a 100-year timescale. If we keep our present rates of warming up, the Indonesian megacity of Jakarta will be entirely underwater by 2050.
If we look at a longer timeframe – past 2100 – things get even worse. Failing to reduce emissions now will result in oceans 6 meters higher in the next few centuries.
In this scenario, roughly 444,000 square miles of land will be swallowed by the sea – including ports, power plants, naval bases, farmlands and entire cities. Asia will be most severely affected, with huge cities like Shanghai, Mumbai and Kolkata either flooded or entirely underwater.
The UN estimates that by 2050, the world will need twice as much food as today.
For every degree of warming our planet experiences, cereal crop yields decline by about 10 percent – mostly because it makes our environment less hospitable to these plants. Imagine a world in 2050 with 5 degrees warming: 50 percent less grain and twice the demand for food.
In the last 15 years, trailblazing mathematician Irakli Loladze noticed that carbon-dioxide-rich atmospheres make plants grow bigger but reduce their nutritional value. Investigating Loladze’s claims, one study found that since 1950, the nutrient content of agricultural plants has declined by up to 33 percent.
In 2016, the number of malnourished people in the world was about 815 million. If the near future promises population increase, food shortage and nutrient collapse, what number will this rise to
But all the progress that medical science made over centuries could be wiped out in a single generation by climate change. In fact, we might be on the verge of a global health crisis that could come in two forms: old diseases revived and current ones rejuvenated.
One team of researchers digging in Alaskan ice discovered the deadly 1918 flu strain which killed up to 50 million people. What’s more, in 2016, two dozen people were infected with anthrax when the 75-year-old frozen carcass of a reindeer thawed, highlighting the danger that the return of such diseases currently trapped in ice pose.
Diseases love hot and humid climates. From salmonella developing in left-out meat to summer outbreaks of cholera in the developing world, bacteria thrive in warm, moist places. This poses a serious threat to public health as the global temperature gauge keeps cranking up.
Planetary warming is completely scrambling our ecosystems, helping disease spread to previously unaffected regions. Just take malaria, which currently kills one million people annually, mostly in tropical regions. As warming accelerates and Earth’s tropical zones expand, more and more countries will become breeding grounds for malaria and the mosquitos which transmit it.
Another well-known disease-carrying pest is the tick. Responsible for transmitting Lyme disease, this little parasite has a big future ahead of it as the planet warms and its natural habitat grows. As the author Mary Beth Pfeiffer explains in Lyme: The First Epidemic of Climate Change, Lyme disease was nonexistent in Japan and South Korea in 2010. Since then, these countries have seen a spike in case numbers, including hundreds of South Koreans every year.
We’re currently in the middle of a global air quality crisis, and some countries are suffering far worse than others. But even the lucky ones with cleaner air won’t stay lucky much longer, as polluted air becomes the new normal and chokes more people to an early grave.
In the developing world, 98 percent of cities are above the World Health Organization’s (WHO) threshold of safety. In 2017, just breathing in New Delhi’s air was the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
And these facts don’t even come close to showing the scale of today’s problem. At the moment, one in six deaths in the world are caused by air pollution – over 10,000 people die from air pollution every day.
Perhaps the cruelest consequence of air pollution, though, is that it injures indiscriminately; children and pregnant women get no special treatment from the smog of New Delhi or the smokestacks of China.
And it’s not just our bodies that suffer – it’s our minds, too. One 2016 study heavily linked pollution with increased mental illness in children; another recent study demonstrated it increased the risk of developing dementia in old age.
We live on a blue planet. Water covers 71 percent of the globe and is quite literally the essence of our existence. We use it to grow our food, stay hydrated and keep ourselves clean. It was in water that life first developed, and from which the majority of our bodies are made.
Freshwater is by far the most important type of water to humans. But it accounts for only 2 percent of our world’s supply – the rest being saltwater. What’s more, only 1 percent of freshwater is accessible, with most of it being trapped either underground or in glaciers.
Believe it or not, this isn’t a problem. National Geographic once calculated that only 0.007% of Earth’s water is needed to grow the crops and quench the thirst of seven billion people. Most of this – between 70 and 80 percent – goes toward food production, with only a small percentage used for hydration.
But water scarcity will become a central feature of climate change in the coming decades.
By 2030, global freshwater demand is expected to exceed supply by 40 percent. This increased demand will come mostly from agricultural production and could cause food shortages, necessitating even more agriculture – another example of a destructive feedback loop. Exacerbating the situation is the fact that, in the next 30 years, water demand from global food production is expected to increase by 50 percent, mostly due to increasing populations.
According to the UN, five billion people could have inadequate access to freshwater by 2050. And, as with any scarce resource, there are always groups willing to fight for control over them. The next decades of warfare will certainly contain water-driven conflicts.
Pollution is also a major driver of violence. In one survey of 9,000 US cities, researchers found that high air pollution correlates to increased car theft, assault, rape and murder. Another study predicted that climate change would lead to an additional 22,000 murders and 3.5 million assaults in the US.
For every half degree of climate warming, the chance of an armed conflict erupting anywhere in the world increases by 10 to 20 percent. This could be direct, from competition over scarce freshwater resources, or indirect, where existing tensions boil over in the heat.
Climate change has already increased African countries’ chances of conflict by over 10 percent; one study led by Stanford academic Marshall B. Burke argued that, by 2030, predicted temperatures on the continent would cause an extra 393,000 deaths in battle.
If we wanted to improve on our current best-case scenario of 3 degrees, it’s not enough to cut our emissions. Instead, we need something more aggressive – something which reduces the amount of carbon in the air. This approach is called negative emissions and comes in two forms.
The first is called bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). This works by burning biomass – waste material from plants, such as wheat stalks or corn cobs – to produce bioenergy.
Biomass absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during its lifetime, so on its own, the production of bioenergy would still emit carbon into the atmosphere. That’s why it is being combined with carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies. These involve capturing the carbon emitted from burning biomass and transporting it to storage sites, usually underground.
So by growing and burning biomass and capturing and storing the carbon emitted, we can actively reduce carbon levels in the air.
The situation is much worse than we think. Many different climate-related disasters threaten the wellbeing of humanity, some of which act like mutually reinforcing cascades, causing further warming and human misery. Even our best hope of averting disaster, negative emissions technologies, is a pipe dream at the moment. Time has run out, but we still have a choice over how severe the consequences of climate change will be.