A climate change paper grabbed headlines this week with its terrifying prediction of what the world will be in 30 years’ time – absent drastic and immediate change to human societies.
“World of outright chaos,” “Climate apocalypse,” “We’re all gonna die,” the media banners blared.
The sobering headlines and equally disconcerting stories beneath described a “scenario analysis” by an Australian think-tank, Breakthrough National Center for Climate Restoration.
The paper portrayed what the year 2050 will look like if urgent action to build carbon-neutral energy systems around the world fails to come to fruition in the next 10 years.
It’s worse than any of the apocalyptic Hollywood horror films making the rounds.
One billion people displaced and fighting desperately for survival, with half the world’s population subjected to “lethal heat” conditions for more than 20 days a year – “beyond the threshold of human survivability”.
Drought, wildfires, and floods collapse entire ecosystems as two billion people struggle for potable water. Mega-cities such as Mumbai, Hong Kong, Lagos, and Manila are largely abandoned because of massive floods.
“This scenario provides a glimpse into a world of ‘outright chaos’ on a path to the end of human civilisation and modern society as we have known it,” said the paper, co-authored by Ian Dunlop, a former chair of the Australian Coal Association, and David Spratt, a long-time climate researcher.
Spratt told Al Jazeera the eye-catching headlines were “somewhat over the top”, but he maintained the dire warnings were legitimate.
“We are reaching the end game, there are not a lot of pieces left on the chess board. We have to take action really fast,” said Spratt.
He challenged climate scientists, including those from the leading Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), to be more forthright with the global public about the calamity awaiting humanity if nothing is immediately done to halt the pumping of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the Earth’s atmosphere.
The planet is currently on track for a 4.5 degree Celsius increase in global temperature as CO2 emissions continue to rise each year.
Dunlop noted the IPCC set a target of staying below a 1.5C increase in the coming decades. “This IPCC analysis assumes only a 50-66 percent chance of meeting the targets. Not good odds for the future of humanity,” he wrote this week.
Asked about the criticism, IPCC’s Nina Peeva responded: “We can’t comment on individual papers on climate science. Our job is to inform policymakers about the current state of knowledge on climate change… If this paper was published in a peer-reviewed journal, it will probably be considered in the next assessment appearing in 2021.”
Congressional testimony from two US government intelligence analysts on Wednesday seemed to corroborate Breakthrough’s grim climate change analysis.
Peter Kiemel, from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, told a House committee investigating the global effects of climate change on national security that it played a role in the bloody civil wars in Syria and Libya, and will do the same in the future.
Just prior to the outbreak of Syria’s devastating war in 2011, the region suffered one of the most severe droughts in its history, quadrupling rural-to-urban migration and causing food riots.
Climate change impacts on food and water systems were also “catalysts for social breakdown and conflict” in the Maghreb and the Sahel, contributing to the European migration crisis, Breakthrough’s paper said.
“We already have seen water crises exacerbate social unrest in and emigration from fragile states in the Middle East and North Africa,” said Kiemel.
“As the climate changes, disputes over water and access to arable land are likely to grow, prompting more such local conflicts.”
Rod Schoonover, a senior State Department analyst, told members of the House Intelligence Committee no nation would be immune from the ravages of climate change.
“Most countries, if not all, are already unable to fully respond to the risks posed by climate-linked hazards under the present conditions,” said Schoonover.
“Absent extensive mitigating factors or events, we see few plausible future scenarios where significant harm does not arise from the compounded effects of climate change.”
The Washington Post reported on Friday that Trump administration officials ordered the words “possibly catastrophic” erased from Schoonover’s written statement.
What can’t be deleted is a 2007 climate change security report titled The Age of Consequences, co-authored by former CIA director James Woolsey. Its wording leaves no doubt about the threat to the human species.
“Armed conflict between nations over resources, such as the Nile and its tributaries, is likely and nuclear war is possible. The social consequences range from increased religious fervour to outright chaos,” the study warned.
While the immense challenge of abruptly ending fossil fuel use seems extremely daunting, there are reasons for hope.
Spratt and others noted the technology to shift away from fossil fuels to clean energy is already in place, and more could be done if government budgets were allocated towards decarbonisation.
“We have the technological and economic capacity. If we would have made the shift in 2009, we would be all right today,” said Spratt.
Climate watchers say what is desperately needed is political leadership worldwide to rein in C02-burning corporations and shift the global economic system to green technology.
Jonathan Patz, director of the Global Health Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told USA Today the technology for a carbon-free economic system is already in place.
“We’re not waiting for solutions. We’re simply waiting for political will to understand that the solutions are here. Clean energy is not a matter of waiting, it’s a matter of implementing,” said Patz.
But with US President Donald Trump, who denies human-induced climate change and oversees the world’s largest economy, there is ample reason for serious concern.
The winds of change are blowing, however, as climate change protest movements sprout up worldwide.
In the US, the world’s second largest CO2 emitter after China, presidential candidate Joe Biden announced a $5 trillion climate proposal on Tuesday as part of his campaign for 2020. The same day, Hollywood actor Robert Downey Jr said he would launch a new hi-tech venture called the Footprint Coalition to combat climate change.
On Thursday, US billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg said he would spend $500m in the “fight of our time” to move the US away from carbon energy.
Breakthrough’s paper stated “a massive global mobilisation” of resources was needed in the next decade to build a zero-emissions industrial system.
So can humanity save itself with the clock ticking down fast?
Admiral Chris Barrie – the former chief of Australia’s defence forces who wrote the foreword to Breakthrough’s paper – said human societies must act collectively to survive.
“A doomsday future is not inevitable, but without immediate drastic action, our prospects are poor.”