by Karl Arnold Belser
17 January 2014

I recently read an article from the Nation called The Coming Instant Planetary Emergency which got me concerned about climate change and human survival. 

In short if the arctic  permafrost starts to thaw, huge amounts of methane would be released into the atmosphere. This methane might cause a rapid change in global temperature (global warming) in a positive feedback effect that would cause ice to rapidly melt worldwide. In this case, the positive feedback would be that the release of methane would cause the temperature to rise and the higher temperature would cause the release of more methane in the arctic in a circular cycle. 

The book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet by Mark Lynas estimates what might be the results of global temperature rises in one degree Centigrade increments. This global thawing might promote a rise in sea levels and desertification of the equatorial regions of the globe. At a rise of six degrees he projects that it might be difficult for life on earth to survive in any meaningful way.

I am an empirical person who wants data, not emotion. There is real data in the article 
by Dan Satterfield of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) titled NASA:2012 was the 9th Warmest Year on Record. The 9 Warmest Years Have All Occurred Since 1998 . This article convincingly shows that the earth is warming. The problem reviewers of Satterfield's article give is that it is unlikely that the current atmospheric models for global warming are accounting for all of the variables. Coincidence does not prove causation. Hence, there is a possibility that the increase atmospheric carbon dioxide percentage isn't a problem. There might be some mitigating mechanisms that will limit warming, for example.  

The article Climate Scientists to the Senate: Climate Change is a Clear and Present Danger from the Guardian  gives a good summary of the world opinion on climate change and global warming. It is also becoming clear that climatic instability, possibly due to global warming, is happening as described in the January 6, 2014 article from Quartz titled How Global Warming can Make Cold Snaps Even Worse.

I think that climate change is in fact happening. However, all of my PhD and expert engineering friends adamantly state that it is not clear if global warming is actually occurring or that it even would be a problem if it did occur. Judith Curry of Georgia Tech clearly articulates this skepticism on Russ Roberts Econtalk.  I am under considerable social pressure to conform to their beliefs. Hence, I am continuing this post by assuming that carbon dioxide level does in fact contribute to global warming and climate change.

The August 2, 2012 article in Rolling Stone titled Global Warning’s Terrifying New Math gives pretty clear evidence that even if we wanted to control carbon dioxide emissions we can’t do it without bringing the world economy to a stop. Further even if the emissions could be stopped, the current levels of carbon dioxide would probably cause the earth to continue warming for a long time, maybe even centuries.

Given this background might climate change and/or global warming cause the human race to become extinct. I answer this rhetorical question with an adamant NO.

Suppose that it does become clear that the earth’s average temperature will rise by six degrees Centigrade and suppose that without any human intervention this would result in the end of animal life on earth.  I am an engineer and I know that it is possible to cool the earth by injecting some gas such as sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere as suggested by Steven Levit in his book SuperFreakonomics. This course of action would require all nations on earth to cooperate because some nations would likely suffer huge environmental or climatic consequences that could lead to world war. I suspect that this cooperation would probably not happen until the climate change  situation had already reached a crisis level.

Given that the earth as a whole initially would not be cooled, we are nowhere near a level of carbon dioxide that would kill human beings, and plant life will thrive better with a higher level. All one needs is water.  If there is desertification of large areas of the earth it is within engineering possibility to desalinate ocean water and irrigate the land that would become a desert. This would be especially true if the power of nuclear fusion is unleashed. People are now living in deserts with air conditioning. So there will certainly be some amount of human population that can survive a large global temperature rise. All that would be required is the right technology.

What does this mean to me, a person living in California that is currently experiencing a severe drought? It probably means that our society will adapt, first by reclaiming wastewater and then by desalinization. This will probably cause a hardship for many people because these intervention techniques will cost money. Further if the ocean levels rise it might be possible, given an abundant source of energy, to dam off the straight at the golden gate bridge to prevent inland flooding. I think that the United States will quickly adapt as the challenges arise.

But what about the poor people in the world, like in Bangladesh which has millions of people that live near today's sea level?  There will probably be forced migration, economic hardships, death from starvation and war between nations. Much of the third world will suffer. Hence, I believe that it is extremely important that the United States military be fully funded above other priorities.

I hate to say it but there are too many people on earth whose consumption of the earth’s resources might also put human life on earth in jeopardy. Maybe global warming is just the natural way for the earth to come into equilibrium.

I believe that severe climate change is probably going to happen and that it is well within the adjacent possible that the human race will survive this dramatic change.

Last updated April 6, 2014
HTML 4.01