And yet, we can say a few things about the future with a fair degree of certainty: By 2050, without some drastic, as of yet unimaginable intervention - without a radical, globally orchestrated program to reduce CO2 levels through conservation and sequestration - the Earth will be considerably hotter than it is today. With climate change quickening now, by then the planet could be 3, 4, or more degrees warmer. Accelerated warming might cause three meters, at least, of sea level rise, according to climate scientists. This would have disastrous impacts.
Let’s admit what we all know: We are already experiencing crazy, rapidly fluctuating weather. As I write this, New York is colder in May than it was in January. In a few decades, the situation could be far more chaotic than we can even predict. We depend on plants, for instance, to provide us with sustenance. In order to blossom and grow - to feed us, in other words - they need climate stability.
The Arctic is melting rapidly now; month by month, Gigatons of ice are released into the seas. Many of the world’s low-lying coastal cities - including New York City, my home - could be deluged and made uninhabitable, within a few decades. If that happens, then hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people will start migrating inland in either a somewhat controlled or chaotic fashion.
Let's assume the current political system finds a way to stay in place, despite panics and paroxysms. In that case, a tiny elite will still maintain control over the vast preponderance of the world's wealth and property. They will employ private armies, killer drones, and government surveillance to guard and protect their privileged status in a disintegrating world - if they haven't found a more insidious method, like hacking the brainstem of their serfs or developing the next tier of mood and mind-altering drugs to control the nervous systems of the sheeple directly.
It is inevitable that the melting of the mountaintop glaciers that provide fresh water to several billion people, and other drastic changes in climate and weather patterns, will induce unending droughts. Famines could be endemic across much of the world. With these cataclysms, along with spreading diseases, we might undergo significant, if not severe, population die-offs. These conditions, in all likelihood, will lead to regional wars over resources, the scapegoating and persecuting of minorities, as well as the collapse of many nation-states.
Industrial disasters like Fukushima and the Gulf oil spill will become regular occurrences in the wake of tsunamis and super storms. All the big cats and great apes will go extinct, and mosquitoes and insect pests will migrate North. Seeking escape from physical hell, the masses may zone out on immersive games and virtual reality spectacles. As the world turns into a giant refugee camp, engineers will experiment with massive geo-engineering schemes. They will pour sulfur particles into the atmosphere and iron filings into the oceans with unpredictable, perhaps even more disastrous consequences.
This scenario is, of course, only an outline, with many X factors. Perhaps advances in medicine and nanotechnology will bring life extension and superhuman capacities to the privileged few, creating a deeper biological divide between the haves and have nots. Populist fury may erupt against the First World - the primary source of economic injustice and ecological decimation - as the Earth becomes hotter, more crowded and more barren of life. This could lead to the detonation of "suitcase nukes" in major cities and bio-terrorism or false flag events involving weaponized or genetically engineered viruses.
Mass panic would force a descent into martial law. People may be electronically tagged, their every move under the surveillance of sophisticated artificial intelligence agents. This would be a hotter, drearier, more despicable world - but one that seems quite likely, from where we are now.
Another scenario is plausible and far more extreme. Soon - any time now - we may face runaway climate change - rapid warming, beyond the worst predictions. Over the last decade, scientists found that positive feedback loops accelerate warming. For instance, the disappearance of Arctic ice means that more sunlight is absorbed and less is reflected, turning up the thermostat.
One way this can happen is through an eruption of methane. Methane is 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than CO2. While Methane only stays in the atmosphere for ten years, while CO2 circulates for over a century, there are huge quantities of it frozen in the oceans and the Siberian peat bogs. Scientists believe a sudden eruption of methane caused the Permian Mass Extinction 250 million years ago, when 95% of all life on Earth went extinct within a few decades.
From the study of past geological epochs, we know that once warming passes an unknown tipping point, the Earth can heat rapidly, becoming a biological desert within a half century. Through studying the climate record, preserved in ice core samples, geologists have learned that the climate generally doesn’t make a slow, incremental transition from one steady state to another. Instead, the climate tends to make a drastic lurch in a short time-frame.
When you take the time to study the ecological data, you can feel like you are on a bad acid trip, in danger of losing your moorings as well as your mind. The situation can seem irrevocably, almost absurdly grim. Even so, I believe there are many good reasons to hope. The human species is creative, innovative, highly adaptive. We can change quickly. We might be on the cusp of a rapid transmutation now. Because we are meshed together into one global brain via the Internet, new ideas, new ecological techniques - even new currencies or ways to practice democracy - can spread across the world in a micro-millisecond.
Although a tremendous amount of damage has already occurred, and more is unavoidable, it is still possible that we can rally ourselves. We can redirect our civilization along a different path, and we can do it quickly. As Peak Everything author Richard Heinberg notes, “In order to save ourselves, we do not need to evolve new organs; we just need to change our culture. And language-based culture can change very swiftly, as the industrial revolution has shown.”
Similarly, Alexis Zeigler writes in Culture Change, “The solution to changing the Western lifestyle is the simple impossible act of creating social networks that build social support outside of the mainstream in the context of a truly sustainable society." If we haven’t accomplished this yet, it may because we haven’t really tried.