Since jumping onto the world stage we’ve conquered every corner of it. Why? For one, our ability to form complex languages helped us cooperate. But what really catapulted us to another level is our ability to create stories. Religions, nations and corporations are just figments of our collective imagination, but they’ve led to realities like skyscrapers, factories, satellites, and wars.
An excellent in depth analysis of this fact can be found in the New York Times bestseller Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari.
Without a doubt, there’s a reason we walk our dogs on a leash, and they don’t walk us. We have completely reshaped the planet. Whether we consider ourselves superheroes or supervillains, we are, on a collective level, more powerful than any other creature on the planet.
But there’s one thing we are definitely not, invincible.
As far as we know there have been five mass extinctions on Earth, all of them long before the concept of bipedal apes who wear clothes and fly planes into buildings to appease imaginary gods. Often, these mass extinctions were the result of volcanoes or asteroids that altered the earth’s atmosphere. Now we’re the ones altering the atmosphere at an unprecedented rate, detonating a sixth mass extinction.
When the prospect of our own extinction is brought up, many people scoff at the idea, and point out that “humans are experts at adapting”. That if we survived the ice ages centuries ago, and averted nuclear Armageddon in the 1960’s, we must be invincible. Come to think of it, we’re even more powerful than those sissy dinosaurs who couldn’t handle a measly asteroid.
The dinosaurs actually lived for many millions of years. We humans have only been here for a fraction of that time. We’re barely 300,000 years old. Indeed, we survived the ice ages, but that was when civilization consisted of small nomadic groups. And even though it was cold, the planet was still warm enough to sustain plenty of mammalian life.
For the last 11,000 years we’ve experienced an interglacial period of climactic stability, the reason we developed agriculture, cities, and continue to thrive today.
But small changes in our planet’s average temperature (less than 2 degrees to be exact) have caused social upheaval throughout history. The Western Roman Empire eroded as a result of these minor changes in the Earth’s climate.
We survived nuclear Armageddon, but that problem was in our hands, one hundred percent. The solution was quite simple, make an agreement so nobody pushes the button.
Human induced climate change, on the other hand, is much more complex. Sure, we caused it, but much of the greenhouse gases we’ve emitted are trapped in the atmosphere and in the oceans, and there can be a lag of several decades between the time C02 emissions are emitted and their subsequent warming effect.
Then there are the positive feedback loops. One example is when the Arctic ice melts there’s more open water to absorb solar radiation, instead of reflecting it, which in turn warms the planet even more, causing more open water, more warming, and so on.
We’ve warmed the planet by a little over 1 degree Celsius since the onset of the industrial revolution, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has explicitly stated that exceeding 1.5C could be catastrophic. Yet climate scientists are forecasting a potential rise of about 5 more degrees in the coming decades if we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
The last time Earth’s temperature was that warm, humans didn’t exist. No cave people, no music, no parties, nothing.
Sure, we can hide inside air-conditioned buildings for the rest of our existence, but we can’t grow food in such conditions. And keep in mind that many of the dire predictions for the end of the century are already happening, 70 to 80 years ahead of schedule.
What happens if and when we hit that 5 degree mark much sooner than expected?
This process is already underway, but how are we “adapting” when the world’s most powerful leaders deny the problem while investing in walls and weapons instead of solutions?
Sure, we’ve survived the ice-ages and managed to make it into space. We’ve created mega cities and yes, we walk dogs on leashes. But if we don’t start taking the situation seriously, our “adaptation skills” will be regarded as the biggest joke of the 21st century.
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