Civilization may unravel just 30 years from now, without emergency action to save the climate. From Australia, David Spratt explains. From the UK, Eunice Lo says thousands could die in New York and Los Angeles by 2050 – from the heat. Plus the next step in the local food revolution. Radio Ecoshock 190619
THE COMING CRASH OF CIVILIZATION: DAVID SPRATT
Climate-driven storms, droughts, and fires are coming much sooner than scientists predicted. Now an Australian report suggests civilization as we know it could break down – starting as early as 2050. It comes from former fossil fuel lobbyist Ian Dunlop and Code Red author David Spratt, with an introduction by Admiral Chris Barrie, once Australia’s former top military officer. “Existential climate-related security risk: A scenario approach” was published by Australia’s Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration. It got incredible press coverage and viral social media buzz around the world. From Australia, David Spratt returns to Radio Ecoshock.
Author David Spratt
AUTHOR BIOS (from the report)
“David Spratt is a Research Director for Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, Melbourne, and co-author of Climate Code Red: The case for emergency action.
Ian T. Dunlop is a member of the Club of Rome. Formerly an international oil, gas and coal industry executive, chairman of the Australian Coal Association, chief executive of the Australian Institute of Company Directors, and chair of the Australian Greenhouse Office Experts Group on Emissions Trading 1998-2000.”
NOT SAYING HUMAN EXTINCTION BY 2050
Just to be clear, Spratt and Dunlop are not predicting the world will end by 2050, or that humans will go extinct then. They say civilization with BEGIN to unravel as early as 2050. It could be 2060. The point is, on our current course, we are heading beyond the bounds where global civilization can function, and maybe even our national structures. We are approaching the breakdown point.
Is this alarmist? It would not be the first time David has been accused of that. Unfortunately he has the agreement of some top scientists, and his early warnings have generally turned out to be true. We have been in an emergency “Code Red” situation for some years now, but have so far failed to act. Just recently UN Chief Guterres said the status quo on climate policy ‘Is a Suicide’.
This report from the Australian Breakthrough Institute is not long or heavy. It is ten pages that make sense. I encourage you to read it for yourself. You can find the short and shocking new report from David Spratt and Ian Dunlop, absolutely free, at www.breakthroughonline.org.au.
According to this new report:
“An existential risk to civilization is one posing permanent large negative consequences to humanity which may never be undone, either annihilating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtailing its potential.”
WHAT IS THE BREAKING POINT FOR CIVILIZATION?
We don’t know for sure the exact breaking point for our current civilization. Some scientists say it would be 3 degrees C. of warming, others wonder if we could last until 4 degrees C. If all countries signed up for the 2015 Paris Agreement carried out their promises, which so far they are not – the official line is Earth would warm up to 3 degrees Centigrade by the end of this century. That is a disaster. Even worse, these authors argue, we could that get to 3 degrees warming by the year 2050, instead of 2100.
This new report from the Breakthrough Institute says by 2050, quote “North America suffers from devastating weather extremes including wildfires, heatwaves, drought and inundation.” As my American and Canadian listeners can testify, we already have all that! But it could be worse still.
News agencies asked a few climate scientists to fact-check what they called Breakthrough’s “Doomsday scenario”. Most agreed Spratt and Dunlop were projecting real possibilities. From the report:
“The Emeritus Director of the Potsdam Institute, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, warns that ‘climate change is now reaching the end-game, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences.’ He says that if we continue down the present path ‘there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years.’”
CONSERVATIVE SCIENCE CANNOT TELL US THE FULL RISK
In our second interview for this show, the lead author of a paper that calculated the number of heat deaths in 15 major American cities by 2050. Their model was based on statistics running from 1987 to the year 2000. That doesn’t include new developments, like the increase of multi-continental heat waves, or the new appearance of back-to-back heat waves. My point is: science can only operate with data from the rear-view mirror – but now we have conditions never seen before, at least during the time of humans. Science is dangerously conservative in its structure.
OFFICIAL PROJECTIONS NEVER INCLUDE THE BREAKDOWNS
That heat death study did not include what happens if the electric grid goes down, and air-conditioning fails. While I talked about power outage during my interview with Eunice Lo, the electricity went out for all of Argentina and Uruguay (and parts of Chile)!
Whether it’s the World Bank, the International Energy Agency, or national governments, these projections all assume our current institutions keep working. We never count system breakdown. That is such a risky assumption. Studies and policy also assume governments will continue to function without interruption. History shows governments fail. Wars, civil unrest, and economic crashes happen. If climate models can’t deal with outbreaks of chaos – that happen even without climate disruption – where does that leave us?
Last October, David and I talked about his report “What Lies Beneath: The inside story of political failure and scientific reticence on climate change’s existential risks.” Now I’m convinced the limitations of the scientific system have become a real danger to us all. Why don’t we get the real warnings that are flashing up Code Red?
Yes, it is possible the terrible collapse scenario Spratt and Dunlop described will not happen, or will not happen for another century or two. But that seems less and less likely. If civilization collapses within one generation, that still would not solve the problem of climate change as the warming will continue, as oceans release heat and the permafrost feedback cycle kicks in. But at least an end to fossil-fuel-powered humans could finally stop the worst of our emissions. Scientists like Tim Garrett at the University of Utah suggest that only a major breakdown in civilization can slow the rush to global warming.
REFERENCES FROM THE INTERVIEW YOU MAY NEED
As policy makers fail to act on the climate emergency, the authors say..
“As projected by Xu and Ramanathan, by 2030 carbon dioxide levels have reached 437 parts per million — which is unprecedented in the last 20 million years — and warming reaches 1.6°C.”
They are citing this paper: Xu, Y., and Ramanathan, V. 2017. “Well below 2 °C: Mitigation strategies for avoiding dangerous to catastrophic climate changes”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(39), 10315-10323. In January 2019, I interviewed the lead author of that paper, Yangyang Xu.
You can also check out this mild critique by Adam Vaughn at New Scientist “Is it true climate change will cause the end of civilisation by 2050?” Plus “New Report Suggests ‘High Likelihood of Human Civilization Coming to an End’ Starting in 2050” by Nafeez Ahmed, Jun 3 2019 at Vice News.
THOUSANDS OF HEAT DEATHS COMING IN AMERICAN CITIES BY 2050 – DR. EUNICE LO
More people will die from heat as the world warms. It could be you, or someone you know. A new study tries to tell us how many more will die in 15 major American cities, according to how hot we make it. The lead author, Dr. Eunice Lo, is a Research Associate in the Climate Dynamics group, at the University of Bristol, UK.
Dr. Eunice Lo, University of Bristol
The U.S. Government is retracting climate controls, but city governments continue climate action, leading the nation from below. This new paper will give those Mayors and Councils more information to help keep voters on board with local climate action.
The paper is: “Increasing mitigation ambition to meet the Paris Agreement’s temperature goal avoids substantial heat-related mortality in U.S. cities” as published in Science Advances June 5, 2019. Our lead author guest is a “Research Associate in the Climate Dynamics group, which is part of the Bristol Research Initiative for the Dynamic Global Environment (BRIDGE). Her previous two papers were on the possible use of sulfates to cool the planet. Eunice doesn’t advocate geoengineering at this time, but thinks we need to know how it would or would not help by doing more research.
The authors investigated future heat deaths in 15 cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Phoenix, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, and Washington, DC. They say a city-by-city approach is vital, because there are so many different factors from adaptation to local weather. A national approach isn’t good enough to know what the future will really bring.
For example, the authors find that the cumulative mortality risk is higher for northern cities such as Boston, Detroit, New York City, and Philadelphia than for southern cities such as Houston, Miami, and Phoenix. That’s counter-intuitive, but that’s how it works. From this study, many American cities can see the way their role in climate mitigation could benefit their particular city, in the number of lives saved by direct heat death. This study could help be a local motivator for climate action. I’m hoping some activists will pick up on this.
The study authors concede that their numbers, though shocking, are very conservative. For the purposes of the model, they kept the population numbers the same right through 2050. But right now population is expanding, so likely heat deaths would too. There are other conservative assumptions – but these may be balanced somewhat by the unknown effect of adaptation. For example, cities in many countries reduced heat deaths after the 2003 mass mortality event in Europe – by better planning, instituting public cooling centers, checking on seniors and so on. It is possible the heat could become more deadly, and we manage to keep heat deaths down for a while (until the heat overwhelms our ability to respond?) So I think we cannot use the raw date of heat deaths as an indicator of how deadly the new hot times have become.
The study says:
“Municipal adaptation and acclimatization may reduce future heat-related mortality. Increased availability of air conditioning, awareness of heat-related health risks, and improved health care reduced heat-related mortality in the United States over the last few decades.”
THE IPCC NEVER ASKED ABOUT 3 DEGREE WARMING…
You should understand that the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change only compared possible outcomes of heating to 1.5 degrees C (by 2100) versus 2 degrees C. They were not asked to investigate the impacts of 3 degrees C warming – even though that is the direction we are headed now (at the very least). So this paper considers that 3 degree future. That is quite important.
Personally, like many of my guests, I ask “Why bother talking about 1.5 degrees C warming?“. We are practically already there in many places on land, including in India for at least 9 months of the year. The only hope of 1.5 degrees C warming would be amazing and massive shift of whole economies to carbon capture and storage, removing CO2 from the atmosphere instead of adding it more rapidly as we did last year. 1.5 C warming is very unrealistic.
SOME OF MY CONCERNS
Covering this new paper, both the New York Times and the Guardian in the UK gave headlines to coming heat deaths, rather than the lives that could be saved with climate action. At least that was my impression. Dr. Lo is more hopeful about the way this study can be used to save lives, with urgent climate action. Most of the media also got the study wrong: several said these thousands of heat deaths would happen “every year” when in fact the prediction was made for the worst-case single-year heat that might come only every 30 years.
I have some worries that science is not getting to the real horror we come to. Please don’t take my examples from this paper as a criticism of Eunice Lo and her team. They did excellent science that is needed, and it can be helpful for cities around the world to realize what could happen. However, we need to consider how science consistently understates the developing reality – what has already happened on the ground, in our lives.
On first reading this paper, I started complaining about things left out of this study, but then found the authors brought many of those issues up in the “Discussion” part of the paper. Let’s add a few things to that discussion.
In my June 5th, Radio Ecoshock show, I interviewed Dr. Jane Baldwin of Princeton about her new paper. Their team found back-to-back heat waves are a new development since the year 2000. We don’t know yet whether this phenomenon will kill more people. This new development would not be included in this paper’s assumed base-line climate, which ran from 1987 to 2000. Could back-to-back heat waves be a source of underestimation of future heat deaths?
Another avenue for future study might be whether heat deaths follow a predictable ramp-up pattern, or if there are steep steps up as we warm. For example, we don’t know if warming above 2 degrees C will be experienced differently. We haven’t been there before.
In my May 1st show, Dr. Martha Vogel from ETH Zurich spoke about her paper on multiple deadly heat waves spanning continents. If these hit major crop zones in a given year, there could be famine, war or revolution, of all of those disasters.
It would be useful to have a study that does not include a stable social future as an assumption.
Another questions about projected future heat deaths is dependence on air-conditioning in many American cities. AC is nearly total in the South. But if the grid goes down, due to the heat, or for any other reason, heat deaths could multiply greatly. As I said above, the grid DID go down last week for the whole country of Argentina and beyond. The big California utility company PG&E recently decided to shut down their grid for some northern California cities due to high wildfire risk. Their grid actually started the forest fires that burned out places like Paradise CA last year. Nuclear and coal stations have to shut down if their cooling water supplies become too warm. A solar storm can knock down the grid. We can’t count on air-conditioning to keep people alive, every year for the rest of this century.
What about suggestions (e.g. from Spratt and Dunlop) we will reach 3 degrees of warming by 2050 instead of 2100? What would that do to this study, and to human heat mortality? I wonder if the future is just too unstable to predict future heat deaths, other than saying they will be higher, and could be much, much higher.
This paper finds almost 2,000 New Yorkers “would be saved from a heat-related death at a 2C increase compared with 3C heating.” Forty thousand Americans died from guns last year. I’m not sure heat deaths will really motivate climate action. They may be seen as just another cost of business-as-usual. Are these numbers really high enough to motivate state actors at upcoming climate conferences?
Finally I worry the numbers of future heat deaths in this paper are extremely conservative, given the large factors in play, and the climate surprises already underway. This information is aimed at policy makers. Isn’t that a danger, when science understates the risk? It’s a good sign when a new paper stimulates a lot of questions.
In the interview, Eunice tells us here next study will look at the additional impacts of the urban heat island effect. Land temperatures are always going to be hotter than the seas which cover most of the Earth, meaning land temperatures will be a degree or two above the published “global average mean temperature” rise of 2 or 3 degrees. We will experience worse. But then city temperatures are even higher than that. We need to know more.
THE NEXT STEP FOR LOCAL FOOD: MICHAEL BROWNLEE AND LYNETTE MARIE HANTHORN
We just had time for a few minute teaser for Deep Revolution. From Colorado, where they started the first Transition Town in America, and led local food, we present Michael Brownlee and Lynette Marie Hanthorn. This recording was from a live on-line session called “”How to live a life of destiny in a world running out of time…”, recorded June 13, 2019.
Michael Brownlee and Lynette Marie Hanthorn
Listen to or download a 9 minute clip with Michael Brownlee and Lynette Marie Hanthorn in CD Quality (only)
With the short time I had left in the show – what a way to end! Two founders of the local food movement say it failed! But Michael Brownlee and Lynette Marie Hanthorn of Local Food Catalysts are responding in a new way. They are training new leaders – the emergency response team. Brownlee is the author of “The Local Food Revolution: How Humanity Will Feed Itself in Uncertain Times” and “Reclaiming the Future: How to Lead the Local Food Revolution in Your Community”.
Find out more about their leadership training here. And here is Michael Brownlee’s Linked In page. Their next session of the “online bootcamp for emerging foodshed catalysts” begins in October 2019. Right now Michael and Lynette have videos of past Local Food Summit events plus online courses.
LOOK FOR MICHAEL’S NEW BOOK COMING OUT IN A COUPLE OF WEEKS! It’s called “Navigating the Anthropocene: From Planetary Emergency to Evolutionary Emergence.”
MICHAEL BROWNLEE ON RADIO ECOSHOCK
Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock interviews MICHAEL BROWNLEE on February 18, 2011. Transcript here and audio here.
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