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June 24, 2012 3:22 PM   Subscribe

Are we as environmentally screwed as I think we are?

After reading a lot of scientific literature about global warming and peak oil, I'm pretty sure we're well on fucked. I've seen estimates ranging from simply slowed down growth to the complete and utter collapse of the 1st world. I think it's likely we'll lose half of the human population in the next 100 years.

I'm having a difficult time separating hysteria and deniers from scientific consensus. Is there an agreed upon prediction of how the future is going to pan out in the next hundred years? Or is the future still fairly unknown?

I hope this isn't chat filter - I'm just trying to nail down the best scientific guesses of what's going to happen to us.
posted by OrangeDrink to Science & Nature (22 answers total) 24 users marked this as a favorite
I think the answer is no, there's no consensus on this.
posted by J. Wilson at 3:46 PM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am not aware of any generally-accepted scenario that results in the loss of half the world's human population in the next 100 years (unless we're talking theoretical extinction-level event: giant meteor strike, alien invasion, etc).

Also, please remember that technology advances extremely quickly. 100 years ago, automobiles, telephones, and electricity in the home were still fairly new. We now have the ability to put humans in orbit and harness atomic energy. 100 years ago, we still died from things like measles and polio. 20 years ago, being diagnosed with AIDS was a relatively quick death sentence.

Where will we be, technologically-speaking, 100 years from now? We are an incredibly adaptable species with the proven ability to continually invent tools and technology to help us survive under a wide variety of conditions.
posted by erst at 3:51 PM on June 24, 2012 [11 favorites]

I think it's likely we'll lose half of the human population in the next 100 years.

If you tell us more about what you're basing that on, we might be better able to answer your question.
posted by box at 3:58 PM on June 24, 2012

I would disagree strongly with J. Wilson; there is an exceptionally strong consensus in the shape of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Assessment Reports. AR4 states "[w]arming of the climate system is unequivocal".

What is not known is how it will affect specific locations. Places we know as agricultural areas may no longer be. Climate stress could cause population migrations. 100 years out is a long way to look.
posted by scruss at 4:00 PM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Supporting the idea that we are fucked:

The Limits to Growth, a study in the 1970s using computer models and predicting a crash in world population by 2050, was revisited recently. We are currently right on track for that crash - ie our current world course matches the worst predictions of the original models.

James Lovelock, a prominent scientist who developed the Gaia theory by observing that Mars has a constant temperature that is higher than it should be. He says the only humans left on earth in 100 years will be living in the arctic.

Crashing fish stocks around the world - this will hit Asian countries especially hard where about 1 billion people depend on fish for their primary food source.

Intensifying, accelerating deforestation and desertification. These two things together have many corollary effects - runoff into water sources leads to ocean dead zones; lack of forest cover creates more flooding and less protection from hurricanes and tsunamis; less root structure to prevent erosion and mudslides; etc. Add in increasing violent weather from climate change and use your imagination.

There's more.

My opinion is that climate change and peak oil, themselves, are not the things that will kill us. Instead, our reaction to these things will do us in. Right now we are reacting to peak oil by 1. drilling for oil at ever increasing depths under the sea (Deepwater Horizon), 2. poisoning millions of gallons of water at a time to frack shale formations for natural gas 3. destroying anything living on mile after square mile of land in Canada to get oil from the tar sands, 4. Blowing the tops off of mountains to get at the coal underneath (permanently altering waterflow and destroying forest ecosystems that survived the last ice age and probably reseeded the continent with life) 5. etc.

But yeah, I think we're fucked.
posted by natteringnabob at 5:38 PM on June 24, 2012 [7 favorites]

Grab the July issue of Popular Science for a really interesting look at your question. There's little question in the scientific community about the realities of climate change, but several ways it can all play out depending on how we as a global community respond. The issue contains an article/giant infographic addressing several scenarios (such as major UN policy intervention, etc) and how they'd affect population, food supply, economy, and so on. Essentially four futures.

Sorry if pointing you to an offline article is a non-answer, but I think it will help show you multiple scenarios and effects, and that while there is consensus on the problem, the future depends on how the world responds.
posted by dayintoday at 5:40 PM on June 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are two relevant recent threads on the metafilter from page (one authored by me), with a variety of useful links in the comments.

There's now a reasonable scientific consensus that the mild to moderate effects of global warming are irreversible. We'll definitely hit 450ppm, probably hit 550, lets try to stay away from 650. Action to avoid the strong consequences is still worth undertaking.

Moderate effects that we're likely to face include up to 2 metres of sea level rise by the end of the century, and 7 metres within a few hundred years. Changed agriculture and somewhat reduced agricultural output due to the need to reform and restructure. in other words, quite bad shit if you're a poor Bangladeshi, but if you're a first-worlder, it's more like reduced economic growth, no famines and starvation. A lot more wars over resources though.

With peak oil, there's still no consensus. "Unconventional sources" i.e shale oil, means that if we choose to convert that to CO2 we can avoid running out of oil, but not without climate Armageddon. I believe and expect that we will solve transport fuel issues, with a bit of innovation, a bit of bio-fuel, and a bit less mobility. It doesn't keep me awake at night.

There are other issues, not just these two. Firstly there's the loss of topsoil and arable land due to poor farming practices. Then there is the exhaustion of ground water ("fossil water") which has spurred agricultural development in lots of places, not just California. Then there's the biodiversity mass extinction crisis unfolding before our eyes.

Overall, bottom line, the world will be less forgiving, less prosperous at the end of the 21st century. Famines and wars and disease will still be very much with us. Life will be nastier, more brutish, shorter, than it currently is in many parts of the world. But there will still be substantial numbers of rich "middle class" people in the historically rich areas of the world, and wealthy chinese and indians and such.
posted by wilful at 5:46 PM on June 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

See also Beyond Hope.
posted by natteringnabob at 5:54 PM on June 24, 2012

After reading a lot of scientific literature about global warming and peak oil, I'm pretty sure we're well on fucked. I've seen estimates ranging from simply slowed down growth to the complete and utter collapse of the 1st world. I think it's likely we'll lose half of the human population in the next 100 years.

What do you mean by scientific literature? There's a big difference between a science journal (say, Science) and a popular science journal (say, Popular Science).

Almost all scientists accept that anthropogenic carbon emissions are raising the average global temperature, and that under a scenario where annual carbon emissions continue to increase, temperatures will continue to rise. Since there's a finite amount of oil out there, peak oil must surely occur at some point. How much the earth will warm, and when peak oil will (or has) occurred are matters of active scientific debate.

It's a lot harder to predict what these things will mean for the global population and living conditions. Some scientists might be willing to guess at what will happen, but this isn't really a question that can be answered by science, and there's certainly no scientific consensus here.
posted by Tsuga at 5:56 PM on June 24, 2012

On the bright side, for many of the other residents of our planet the loss of half the human population would be a beneficial eventuality.
posted by islander at 6:27 PM on June 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Except for the fact that as the top predator we are likely to be the last to go, I would agree with that.
posted by flabdablet at 7:09 PM on June 24, 2012

We are worse than screwed:

170 degrees = screwed

This is because of delayed impacts of the prior years of burning, and remember ALL of Asia cooks every day and every night, most using propane or actual wood in little fires. Billions.
posted by Freedomboy at 8:10 PM on June 24, 2012

Wow, lots of doom and gloom around here. I don't know if there is much crossover between this site and survivalblog but this thread reads almost the same as some of the articles over there.

The original work on global warming was done by a man named arrhennius. He predicted that for every doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere we would see 1 deg Celsius rise in average temperatures. This is about what the empirical evidence has shown since the end of the little ice age, about 1815 or so.

The computer models are far from certain and they aren't really determinate yet. In that you don't always end up at current conditions if you start with the conditions say 50 years ago or even reliably end up close enough. In some cases you get run away greenhouse and then the next time you get a snowball Earth. The earth has had a LOT more CO2 in the atmosphere before in the geologic record and has been both much warmer and much cooler within the history of the human species. From the record it looks like the big determinants are orbital eccentrices, continental distribution and volcanic activity. With a big wildcard from the occasional rocky visitor.

The worst most hysteric predictions of our future are usually put forward from either people with a pre-existing political viewpoints (i.e. the rabid environmentalists who view the human species as a stain on the planet or hard core leftist who view green policies as a vehicle to put forward their idea of utopia) or people with little sense of geologic time or the history of the planet. About like the people who predict economic collapse and we are going to be eating our pets for food usually are unbalanced, generally losers and really, really want to be right about something big, or have something to sell you (note that all these are not mutually exclusive and all too often in the same persons viewpoint).

We face significant challenges. We(humanity) always have. The trends emerging as economies grow richer and more automated are pretty promising (all except for wealth concentration) in that richer is cleaner and populations start dropping from all the evidence so far. Per capita energy use is declining in the US and has been for some time (and is even faster in other rich countries), birth per female is REALLY declining even in poor countries. Chances are that if current trends continue we may actually have less people, or at least no more, in 50 years anyway without a crash, and definitely in 100 years. Paul Ehrlich and his ilk never predicted that (Julian Simon did), and if you don't know who I am talking about you should look them up.

Maybe the worst is going to happen. Not much I can do about it. I do try to live within my means and keep a small footprint because it is usually cheaper, more satisfying and I think the right way to live. But I am not crazy about it. Modern life is so much more rewarding than being a peasant, which so much of the environmental movement seems to be advocating(or at least the part that gets the press).
posted by bartonlong at 8:15 PM on June 24, 2012 [9 favorites]

While following one of the other threads, I went out looking for papers, studies, etc. that would offer a little more substance. This one, Policy Options to Respond to Rapid Climate Change, from Wageningen University in the Netherlands, was a good read. Date of publication was 2009.

There are items within the paper that one could argue with (some of the remediation ideas are a little wild, and the authors might be a little overoptimistic about how easy it would be to get international or public acceptance of global schemes), but it covers a lot of ground and is both meaty and accessible. I thought the background section at the beginning was interesting as a review of what the paper's authors think the consensus on climate change was as of publication in 2009.
posted by gimonca at 9:19 PM on June 24, 2012

Boundary conditions
The idea of planet-wide environmental boundaries, beyond which humanity would go at its peril, is gaining ground
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:24 PM on June 24, 2012

If we got sufficiently desperate about global warming there's the option of building a sunshield at Earth-Sun Lagrange point L1. That's not a good solution to global warming, but it sure beats "the few surviving humans live in tropical Antarctica."

So, to answer your question, the worst case scenario is something like Soylent Green.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 9:48 PM on June 24, 2012

I don't know more about the science than you or the other commenters, but I do think it's interesting to consider how apocalyptic malthusian scenarios have been historically wrong. Past models have failed to predict agricultural innovations like nitrogen fertilizers that have greatly increased crop yield, for example.
posted by deathpanels at 11:13 PM on June 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

I'd highly recommend Alan Weisman's "The World Without Us" as an oblique take on this question - a key component of which is how lasting the damage we have done to the earth is.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:19 AM on June 25, 2012

has been both much warmer and much cooler within the history of the human species

Before taking this point seriously, it would be worth reflecting on the related point made in the talk linked in the comment immediately before that one, which was that global climate has been remarkably stable for the entire history of human civilization from the invention of agriculture onward.

Related data.
posted by flabdablet at 5:06 AM on June 25, 2012


For confirmation, read your Kunstler (he's a well-known doomer).

Then get back on your knees and bury your head in the sand with the rest of us.
posted by Rash at 11:58 AM on June 25, 2012

"James Lovelock, a prominent scientist who developed the Gaia theory by observing that Mars has a constant temperature that is higher than it should be. He says the only humans left on earth in 100 years will be living in the arctic."

Incidentally, James Lovelock has just recently rowed back on his apocalyptic predictions. See here and here.
posted by Marlinspike at 1:22 PM on June 25, 2012 [3 favorites]

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