Tag Archives: survival

Will the human race survive climate change?


A review of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, by Annalee Newitz

@@@@@ (5 out of 5)

Come what may, the human race is heading toward a fall.

As Berkeley Ph.D. Annalee Newitz writes, “the world has been almost completely destroyed at least half a dozen times already in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history . . . Each of these disasters caused mass extinctions, during which more than 75 percent of the species on Earth died out. And yet every single time, living creatures carried on, adapting to survive under the harshest conditions.”

In Scatter, Adapt, and Remember, Newitz explores what humankind must do to be among the survivors of the next mass extinction. Because, as she emphasizes, there will inevitably be a next time. If the current acceleration in species death — think honeybees and frogs — isn’t an early stage of a full-blown mass extinction, something else really, really bad will surely happen sooner or later. Thus it is, Newitz insists, “we need a long-term plan to get humanity off Earth. We need cities beyond the Blue Marble, oases on other worlds where we can scatter to survive even cosmic disasters.”

For me, as a long-time science fiction reader (and once-upon-a-time sf writer), this assertion is not news. Nor are the apocalyptic scenarios she paints, with massive asteroids or comets crashing into the Earth, megavolcanos blanketing the Earth with soot and ash that trigger an Ice Age, bursts of cosmic radiation frying all life on the planet, an incurable contagious disease gone pandemic, or, worst of all — here’s the surprise — climate change.

Yes, it turns out that the worst of the half-dozen mass extinctions science has brought to light “involved climate change similar to the one our planet is undergoing right now.” During that distant period, around 250 million years ago, “95 percent of all species on the planet were wiped out over a span of roughly 100,000 years . . .” And lest you take comfort in the hope that our brush with such a catastrophe lies in the distant future, please note that some in the scientific community date the beginning of the current mass extinction to a time about 15,000 years ago when human invaders from Asia began to exterminate the giant fauna of the Americas (mammoths, giant elk, sloths, and other species).

Newitz, a science journalist and award-winning blogger, divides Scatter, Adapt, and Remember into four sections. In Part I, she surveys the history of mass extinctions. Part II focuses on homo sapiens‘ close calls — from the population bottlenecks in the earliest days of our species in Africa a million years ago, to our recent competition with Neanderthals and homo erectus, to the horrific pandemics that have lowered our numbers, to the widespread incidence of famine throughout our history. In Part III, Newitz examines the successful strategies employed by homo sapiens and other species (including microbes and gray whales) to survive in the face of existential threats. These strategies give the book its title: Scatter, Adapt, and Remember. Part IV makes the case that humanity will only survive in cities and explains “How to Build a Death-Proof City” in which every surface is used to grow food. Part V looks to the far future — a million years or more — with humanity spreading out to the stars.
Scatter, Adapt, and Remember features excerpts from the author’s face-to-face interviews with scientists working on the frontiers of exploration in synthetic biology, nanotechnology, materials science, and many other contemporary fields. There’s scarcely a chapter without a smattering of references to working scientists. Newitz’s views emerge from a solid base of understanding of the latest findings in a wide range of scientific inqiury.
However, Newitz also reveals her love for science fiction by drawing ideas and examples from the work of some of the craft’s most celebrated writers (as do many practicing scientists and engineers, not so incidentally). In particular, she calls out the work of the late Octavia Butler to illustrate the ethical quandaries posed by the threat of extinction in one possible far future for humanity.
Alternately troubling and inspiring, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember is ultimately an intrinsically hopeful proposition from a brilliant young visionary. Annalee Newitz is a name to watch. 

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Filed under Nonfiction, Science

Global warming and climate change: the next fifty years

A review of Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, by Mark Hertsgaard

@@@@ (4 out of 5)

We are now at least a decade into what journalist Mark Hertsgaard terms the “second era of global warming,” which began sometime around the turn of the 20th century. As he writes, “The battle to prevent dangerous climate change was now over; the race to survive it has begun.”

Hertsgaard probably has as broad and deep an understanding of global warming and its consequences in the form of climate change of any nonscientist on the planet. He has been writing about the topic for more than two decades and has interviewed most of the major players in climate science climate-related government policy not just for this book, which involved five years of travel around the world, but for Earth Odyssey, a widely read investigation published in 1999 that reflected seven years of travel. The man knows whereof he writes!

Hot is the author’s attempt to find a hopeful path forward through the gathering storm of climate change. Throughout, he ponders the life his young daughter, Chiara, will face in adulthood. Much of Hot is written in an optimistic tone. Hertsgaard explores a laundry list of policies and procedures that, if widely implemented, will permit humanity to forestall the extremes of climate change and to adapt to its nonetheless unavoidable consequences. Some of the practices he touts — painting roofs white and planting trees in African fields, for example — could, in fact, achieve a great deal if universally employed. His theme is “Avoid the unmanageable, manage the unavoidable.” Distinguishing between mitigation — efforts to reduce carbon emissions — and adaptation — finding ways to adjust to the changing climate — Hertsgaard devotes most of the book to the latter. Previous writing on global warming has tended to focus on mitigation, which heavily involves government and corporate policy. Adaption consists largely of changing the way people and communities behave.

Unfortunately, though, the context in which he writes is not encouraging. We live in a world in which massive corporations spend millions to protect their short-term profits regardless of the consequences, major news media reflect the views of their corporate owners, the overwhelming majority of people deny the obvious, and policymakers demonstrate their affinity for the art of the possible rather than showing true leadership. To a knowledgeable reader, much of the optimism in Hot seems forced.

What it all boils down to is this: “We face a towering challenge. Countries that today are all but addicted to fossil fuels must quit carbon within the next two to three decades. Deforestation and other climate-damaging activities must also be brought to a halt worldwide. And even poor and emerging economies must halt almost all emissions by 2050. Yet even if we manage all this, it will give us merely a two-out-of-three chance to limit temperature rise to 2 degrees C about preindustrial levels, itself an achievement of dubious merit, for it will mean the lost of most of the world’s coral reefs, the disappearance of most of its mountain snowpacks, and enough sea level rise, eventually, to inundate the existing coastlines on every continent.”

The facts are disturbingly grim: even if the human race somehow manages to come to grips with the existential threat of climate change and to do everything recommended by the authors of the most alarming scientific reports, we are already locked into at least 30 years, and possibly as many as 50 years, of serious trouble. “Climate change will worsen existing conflicts over water supplies, energy sources, and weather-induced migration . . . Economic prosperity is also endangered. Approximately 25 percent of the gross national product of the United States is at risk from extreme weather events, according to the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union.”

One of the greatest threats to civilization lies in our oceans. “Three feet of sea level rise over the next hundred years — which is near the low end of what scientists now expect — will pose enormous challenges . . . [S]ome scientists believe our civilization could experience three feet of sea level rise within the next fifty years.”

Perhaps equally problematic is the certainty of increasing drought. Much of Africa, a large swath of South Asia, and large portions of the United States, especially California, the Southwest, and the Great Plains, face intensifying water shortages.

There is no lack of horror stories available to illustrate the havoc these trends can create. However, over and above all the computer-modeled predictions for a steady increase in global temperatures over the coming decades is a much more horrific possibility: the potential that some unanticipated combination of circumstances will trigger “positive feedbacks that, in the worst case, could kick off some type of runaway greenhouse dynamics.”

As Hertsgaard explains, “Unfortunately, there is ample precedent for this kind of abrupt shift into climate chaos. Although the human mind tends to think in gradual, linear terms, ice records and other historical data show that climate shifts, when they occur, tend to happen suddenly and exponentially.”

Worrying about rising temperatures and their consequences is bad enough. But it’s the potential of a “sudden and exponential” shift that keeps me awake nights.


Filed under Current Events, Nonfiction