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The Climate Catastrophe We’re All Ignoring


The Climate Catastrophe We’re All Ignoring

Jeremy Lent

Imagine you’re driving your shiny new car too fast along a wet, curvy road. You turn a corner and realize you’re heading straight for a crowd of pedestrians. If you slam on your brakes, you’d probably skid and damage your car. So you keep your foot on the accelerator, heading straight for the crowd, knowing they’ll be killed and maimed, but if you keep driving fast enough no-one will be able to catch you and you might just get away scot-free.


You can’t blame everything on climate change. Strong storms are going to occur whether or not there is global warming. And part of the problem is poor planning and overdevelopment. That played a role in Houston and certainly plays a role in countries like India and Bangladesh. But climate change is also playing a role in making things worse and unless emissions are reduced he role of climate change will be much greater then it is now. It could even eventually cause a population crash with the human population being reduced by perhaps 90-95%. The Republican Party seems to have an agenda aimed at making that happen. It makes no sense but Trump and most Republicans seemed to be dedicated to carrying it out despine the warnings of climate scientists.


No specific storm can be blamed on global warming, but statistically, the storms are becoming and will become more intense, and likely more frequent. So yes, a probabilistic increment of intensity over a “no warming” scenario can be calculated and assigned to extreme weather events of recent years. Presumably,
someone at GISS, NOAA, and the CRU is working on such a calculation now. You can correctly say: “Such an intense storm could have occurred absent the warming climate”; but that is not how “reality” works. The language and currency of predictive scientific theory of the real world (and many other human affairs - insurance, government planning, civil engineering) is probability and statistics.

While anecdotal, I certainly am seeing a noticeable increase in rainfall intensity (but interestingly, a decrease in damaging wind and lightning - possibly due to higher freezing levels in the storm cell?), in the summer storms in my area (western Appalachian slopes) over the past few years. Both natural streambanks and various engineered drainage structures that accommodated the runoff from intense rains for years are now inadequate and being damaged from the more intense storms’ runoff.


Infinite economic and population growth on a finite planet … imagine your surprise …


Pretty good article, but Jeremy Lent gilds the lily here and there. That is standard in articles about climate change, but seems condescending in context, like he can’t be brutally truthful with us children. For instance:

The good news is that there’s a short window of time when a fundamental shift in our economic, social, and political priorities could still prevent global catastrophe.

Okay, with one third of Bangladesh under water, Africa going under, nonstop fires and floods in North America, not to mention the 6th extinction - how much more global and catastrophic does this disaster need to get before qualifying as a “global catastrophe”? This standard “good news” line has become a meaningless mannerism. To realistically advocate an appropriate response to this global catastrophe, we don’t need to pretend it hasn’t already begun. It’s enough to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet” - it will get much worse. Revolutionary change might happen in time to head off human extinction, if it starts soon.


A few good points but misses the real elephant and that’s industrial capitalism and the military that supports it’s destructive exploitation. I’ve read several pieces today and they all miss the point that for humans to survive this everything needs to change and as quick as possible. In 1970, the year of the First Earth Day, I believed that around 2050 things would start to get bad this being around the end of my life, I was born in 1954, the year of the first thermonuclear detonation. Trouble is the timeline sped up and the destruction of Earth due to global poisoning/warming is here now, roughly 30 years ahead of early, 1970’s, predictions. I for one chose not to have children because of the coming catastrophe, leaving them to deal with the destruction and devastation of industrial capitalism. Also one last point. There’s endless debate on maximum temperature rise. Somewhere around 4C is tops, anything more will result in runaway temperature rise and exterminate most of the higher lifeforms on land and sea. So we have a crisis right now and no one in leadership positions around the world will do what is needed to survive. Check out the essay in New York magazine from earlier this year,(sorry no link but easy to find) and even that is, to me, optimistic.


Let’s say neoliberal, industrial capitalism is software for running western-type civilisation(s) ?

For China, for Russia, the software might be different - or at least given a different version number ?

But isn’t the machine that runs the various software versions just as important ?

And is that machine civilisation itself - very hierarchical, with a largely passive, specialised citizenry who are also impotent, i.e., only pandered to - without a real say in how things should be ?

As I read it, the emphasis now is turning towards another type of software - let’s call it Green Party socialism.

Is that the answer, difficult as it would be to implement in the western democracies (are we really democracies in any meaningful way ??) ?

Perhaps we will suddenly awaken and implement another software version - under the banner of sustainability.

But this seems to me another spin operation.

Climate change and ocean acidification are only part of the problem.

One could easily add to the existential threats, as the Cambridge Centre for Existential Risk has done.

The list would be long, and would include nuclear weapons and chemical and biological weapons. Artificial Intelligence. Mass pandemics. Overpopulation. The crash of biodiversity. Soil degradation & the appropriation of ever more land for unsustainable, fertilizer and peticide dependent agriculture. Accelerating inequality & lack of social justice. Belief in divine intervention, or simply resignation and despair. And many more…

Then there are the amplifications and synergies between all of these separate risks.

And then there are the black swans, which we don’t even know about yet - by definition.

The archaeologist Joseph Tainter posited that civilisation was an anomaly - a too complex system to which the human being in our long history has never had to evolve into, until recently - and the adaptation does not seem to be going well, if indeed we are headed for extinction.

Tainter thought, and I believe still thinks, that reversion to a ‘system of lesser complexity’ is inevitable, or highly probable.

In other words, civilisational collapse of some, or many sorts.

I tire of the emphasis on political wrangling and, frankly, pie in the sky articles about what to do.

I would like to see vastly more space allocated to professional assessments of the various threats and their synergies.

In the belief that only the truth offers us an escape - and preferably truth that is widely disseminated - amongst an engaged citizenry.

Thoughts - AlephNull ? Olhippy ?


This is about drawdown. If your solution were to appear legitament perhaps include sources which actually describe their model, without first requiring you to purchase their own book. Also there is a massive difference between a peer-reviewed published article/report and a non-profit’s book.

In regards to the solutions project, I would caution people to actually read the full 200 page report as opposed to the nice neat little infographic. they have on their website. Marketing is not going to provide the solutions for an energy transition- calculated analysis of data might. Solutions Project makes a compelling argument for their plan, but I have concerns about their cost projections, lack of petrochemical substitution, lack of pollution awareness on conventional CSP and geothermal technology, lack of waste discussion particularly for polycrystalline silicon PV modules, and scaled storage proposals.

I also want to point out that the solutions project includes technologies that some US politicians do not consider to be renewable. One of many concerns I have for “renewable” classification is that today there seems to be no consensus of what energy sources are actually renewable or not. The Solutions Project includes: CSP and PV Solar, Onshore and Offshore Wind, Hydroelectric, Geothermal, and Wave Energy sources. However US Renewable Portfolio standards for 42 states does not classify hydroelectric as renewable, and instead includes biomass. Both Sen Sanders and Congresswomen Tulsi Gabbard do not include any hydroelectric systems (both production or storage) as systems


The supposition that civilization is an anomaly, while interesting, is both irrelevant and incorrect. In evolutionary terms, stuff happens , and that stuff either helps or harms a species in the short term. Homo sapiens is short term, turtles much longer.

Civilization helped grow human populations short term–that’s the ultimate goal of biomass: to reproduce. In this case, the reproduction of one species is overwhelming the ecosystem’s ability to sustain itself, again, short term. When the fall out from the human population outbreak wreaks its inevitable havoc, again, short term, evolution will see to the continuing process of mutation, selection, adaptation and probable collapse.

Of course, as a human with an 80-year time span to drink it all in, 15,000 years seems like a long time. But for this planet, it’s the blink of an eye.


Your post brings to mind a classic debate between Carl Sagan and Ernst Mayr regarding whether intelligent life will ever be found on other planets. Sagan said yes. Mayr said no, maintaining that intelligent life anywhere could only be a flash in the pan, because “intelligence is a lethal mutation.” Chomsky mused on this debate awhile back.

You might like Clive Hamilton’s recent book, Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene (here’s an excerpt). I was somewhat nonplussed by heavy sledding down some philosophical slopes in the last couple of chapters, but overall I appreciate Hamilton’s emphasis: just think of what’s unfolding - a new geological epoch, a totally unfamiliar planet!

One token of our impact on Earth I learned from Hamilton: human bodies constitute 30% of the biomass of all terrestrial vertebrates, while livestock is another 67%. That leaves only 3% for all wild animals. How can anyone doubt that our decisions make all the difference in the direction of spaceship Earth, when there’s hardly any room onboard for anyone else?


Tell all this to MBS in Riyadh.


Let’s assume a football field as metaphor to the History of Earth, a representation of 4.5 billion years, with opposing end zones of blue and red. The planet formed at the blue end zone. Going down the field towards the red end zone (present day) at about the 49.5 yard line, we get the kind of atmosphere that allows life.

At the 14 yard line, it is 800 million years ago, and living things are just starting to get complex and interesting.

The last yard is the yard of mammals, after the mass extinction of dinosaurs. The totality of human existence upon the timeline of 100 yards, amounts to no more than 1/8 an inch, just ahead of the red end zone, or the width of a miniature xmas light bulb.

The width of the filament in the bulb represents the development of all of human technology, from the printing press to the space ship.

As humans, we are closer in time to Tyrannosaurs Rex, than that Tyrannosaurs Rex is to the time of the Stegosaurus.


When your overweight American gets inside his/her oversize SUV, named Tahoe, Denali, or Acadia, replete with tinted windows, this being thinks only about using it’s phone/gps to get to the next climate controlled environment. If this being travels, it might fly to a Mexican resort that is totally Americanized. Or it might pile it’s children and it into a “Disney Cruise” embarking from Florida to spread the gospel of consumerism.
Bangladesh? What’s that? SERIOUSLY…


Thank You for mentioning this — it’s not as dramatic as hurricanes & wildfires, or even sea-level rise, and is often overlooked.  IIRC, there are already large areas of the southern San Joaquin Valley in California – the source of a great deal of food for the entire United States – that have been rendered infertile due to the build-
up of minerals from excessive irrigation, and this in only 100 years or so.  Ditto large areas of other western states that used to at least grow hay and alfalfa for feeding livestock.  At 7.5 Billion people, the human popu­lation is already three to four times greater than Mother Earth can support long-term, and is projected to reach 10 Billion by the year 2100.  Meanwhile, with millions already starving, our ability to grow food has peaked and is beginning to decline.   1984 is here at last!   2084 should be interesting indeed . . .


It’s easy to say “everything will be better when everybody does as I say.” How many are willing to set the example by living a life with a negative carbon footprint? Are we willing to learn to grow our own food, pedal our own bikes, and care for our neighbors?


Will humanity survive until 2084? In the past when an area became unlivable, the inhabitants moved away to greener pastures. There are many examples of civilizations collapsing due to climate change in a region. Those who moved away went to areas already populated and thus war would ensue.
My point is that the climate change may not be the killer, it may be the mass migration of people from one region devastated by climate change and the fight over resources as they move. There will be war, fought across the globe, not in just one region.
Take the syrian mass migration into europe and the difficulty of accommodating some millions of people fleeing the region because of famine and war. What happens when it becomes not tens of millions, but hundreds of million people? No government will be able to handle this and they will collapse over the strain. Wars will be started to keep these people from inundating other countries. And the people fleeing, desperate to escape, will fight back.
Well over 100 million americans live on the coasts, about 25 million live in at risk areas of low lying lands. The highest sea level rise is 8 inches already (it is not uniform across the world.). Storm surges are already affecting cities from that mere rise, a foot (which could easily happen well before 2084) would flood the lowest levels easily and storms surges would be hitting major cities every year.
So just looking at our country, how could we manage moving 25 million people along with infrastructure for them to live? Just the economic destruction of all those people losing their jobs, moving and rebuilding would bankrupt the US. And the best that we are talking about is building up those areas with dikes and levees that would take many tens of billions to build and then the cost of maintaining them. It is a losing cause.
That doesn’t even consider the heat build up in mexico and south america as they become uninhabitable and forced to flee north and south depending upon where they are. Many more millions that no wall could stop, no amount of border security could stop. And if we killed those who would try, a war would start upon the border. It also doesn’t include the southwest and midwest suffering from drought and unable to feed us.
No, by 2084 we could be looking at small enclaves fighting to survive against everyone else trying to survive.


To UncleFester & SkipMoreland:

I look over my dozens of binders filled with articles from both the scientific literature and the more popular media outlets, and a few stand out, as I try and trace the trajectory that has gotten us to this place - an inch from extinction or collapse.

If you will bear with me, on what may seem a digression, perhaps you can reply if you see fit ?

  1. For me, a geologist, The Anthropocene is most usefully seen as beginning when we left Africa, ca 50,000 to 65,000 years ago for Australia. We traveled the coasts of Australia and apparently invaded even the interior in the next few thousands of years, causing the first human-induced mega-faunal extinction outside of Africa, a pattern which was repeated on all the lands we then inhabited. This late-Pleistocene extinction-event is already part of the geological sediment record.

Having spent the previous one hundred and fifty thousand years in Africa, where, from within and on both the East and West sides of the Rift Valley, where we appear to have originated, we explored the African continent, especially perhaps the coastal regions of South Africa, we learned how to survive and prosper on both interior and coastal areas - which shaped us, if you will, for our Out of Africa moments, and is perhaps still doing so, as we speak, today - in our cradle - Africa.

  1. The great paleontologist from Harvard, the late Stephen Jay Gould, reminded us in a 1994 article in Scientific American the the bacteria (and archaea), were here on planet Earth first, were, and to this day are, totally dominant, and will undoubtedly still be here when we and all other metazoans are long gone, as the Sun brightens and the Earth warms due to other than CO2.

  2. We were tribal, and we still are tribal - opportunistic hunters and gatherers with a nomadic and risk-taking nature, some of us at any rate. Our group size is ca 100 - and as E.O. Wilson reports, we are social, maybe one of the few social species to have ever existed on Earth.

  3. Civilization may not be our forte (it is very anti-social and isolating), but it is undoubtedly attractive in many ways - promising safety and security - both natural wants. It is also dazzling in its accomplishments - and we are easily, it seems, dazzled.

  4. But not all of us, and not at all times…

From my own life (seven years impoverishing myself mountaineering full time), to that of my mentors, such as Tilman, Nansen, Messner, (Jeremiah Johnson-type stories)…and from the records of those many early European immigrants to America who went Indian, the less complex, more rooted in place life has proven even more attractive than the false promise of civilization.

  1. It is possible that this visceral, intuitive return to the land is more than it seems. It may be that we, and I include myself, saw rationally the futility of our current model - the unsustainability of it all, if you wish.

  2. While compiling lists of all the things that are wrong is useful - it is also a form of reductionist thinking, which is also useful, but obviously, I think, insufficient to save us from extinction or collapse. Too great a dependence on reductionist thought has rendered us incapable of even knowing how to eat well and healthfully, how to raise our children, and how to relate to the wider world, the web of life and non-life, of which we are all without doubt, merely a part, and, as I pointed out previously, we have apparently been willing to suffer the isolation and hierarchy of civilization - a devil;s bargain - for illusory safety and security.

  3. Hubris rules - Ecclesiastes had a point it seems - “All is vanity”.

  4. Social justice is inseparable from true sustainability - in this many modern secular thinkers and many religious thinkers, including Pope Francis - are entirely right.

  5. We have, as a collective, the civilized world - lost our one and only center. If we cannot find it - we will not long survive and prosper.

  6. In this - the Indigenous views of the world are more right than we are.

  7. But we can’t go back - there is really only forward to whatever awaits us. It is simply my hope that our very long evolutionary past, our tribal instincts, will at some point kick in, before it is too late.


Thanks for the article. Given the extraordinary pace of change now, I understand how difficult it is, but we need to keep up with both the direness of our situation and the speed at which the solutions are revolutionizing the world.

We are going to pass 2°C; because of the following:

The pipeline—the 40 year lag time between emission and full warming effect—means the gases that will very likely take us up around 1.5°C are already in the atmosphere;

The .5° of warming already emitted and masked by cooling aerosols from burning coal. We have to stop burning coal because it warms a lot more than it cools (and it kills millions every year through other pollution); as soon as we do the .5° will be unmasked and there we are, already at 2° above pre-industrial temp.

Other reasons:
unavoidable emissions from replacing infrastructure;
tipping points (fast, mostly internal to processes, and slow);
overoptimistic assumptions and hidden odds in most projections;
increasing reliance on metapetrolic and lower-EROEI fuels;
collapse of social and political cohesion;
CO2 is used; it should be CO2e which is about 50 ppm higher
unknowns like fugitive emissions and undiscovered feedbacks.
There is probably nothing we do now can prevent 2°. That will be catastrophic, but we can start preparing now for the horrific effects and do everything we can to only go over for a short time and then use reforestation and agroecology to come back down. If we also do everything we can to protect and preserve vulnerable ecosystems the damage may only continue and last for a few hundred or a thousand years instead of millions.

”Eventually, even the most strident climate denialists will have to adjust to the facts raining down from the sky.”

No, sadly they won’t. In almost all paradigm shifts, the older generation dies off before adjusting to the new reality. Usually the paradigm shift happens as it happens and there’s no need for it to happen sooner; decision-makers, mostly not the oldest, go ahead with actions consistent with the shift. This time the fate of civilization depends on the change happening as fast as possible, and in a stable population with large numbers of younger voters systematically alienated, magnifying the power of the old, we need to help people over the hurdle. (We also need desperately to motivate the younger voters and overcome voter suppression efforts of the right.)

”Even Rush Limbaugh was forced to evacuate his Palm Beach home after claiming Irma was a conspiracy ”

But did he tell people why he was bugging out? No. Did he admit Irma was being worsened by climate catastrophe? No. Did he admit climate change is happening? Hell, no.

Even most of those deniers who change their minds will never admit it. A few will pull an Eric Hoffer-style True Believer fake-sincere projective reversal, some will pull an Ariana, some will publicly gnash their teeth and wail who knew!? some will do it Ministry of Information style, changing mid-sentence from enemies of Eastasia to enemies of Eurasia.
Politicians and others with massive projections focusing on them will have a harder time shifting publicly, as the more reality-oriented (at least in this realm) Republicans are already finding (McCain). Term limits and corporate money make it easier to simply remove those cogs that won’t adjust and replace them with other cogs, identical in every way that makes them acceptable to both the oligarchy and the voting dupes, but discarding inconvenient baggage like associations with sex scandals, obsolete or discredited ideas or more important, phrases. The incredible shrinking memory of the US public (by design) means all these kinds of changes don’t diminish the power of those willing to risk global destruction by denying reality for so long–at least not for long.


IIRC, the wiser upper levels of our military (those few for whom the term ‘military intelligence’ might not be an oxymoron) have been aware of this for several years, and have – to the extent they’re allowed to – been ex­pressing their frustration that the rest of our government, especially our ‘fearless leader’, have been ignoring the very real threat of Climate Change driven by Global Warming and the chaos it will create.

Given that we are a tribal-social species, that we haven’t evolved significantly since we invented agriculture and the “civilization” that depends on it a few thousand years ago, and that there are now so many of us that the un­sustainably intense version of agriculture we now practice is already failing to provide enough food for all of us, IMHO our tribal instincts will kill off most of us – maybe even all of us, along with most of our fellow mammals, reptiles, amphibians and fishes – within a few decades at most.


Please pardon my ignorance, for I have forgotten most of the chemistry that I studied fifty-plus years ago.  I presume “EROEI fuels” refers to the ever-smaller net energy (Energy Returned On Energy Invested) from “harvesting” more and more marginal fuels like tar-sands oil, but what is CO2e (or CO2e)??