The Climate Pandemic
How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival
The COVID-19 pandemic created a massive health and economic catastrophe that reverberated throughout society for years. However, society has learned to live with an endemic viral threat. In tragic contrast, this book proposes that we are experiencing an infinitely more serious “climate pandemic” that poses an existential threat to humanity. Its nature is precisely like that of a viral pandemic, in that it is global and relentless. And just as the pandemic behaves only according to the biological principles governing the spread of infectious organisms, the climate obeys only the principles of geoscience.
Like the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate pandemic, in a sense, mutates to unpredictably generate new forms. That is, climate disruption is so very complex—with interacting environmental, social, economic, and political elements—that attempting to mitigate it creates unexpected consequences.
Also like the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate pandemic has been marked by the tragic failure of society’s leaders to understand its nature and to institute policies to stop it. Both pandemics have also been heavily politicized, with the tragic ignoring of science by partisan factions. Politically motivated “climate hesitancy” can be just as lethal as has been vaccine hesitancy.
However, unlike the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate pandemic has no ready solutions. People will not become immune to its effects. Nor will there be the technological equivalent of vaccines, antiviral drugs, or simple practices like social distancing and mask-wearing to protect people from its ravages.
As horrific as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, its effects pale in comparison to the coming catastrophe from climate disruption. In fact, the climate pandemic will steadily worsen, even bringing our species to extinction, unless we launch a global revolution to abandon our carbon-dependent energy system.
Given the evidence in this book, I see only a vanishingly small possibility of such a revolution. And I do not see a pathway for our species’ survival.
However, it is my fervent hope that those who read this book will somehow see such a pathway. I even hope that they will identify flaws in my reasoning and/or my interpretation of the science that will render my opinion invalid.
I must emphasize that my agonizing conclusion did not arise from my own personal predilection. Rather, it emerged from the vast trove of credible research detailed in this book documenting the devastation to the global environment that we are causing. I do not consider myself an advocate for this conclusion, but rather its reluctant messenger.
Our failed response to climate disruption has been the environmental equivalent of the devastating 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident, but writ far larger.
In the case of Chernobyl, scientists knew well and documented the fatal design flaws of the Soviet nuclear power plants. They—as well as the Soviet political leaders—knew that cost-cutting, shoddy workmanship, political pressure, and willful ignorance had led to the building of power plants that were unstable, unpredictable, and accident-prone. Their egregious failure to remedy those flaws led to the cataclysmic explosion that exposed millions to hazardous radiation and rendered vast regions uninhabitable.
Similarly, our scientists and political leaders have well known of the profound dangers of climate disruption. But, as this book shows, for the same economic and political motivations at work in Chernobyl, they have minimized, even ignored those dangers.
Climate disruption is, indeed, humanity’s Chernobyl.
Given our failures, it would be tempting to extend this book’s pandemic metaphor to depict us as unthinking infectious agents responsible for the climate catastrophe. But such a metaphor would be simplistic and demeaning. True, we are the causative agents of the climate pandemic. And our spread has, indeed, been viral. But unlike viruses, we are no biological automatons. We are a stunning, intelligent evolutionary achievement, albeit a flawed one.
As this book will show, those flaws have brought us to a point where we are draining the life out of the very planet that gave us life, with tragic consequences for our species’ future. It will explore why those flaws in our human nature are driving us toward extinction. While this book’s account of our potential future may read like an apocalyptic drama, its portent of an extinction-level threat is no science fiction.
I recognize that, in the words of Carl Sagan, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” So, in this heavily referenced book, I have sought to document the evidence for the extraordinary claim that we face extinction. My journalistic approach has been: “Don’t take my word for it.”
The book is also extensively referenced because it aims to give readers access to the important scientific and policy literature on climate disruption. I hope the book and the resources it offers serve to inform researchers and policymakers about the daunting scientific, economic, and political realities of climate disruption. I have read so many articles and books in which the authors propose climate-rescue policies that are little more than vague, naive hand-waving, with little understanding of those realities.
Also, the hundreds of meticulously researched scientific papers and reports this book cites make it obvious how utterly absurd are climate “de-nihilists’” claims that climate research is flawed, sloppy, or dishonest.
I have so named this misguided cadre because of their nihilistic rejection of established science, and for their destructiveness (I should note that the term was independently coined by Mary Annaïse Heglar of the Natural Resources Defense Council.)
This book also explains why groups key to conveying climate disruption’s cataclysmic potential have muted their voices. The mainstream media, scientists, and politicians failed to sound the alarm over decades during which they knew of climate disruption’s dangers. I will explore the psychological, social, and economic reasons for this failure.
Besides covering the research that has revealed the looming climate catastrophe, I explain why that research has not prompted global action beyond a weak, nonbinding agreement to try to combat the problem.
The book will show that we are not equipped to meet the challenges of climate disruption because its fundamental properties place it far beyond the realm of threats that we evolved to cope with that.
It details how our embrace of technology and our desire for the most comfortable life have led us to create a massive, global fossil fuel infrastructure whose momentum renders it impossible for us to evolve our society to become sustainable. Nevertheless, we cling to an unfounded belief that decarbonization to achieve a zero-carbon world is a realistic possibility.
It explores how global heating from fossil-fuel-produced greenhouse gases is triggering tipping points—irreversible environmental changes that exacerbate the heating in a feedback loop. Such feedback processes include the melting of icy methane clathrates on the ocean floor, decomposition of global permafrost deposits, combustion of immense peat deposits, and emissions from the world’s warming soils.
Some tipping points will take more than a century to become hazardous; other will take mere decades. But all will ultimately add to the rising concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2).
The book details how our carbon-fouling of the planet has produced a plague on the environment. This plague comprises melting polar ice, mass extinctions, a rise in global temperature, heat waves, wildfires, disappearing forests, intensified storms, and severe droughts. The scientific studies cited in this book predict that these terrestrial phenomena will only become worse.
The world’s oceans are also suffering a relentless worsening of climate-disruption-caused impacts—including warming waters, oxygen depletion, acidification, rising sea levels, devastated coral reefs, disappearing ocean life, and disruption of critical ocean currents.
The consequences of these catastrophes include a more toxic and disease-ridden Earth, famine, environmental exodus, global conflict, and perhaps even nuclear war.
Climate disruption is only secondarily a technological problem. It is primarily an institutional and human problem. The fundamentally flawed nature of our institutions has driven development of the energy technology that could be the means to our end. Every segment of our society failed that should have played a role in avoiding our fate—including the media, scientists, environmentalists, corporations, and politicians.
This book also explores how our individual psychology, misperceptions, and biases laid the groundwork for our potential extinction. The neural machinery we evolved to survive—which enabled us to become Earth’s dominant species—contains the seeds of our destruction. For example, we all have a natural tendency to act according to our own rational, immediate interests. But our individual interests can become irrational when it comes to ensuring our survival as a species.
Many believe that the political and technological equivalent of a vaccine will inoculate us against our fate. But this hope is currently but a comforting mirage. As this book shows, there will be no rescue by global agreements, renewable energy, carbon capture, or geoengineering.
The evidence this book offers reveals that climate disruption threatens extinction of the human species—part of a vast ecological tragedy for the planet.
This book is not a wake-up call.
It may well be taps.