The Climate Pandemic
How Climate Disruption Threatens Human Survival
It was a run-of-the-mill traffic jam that first triggered my revelation of our seemingly inevitable extinction from a climate pandemic. We had just moved into a house near Temecula, California, north of San Diego. As an habitual hiker, I had immediately plotted a route that took me up to a mountain ridge overlooking the freeway that runs north-south. The highway winds its way across a stark scrub landscape of low mountains strewn with boulders and splashed with the green of avocado groves.
On one of my afternoon hikes, I was mulling whether I might write a book about climate change and what it could contribute to the field. I reached the overlook to see a massive freeway traffic jam stretching away into the distance, as a phalanx of thousands of rush-hour cars surged northward from San Diego toward Temecula. I knew that nearly every car carried a single person. The cars inched forward, uselessly burning gasoline and spewing carbon dioxide.
Such mass commuter migrations are by no means a San Diego phenomenon. Gargantuan traffic jams play out daily throughout urban areas worldwide. Each person in these daily trips has made an individual decision to undertake what is often an onerous commute. Each person has decided that expending time and gasoline and wearing out a car is worth it. And each person ignores the broader consequences of that commute.
And so does the government. In San Diego, as in so many cities, the government hasn’t mustered the support, the will, or the funds to create a mass transit system that could alleviate the terrible congestion of this lemming-like migration.
Of course, I’d seen traffic jams before. But my witnessing the jam on this freeway came at a particularly critical time in history. Even as those masses of cars streamed north and south each day, I was aware that a wealth of new scientific discoveries was documenting unequivocally that their emissions were contributing to an inexorable global climatic deterioration—with effects from catastrophic wildfires to ocean acidification.
And I realized that, as dire as these findings were, they were receiving far too little attention. Unlike the round-the-clock coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, climate discoveries were being engulfed by the daily flood of news. And, they were appearing piecemeal in the media; not integrated into the frightening, tragic mosaic that revealed a global environmental catastrophe that could lead to human extinction.
I decided to gather those findings into this book and to seek to make sense of their implications. In the process, I discovered to my surprise that much of what I believed about climate disruption were myths. For example, as discussed later, there is scientists’ inaccurate claim that limiting global temperature rise to 1.5°C would help avoid climate catastrophe. And also as discussed later, there is the erroneous, hyped belief that renewable energy will offer a major clean energy source.
Once I decided to cover the science, I realized I needed to cover how our own human nature is leading to a global catastrophe. After all, such a tragedy will be due not just to our exploitation of fossil fuels, but more basically to our own failings as a species to wisely manage that exploitation.
Hard truth to power
Some may criticize the book as encouraging what climatologist Michael Mann has termed “doomism”—injecting apocalyptic pessimism into a society that needs optimism to combat climate disruption. This criticism of pessimism, however, begs two questions: whether this book accurately portrays a dire climate future for our species; and whether it presents a truth that is preferable to the myth that we will ultimately survive climate disruption.
Mann has been quoted as asserting, “There is no evidence of climate change scenarios that would render human beings extinct.” However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, as the saying goes. Given the profound limitations of climate disruption scenarios that this book reveals, the fact that they don’t allow for the possibility of human extinction means nothing.
On the other hand, it is well known that vast numbers of species have gone extinct over the eons when their environment no longer supported them. Humans are certainly no different from any other species—utterly dependent on our environment for survival. In fact, Earth is already undergoing an ecological unraveling.
I leave it to you, after reading this book, to decide whether I am a cockeyed pessimist or a climate Cassandra. However, before dismissing the possibility of human extinction from climate disruption, I would ask you to honestly ask yourself whether you really believe that our species can survive long term, given the profound environmental damage we have done, and continue to do, to the planet.
This book’s stark predictions may engender the kind of ad hominem attacks that have plagued the emotion-charged controversy over climate disruption. The attacks might be intensified by the anger people may feel at being confronted by the traumatic prospect of human extinction.
However, I could not let the prospect of such attacks deter me, especially given my background. I have spent my professional life at universities, where the pursuit of truth was a foremost duty and a moral imperative. I have worked at medical centers, where I saw that physicians’ sense of their duty to truth demanded that they face the bleak necessity of telling patients of the most heart-rending prognoses—that they are terminal.
I was also inspired by those government leaders who, during the COVID-19 pandemic, took the moral responsibility to give the public the unvarnished truth—in contrast to a president who minimized the danger, grasped at unproven treatments, and dubbed himself a “cheerleader.”
And, of course, I have subscribed to the tenets of responsible journalism, which demand that I follow the story wherever the evidence leads—regardless of how painful the revealed truth. Thus, when I came to understand the ultimate consequences of climate disruption, I could not ignore what I saw as my responsibility to explain them.
All that said, I did have an intense debate with myself about whether to write a book that would so severely disrupt the comfortable shared fiction that humans will somehow manage to prevail in the climate pandemic. As historian Yuval Noah Harari so insightfully wrote:
The advantages of increased social cohesion are often so big that fictional stories routinely triumph over the truth in human history. Scholars have known this for thousands of years, which is why scholars often had to decide whether they served the truth or social harmony. Should they aim to unite people by making sure everyone believes in the same fiction, or should they let people know the truth even at the price of disunity?
In the end, I decided that those who need the truth should have it. So, this book tells a hard, even devastating, truth—a really inconvenient truth, if you will. If you are not prepared to confront this truth, do not read this book. Give it away, donate it to a library, or put it on a high shelf—out of sight, out of mind.
Besides explaining the science of climate disruption, this book also includes editorializing. So, I should describe my qualifications for presuming to advance these opinions.
I spent some four decades in news offices writing releases and articles about scientists at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, MIT, Caltech, Cornell, and Duke. In those posts, I could observe scientists’ personalities, their ambitions, and the arduous process they go through to secure funding, do research, and advance their careers.
Looking back on that experience, I’ve come to realize how the nature of the scientific process, and of the scientists themselves, contributed to the failure to alert the world to a looming global environmental disaster.
My experience as a public information officer (PIO) has also given me insight into the nature of the scientific process and how scientists communicate their research. That experience informed my book Explaining Research. It also enabled me to understand the inherent flaws and shortcomings of even the best science.
Even given those flaws, however, science remains the most reliable source of insight into climate disruption. This book’s discussions of that disruption and its dire consequences rely on the best available science. It is that science that builds what I believe to be a credible case that our current course is leading us toward extinction.
My experience as a PIO working with the media enabled me to understand how journalism—as responsible as reporters are—can misrepresent scientific discoveries, and in turn how the public can misperceive science.
Climatology is a complex and ever-changing science, and this book represents my best effort to explain it clearly and accurately, and to reflect the latest knowledge. Although this book has been independently and rigorously fact checked, any errors of fact or interpretation are entirely my own.
To enable readers to explore further the research cited in this book, I have included on this website and in the e-book, hyperlinks to the cited references—books, scientific papers, lay articles, reports, and websites. However, some articles will require a fee or subscription to access.
I have tried to include only scientific papers, reports, and books vetted by the scientific community. However, some questionable studies may have crept into the mix, given that scientific publishing and peer review are imperfect processes. In fact, in researching this book, I was saved more than once from such error by journalists who published insightful critiques of such studies. I heartily thank them!
A note about units of measure: While the metric system is the system of choice among scientists, some of the references in this book cite English measures. I have elected to cite measures in whatever system they appeared in the literature.
Finally, I will make my best effort to maintain accuracy by including on this website addenda, errata, reviews, and critiques of the book.