Guy McPherson’s theories on climate change have been creating controversy in both Europe and the US. Is mankind only a decade and a half away from extinction?
Charles Beare investigates.
Guy McPherson is a man on a mission. It may be the most important mission of his life: Spreading the word about the imminent extinction of the human race in its entirety. Not only that but, as McPherson explains, the destruction of the very systems which have kept our blue planet habitable for life all these billions of years; for our anthropocentric minds, that translates to near-term human extinction (NTE). It is a proposition which is not easy to promulgate. The notion that we are all going to die is, on the face of it, rather depressing and hopeless.
McPherson feels somewhat differently. From his perspective, our impending doom regards we extant humans as the luckiest who have ever existed, or ever will. It opens up new possibilities in how we can live our lives, encouraging us to live “a life of excellence” and calls for us to more fully love those around us. In short, the demise of Homo Sapiens gives us more cause to do what we should be doing anyway – instead of living lives entirely based around, as he puts it, “the acquisition of more crap.”
McPherson, a Professor Emeritus of Arizona State University, is not the only one attempting to popularize this concept. A plethora of well-established figures in the field of climate science have been trying to tell us about the inevitability of abrupt climate change for years. So, what is the evidence?
Climate science is one of the most complex scientific disciplines. Tens of thousands of published papers exist and with each new iteration of research, the news becomes increasingly dire. It behoves us to constantly perform a meta-analysis of the state of current research; a job which has fallen to the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change.
Sadly for the Wise Ape however, the very need to produce reports accurately means that there are any number of committees along with an almost impossible process of consensus building (scientists are just as prone to confirmation bias as the rest of us). From commission to final report can take several years before final presentation, by which time much of the data is quite out of date. Not only does this slow the process down, but it also makes the IPCC one of the most conservative scientific bodies in existence. The fact that their reports are subject to review by government – and therefore corporate interests, results in the same research being couched in terms which make everything (in-so-far as they can) seem somewhat more cosy.
There are a number of reasons why McPherson and those like him believe that anthropogenic (man-made) climate change is now unstoppable, and why the results will be terminal for the human race. Whilst the totality of supporting research is far too extensive for this article, let’s concentrate on a few of the kernels upon which the proposition of NTE rests:
First is the lag between carbon emissions and temperature rise. The generally accepted view is that there is a 40-year lag between emissions and the corresponding rise in temperature. This means, given that our emissions since 1970 have been double those from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we could be in for a significantly more pronounced increase in temperature than we have so far experienced.
Next and perhaps most importantly, is the elephant in the room: Methane release. Methane is roughly 150-times as powerful a greenhouse gas as CO₂ and has increased about 150-fold since 1750, compared to the 40% increase in CO₂. This is presently accounting for up to 20% of the environmental ‘forcing’ and yet the IPCC report has little to say on the matter.
Largely, it’s because once the plethora of committees have finished vetting the report, their data is up to seven years out of date.
Methane forcing has only recently become something scientists have begun to understand.
Nonetheless, new information is coming to light all the time, and it’s not good news.
This methane is both anthropogenic (agriculture etc.), biogenic (e.g. decomposition, bacterial waste) and as a result of temperature increases which have already occurred.
Methane seeps as a result of sequestered methane hydrates (clathrates) are already occurring as a result of the current rise in temperature – seeps as large as 150km have been observed in the arctic. This notion of sub-sea methane hydrate release has been dubbed ‘the Clathrate Gun’ and evidence reveals that the gun has been firing since 2007.
The IPCC sets the target of keeping carbon emissions low enough to maintain a warming level of 2⁰C.
David Wasdell, a trained mathematician and physicist, and many others agree however, that this 2⁰C rise is already locked in.
As McPherson points out, once the Clathrate gun figures are in (one of a multitude of self-reinforcing feedback loops ignored in the IPCC’s report), that figure is almost certain to lead to an inevitable rise of 4⁰C – and that’s the conservative estimate. A rise like that makes food production virtually impossible, and will decimate the environment, flora and fauna on which we depend.
The list of underestimations goes on. Positive (read self-reinforcing) feedback loops have been almost completely overlooked by the IPCC.
The Clathrate Gun is but one, the albedo effect due to loss of ice cover is another.
The most conservative estimates put the number of unaccounted feedback loops at twenty, and that’s conservative.
We are left now to contemplate how near NTE is, and whether there is anything we can do to prevent or mitigate its effects. In Part II, we shall discuss whether human extinction is indeed inevitable in the short term along with the feasibility of strategies to extend the longevity of our precious biosphere.