Could climate change get so bad that it leads to our extinction? A few researchers are trying to answer that question.
Simon Beard has a career that most people would consider depressing and terrifying. He is part of a team of researchers trying to figure out if, how, and when climate change could cause the human species to go extinct. The stakes of his research—a potential annihilation of 7.7 billion humans and all the unborn people who come after them—couldn’t be any higher.
The idea that a heating planet will doom humanity is the subject of a lot of public speculation and anxiety, yet there are very few experts studying the existential impacts of climate change with any sort of academic rigor. Beard, who does this work at the Cambridge Center for the Study of Existential Risk, described it as “a field with next to no data” and a lot of unsupported hypotheses. “Under what circumstances could climate change cause a collapse of global civilization?” he said. “When you start asking that question, then your already quite-limited literature gets even more scarce.”
By bringing scientific precision to the doomsday scenario that wipes us off the planet, Beard hopes to convince world leaders to actually do something about it. “That’s really what we’re aiming for at the moment,” he said. “I think this could be genuinely transformative—firstly for the science but also by implication for the policy and the way that these things are discussed in society.”
The starting point for Beard’s research is that humans are incredibly resilient: We have found a way to survive in tropical rainforests, blistering deserts, icy tundra, and even for a brief time on the moon. But that says more about our collective strength than our skills as individuals. Shut down the grocery stores, turn off the taps, disband the government and very few of us, perhaps apart from a small number of rugged survivalists, would be able to stay alive for long.
“And so every one of us as an individual, I think, is very vulnerable, and relies upon these massive global systems that we’ve set up, these massive global institutions, to provide this support and to make us this wonderfully adaptable generalist species,” Beard recalled earlier this year on the Future of Life Institute podcast,
Those systems—the ones that put broccoli and frozen pizzas in our fridges and keep our streets from becoming Mad Max war zones—are themselves way more vulnerable and interconnected than we appreciate. The greenhouse gas emissions that humans are pumping into the atmosphere at record levels are changing the climate in ways that make it harder for us to grow and distribute food. This also increases pressure on our political system—as we saw with drought and crop failures in the lead-up to the Syrian civil war.
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