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Climate Change: What Will The Humans Do? (Part 2)


The second in a series that explores a big unknown variable for modeling future global warming.

Facing the Big Picture: The Elephant We’re All Inside Of

One of the most difficult things about manmade global warming—for journalists, for policy makers, for anyone trying to think about it—is its immense size. It’s not the elephant in the room but the elephant we’re all inside of. There is hardly an institution or aspect of life that isn’t threatened, if not already affected, by the rapidly rising global temperature. The huge and unprecedented scale of this problem (which nobody meant to happen) is psychologically daunting—“the story too big to cover,” some have called it.

For this reason, good examples of “big picture thinking” by leading scientists may help us at least to get a feeling for how to do it—get our arms around it, accept what a frighteningly “big picture” problem it is, and even identify some fundamental structural elements of this crisis.

And scientists are the heroes of this story.

Understanding Ourselves as a Species

For decades, evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson has been pleading with us to “understand ourselves as a species.” Manmade global warming may now be forcing us to understand our species—our basic “human nature”—in a new way. For the first time ever, the entire species has access to newly global media that can allow all of us to watch all of us suffer from one immense new problem… that we are causing.  This is creating an unprecedented global crisis of conscience that none can escape.

The large scope of Wilson’s question dares us to ask, at least, whether some sort of a new global consciousness just might emerge amid this unprecedented global crisis. Although no one meant for the problem to happen, scientists tell us a solution is in our hands.

“What has to be done is relatively well known,” says Jerry Meehl, a senior scientist at NCAR, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder Colorado, who helped produce the climate models and various emission-cuts scenarios the world’s leaders now use.

The world’s national and corporate leaders have been negotiating on generally agreed climate science for several years.

The Bedrock Logic of This New Crisis of Conscience

Underlying all nations’ climate negotiations are three simple and unavoidable facts that climate science makes crystal clear. Two are just common sense:

Simple Fact 1): There are no borders in the planet’s swirling atmosphere.

Simple Fact 2): The molecules in any one puff of CO2—from your mouth or a tailpipe, from a chimney or rotting log—are quickly spread around the entire hemisphere fairly evenly, and soon around the entire planet. Think of how few stirs it takes to change the color of batter in a bowl with a few drops of food coloring, or sweeten it all with a little sugar. In other words, every person affects global warming for every other person everywhere.

But this new crisis of conscience is not because everyone has to act to “solve” it—we don’t. Climate scientists calculate that if just the seven or eight nations emitting the most greenhouse gas, working with the two dozen largest multinational corporations that are also involved, were to somehow cooperate right away in drastic emissions cuts as prescribed by the world’s climate scientists, there’s a good chance the steady rise in global temperature might begin to slow and level off even as soon as mid-century.

(Climate scientist Meehl says it is still conceivable that global temperature could be kept to no more than 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial temperatures if the major emitters agree to the most extreme emissions scenario they have calculated—called scenario RCP 2.6 as detailed in the most recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Temperatures would keep rising for only another three or four decades, then start to level off in midcentury.)

This new crisis of conscience, caused by the fact that we can all now watch all of us suffer a huge problem we’ve caused, is heightened by a third simple fact the climate scientists have long made clear: Simple Fact 3) Those who have done least to cause it suffer first and most, and those who’ve done most suffer least and last.

So whether or not they act to mitigate the warming, those nations comfortable due to using cheap fossil fuel must at least think about all members of our species who are suffering from manmade global warming. The major emitters cannot now escape feeling the presence of all who suffer from this crisis, nor escape feeling the pressure from around the world, with all eyes on them, to act.

Will this crisis of conscience spur action in time to help everyone? Unfortunately, that is no longer possible.

“The world has written us off!”

The Ambassador from Micronesia to the UN told this reporter in 2009 that “the world has written us off” in accepting 2 degrees Centigrade (above preindustrial global temperature) as the targeted upper limit for manmade global warming. Scientists had told him the 2 degree target was too unambitious, too hot, to prevent inundation of many sea-level island nations… as subsequent science and experience has only affirmed.

But as news spreads of more and more suffering around the planet, what will the humans do? 15 of the world’s 20 largest cities are also at sea level, and also dealing already with sea level rise.

In 2009, the Global Humanitarian Forum estimated global warming was responsible for at least 300,000 deaths each year. In 2010, the humanitarian aid non-profit DARA estimated roughly 5 million died each year who would not if there were no manmade global warming.

Global Warming Already Helps Trigger War

As resources, food, water and basic security become scarce in more places due to drought, flood and sea level rise, is humanity necessarily destined to collapse into self-protective enclaves and ad-hoc tribes trying to stay alive and somehow ride out the crisis?

This is not a naïve question, given the situation. It must be asked. We have to look not only at the critical details but at the big picture all at once—and to presume that the worst behavior of humanity is inevitable might, after all, even encourage it.

In many places, global warming has already helped trigger and worsen violent conflict, proving to be the “threat multiplier” military agencies around the world have long expected—with Syria’s civil war, Afghanistan’s Taliban, new Bangladesh border clashes, northern Nigeria’s Boko Haram, and others. (See ”Climate Change on the Nuclear Subcontinent” or “Climate Change and Violence Linked”… or just Google “climate change and violence”.)

But does science offer any hints about our universal nature “as a species” that indicate how we may behave as the pressures and suffering of global warming ramp up in the next few decades?

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Image credit: NASA

Is a New ‘Global Consciousness’ Possible?

The daring of E. O. Wilson’s relentless plea that we “understand ourselves as a species” may at least help encourage and focus our search for an answer. Wilson and his colleagues have presented a new evolutionary theory that our genetically evolved human nature includes a tendency—all else being equal—to cooperate, and at times even sacrifice, for the good of whatever we perceive to be our entire group, and not only for our close genetic kin (as discussed previously here).

As things get worse, and we all observe our entire species suffering, might we—or the people in power to make a difference—perceive “our group” to be nothing less than our entire species, and act accordingly for the benefit of all? There is no convenient opposing enemy to fight and that would thus unify us—except us. “We have met the enemy and he is us,” as Pogo famously said. (It was in a 1970 poster for the first Earth Day, where he sat pondering his trash-choked Okefenokee home swamp.) But no one meant this self-inflicted crisis to happen.

Wilson does not presume to offer any hints about whether humanity as a species—or those in a position to make a difference—will act in time to protect us all, or at least protect as many as humanly possible. But he does remind us (in his New York Times op-ed “Evolution and Our Inner Conflict”) that our universal conflicted nature may have the inner resources to do so.

And it may not matter whether Wilson et al. are right in asserting that this group-protecting tendency is in fact based in our genes—which some scientists still doubt. His assertion raising the possibility of a deep whole-group empathy helps us focus the vital question, “What will the humans do in this global crisis,” and suggests that such a transformative spirit of universal cooperation is at least a natural human group tendency that we may look for and perhaps encourage.

And anyway, we already know this group-protecting tendency, whatever its causes, is common among humans. The scientists’ debate about genetic causes simply reminds us—and helps sharpen our attention on how and how soon we might all come to accept the entire species as “our group.”

Realistic Hope From Science and History, Co-evolution and Co-operation

Evolutionary scientists have long established that evolution often tends to reward the ability to avoid risky conflict by finding a new niche in which to prosper without having to fight for it. “Nature red in tooth and claw” is only one part of the picture evolutionary biologists paint; it’s not only the toughest and meanest who may survive. Sometimes they may not, precisely because they couldn’t cooperate with other local groups or species.

Biological research shows that a tendency to cooperate has emerged not only within species but also at times between species in various forms of “co-evolution”, “co-operation,” and what is called “mutualism” to the benefit and comfort of all concerned.

There are many examples. One is the mixed feeding flocks, familiar to birdwatchers, in which as many as a dozen or more different species may travel together. “Studies suggest that two reasons for these mixed flocks may be more efficient location of food and a better danger alert system” as several species pool their different abilities to notice forage and spy predators, says Joel Cracraft, ornithologist at The American Museum of Natural History.

Whether or not scientists decide that our tendency to cooperate for our larger groups is genetically based in humans, we know it’s often there – and a big part of the history of civilization.

Global Warming and the Human Species

In fact, there are many signs around the planet of growing collective conscience… and even action, if you look close enough. It may not yet be enough to prevent global climate catastrophe, even by midcentury, but it is a beginning, and it appears to be accelerating. Not to take for granted two of the most obvious:

1) The UNFCCC, United Nations Framework on Climate Change: Created in 1992 to “stabilize greenhouse gas concentrations … at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.” Its annual climate summits are often maligned for not yet achieving enough to prevent the worst, but it remains the central forum and stage for the world to assess meaningful global action. In December 2015 in Paris, its “COP-21 Climate Summit” will try to implement the 2011 “Durban Platform” for assuring concerted action by all major emitters.

Even when the UNFCCC comes up short, it highlights what and how much still needs to be done. Its failure to gain solid agreements at COP-15 in Copenhagen in 2009 accelerated efforts by some major emitters to make bi-lateral climate agreements beyond the UNFCCC framework. The world’s eyes will be on this critical summit in December 2015.

2) The IPCC – Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Created in 1988 by WMO (World Meteorological Organization) and UNEP (UN Environmental Organization), in which thousands of the scientists and other experts create climate reports for policy makers.

Sometimes criticized for having been too cautious in its projections of the advancing speed and severity of global warming’s impacts, it has retained diplomatic credibility and provided a baseline big picture for UNFCCC and other negotiations. The IPCC is unprecedented in world history in trying to get global scientific consensus that is also accepted by the world’s policy makers.

The Tide Begins to Turn

Here are just a few of the hundreds of new signs that “the human species” is starting to increase its focus on the problem:

—The New York Times has finally created a substantive new climate unit. Its new editor says the Times has also “made a conscious decision that we are not going to take [the climate skeptics’] point of view seriously.”

—A fast growing number of university classes on global warming and related subjects around the world.

—The rapidly expanding academic and therapeutic field of “climate psych”—for example the British-based Climate Psychology Alliance.

—City governments in the United States and around the world now have major units and departments for climate adaptation and mitigation as temperatures and waters rise.

—New York’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg served as chair of the 2013 summit of the “C40” network of the world’s mega-cities working to curb greenhouse emissions—following his intense work on climate preparedness in advance of the 2012 Hurricane Sandy. His updating of New York’s subway evacuation protocols before Sandy hit is credited by some with having saved thousands of lives.

—The world’s re-insurance companies, who’ve been watching global warming closely since 1988, are becoming notably more restrictive regarding coastal property.

—For anyone who wants to follow them, there are virtually non-stop bi-lateral and multi-lateral climate conferences and mini-summits continuing around the world—both in anticipation of the Paris December 2015 global summit and searching for independent agreements.

—A growing number of American and other CEOs are developing economic impact projects. For example see the impressive roster, including people of both parties, supporting The “Risky Business Project” on “the economic risks of climate change.”

—On smart phones, there are countless new climate-sensitive apps, such as HopStop Directions (hopstop.com) that tells you how many pounds of CO2 you save (and extra calories you burn) when you take whatever public transport trip you enter rather than a cab.

This HopStop app is just a hint of the many ways in which digital big data is being explored as a means to help entire populations help the entire species in this crisis and to help all of us see the planet in fine detail.

A New Species-Wide Critical Mass?

New York’s 300,000-plus People’s Climate March, coinciding with the UN Secretary General’s special one-day September 23, 2014 climate summit, was just one sign of what has felt to many observers like a new critical mass of public worry and concern about the climate crisis. Long-suffering climate scientists—who’ve been pleading with us for decades (as has biologist E. O. Wilson) to just look—are the abiding heroes of this story.

Climate scientist and plant ecologist Walter Oechel of San Diego State University has been studying CO2 and methane emissions from thawing Arctic tundra for decades and has provided important early warnings about their role in heating the earth. He often ponders and assesses the actions the world could take to prevent the worst—figuring out fairness in action and sacrifice on a per-capita basis (which cuts populous China a lot more slack than per-nation accounting), estimating tons of CO2 in different technological scenarios, and reflecting on the recent news from the UN about ever soaring population rates.

“I’m often pretty pessimistic about the world doing what’s needed in time,” Oechel now tells this reporter, who first covered his work in northern arctic Alaska ten years ago. “But if the global community took global warming seriously,” he says, “it could change my total pessimism to optimism almost overnight.” Like Jerry Meehl and many other climate scientists now bearing us such dire news, he says it’s still possible if, to use Oechel’s phrase, “the global community” acts together, with dispatch.

That community is “the humans”—the entire human species. It is not naïve to ask if it will act together, in effect as one, for the good of the whole group. We have no choice but to ask this question. In fact, we already are asking it, and have been for some time. Given the borderless swirling air, scientists are telling us it does not seem likely that only half the boat can sink. Everyone will be watching everyone in this crisis from now on.

And this is something very new under the sun.

Read Part 3.

Featured image: Julie Rossman



  1. Austin Fox says

    Most people it seems to me aren’t intelligent enough to even articulate what the problem is, let alone do something about it. They think doing something about it means moving to Alaska, and living in the woods.

  2. Randy Hamilton says

    What will humans do in response to Climate Change?
    (Possible Spoiler alert)
    Hint: It rhymes with “Going Schmexstinct”

  3. Dmitry Bakin says

    I wonder if the is really a problem? You see, when needed we could always disperse dust in upper atmosphere to reflect some percentage of solar radiation and restore balance. On the opposite, the Earth is coming close to onset of next ice age. And that would be much harder to reverse

  4. Scott Ripley says

    Seems to me the real problem is that science has been corrupted to push a global political agenda bent on suppression of the human race with a hoax to control energy and population.

  5. Donna Wagner Phillips says

    Thanks for sharing this article. I wish more people would become more active in saving the planet for future generations.

  6. Jennifer Hall says

    My favorite part:
    “Evolutionary biologists have long established that often evolution often tends to reward the ability to avoid risky conflict by finding a new niche to prosper without having to fight for it.
    It’s not only the toughest and meanest who may survive. Sometimes they may not, precisely because they could not cooperate with other local groups or species.”

  7. CarolynRenaud says

    Yes, we’re an innovative species and can be very cooperative. But under pressure we divide into tribal groups as we see most of the world doing.  We are violent and warlike by nature. Even just in the US you see haves grouping against the have-nots in our politics. The ability of intelligent humans to deny that climate change exists never ceases to amaze me. Our rigid and entrenched worldviews – which psychology tells us are basically unchangeable – prevent a lot of people from accepting climate science, whether it’s because we might have to do “socialist” things to fix it, or God would never do that to us, or head-in-the-sand-fear, whatever.

    Besides this, we as a species are great at responding to short term threats, but not programmed to respond to long term threats (why does climate change never come up in polls as a voter concern?).  Then add to that the multiple threats of ocean acidification, deforestation, human overpopulation, mass extinctions of species as we take over and destroy more and more habitat, resource depletion, pollution…

    Don’t know if we’re smart enough to deal with all these things at once.

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