Avoiding an Environmental Apocalypse

06/14/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I've been catching up on my magazine reading and I came across a fascinating piece in a recent issue of New Scientist, which is usually a few steps ahead of the non-scientific press. It is a serious journal - not given to hyperbole - for scientists, although it does try to match scientific rigor with accessibility for interested lay people. The cover title of this usually staid magazine's March issue?

Well okay then.

The story says that if the Earth is warmed by a mere 4 degrees Celsius, by the year 2099 the planet will become unrecognizable. We will have warm, acidic seas that will probably not sustain fish; many of the areas where food is grown and populations flourish will no longer be able to provide for either because of vast flooding or desertification; storms will be fiercer and much more devastating; and the only places that will have enough water and resources to sustain humans will be in the high latitude areas of the planet (stress mine--because I'm shocked).

A nightmare scenario based on worst possible circumstances? Sadly, no. In fact a warming of 4 degrees Celsius is a conservative prediction according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we don't make serious changes, and soon, warming could be markedly greater.

James Lovelock, a former NASA scientist, says of those limited high latitude areas that humanity will be calling home (exclusively) in this scenario, "That's where all the life would be.... The rest of the world will be largely desert with a few oases." Imagine what it might be like if 9 billion (the projected population by then) people are all scrambling to stake claim to a few select and prime habitable areas on the planet. Lovelock goes on to say, "Humans are in a pretty difficult position and I don't think they are clever enough to handle what's ahead. I think they'll survive as a species all right, but the cull during this century is going to be huge...The number remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less."

It seems to me that Al Gore may have been too soft in choosing his movie title: "inconvenient" might better be replaced with "staggering" or "alarming' or perhaps even something stronger. Is any adjective too hyperbolic when you're talking about a billion humans fighting for survival amidst storms and oceans drained of life--in just 90 years? The problem of global warming is no longer the threat of an extended hurricane season and hotter summers, however real those concerns are, especially for the world's poor. We appear to be headed for something where the word cataclysm seems terrifyingly appropriate.

The article discusses how society would have to reorient circa 2099, noting that "In order to survive, humans may need to do something radical: rethink our society not along geopolitical lines but in terms of resource distribution." Peter Cox, who studies the dynamics of climate systems at the University of Exeter is quoted suggesting that we could determine "where the resources are, and then plan the population, food and energy production around that." In other words, we will have to adapt to disappearing resources.

To me, the whole discussion feels sort of like making your mind up to deal with cancer once it inevitably develops, rather than doing what you can to prevent it in the first place. To be sure, if you are likely to get such a troubling diagnosis - whether cancer or a dying environment - it would be wise to make meaningful (and to some, this might mean radical) changes. But wouldn't it be preferable to do everything possible to prevent disaster, rather than focusing most of your resources on planning for it?

One of the most meaningful things we can do to arrest climate change is to change the way we eat. As discussed previously, and as hammered home by the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in recent lectures in London and Paris, the meat industry is one of the most devastating causes of global warming. And this is not just factory farming--some analysis indicates that smaller farms cause more warming. They're generally better for animal welfare, water pollution, and desertification, but they actually require more resources, and thus cause more greenhouse gas emissions.

We need government change: We need a shift away from the billions in annual subsidies for the meat industry, as discussed in a Union of Concerned Scientists report. We need more healthy vegetarian foods in schools and other government programs. We need education of the public about this very real cause for alarm and potential solutions. We need leaders who understand the issues and take them seriously. But we also need all of us to take personal charge of our lives, and to do what we can personally to decrease our support for climate change.

Most of us are taking some actions, but many are not taking the action recommended by the head of the IPCC and indicated by the United Nations report, Livestock's Long Shadow, which reports that eating meat causes about 40% more global warming gases as all the cars, trucks, planes, and other forms of transport combined--that is, cutting back on our consumption of chicken, pork, and other animal products (I discuss the environmental case against meat in greater depth here).

The article in New Scientist points out that according to some accelerated climate feedback mechanisms citing potential "tipping points", the radical and devastating changes could come into being as soon as 2050. That's a mere 41 years from now. Then again, the good news is that "the survival of humankind itself is not at stake: the species could continue if only a couple of hundred individuals remained." Well that's a relief.

Usually, my stance is to lean into changes, to take them incrementally and slowly, so that they stick. After reading this article, I would say that going vegetarian is nothing to be taken lightly - or slowly. Lean in, for sure, but lean soon!