The future of climate: do you have any idea what's really coming?

Even most people engaged on climate change issues don't have a concrete appreciation of what's likely in our future.

This article is part of a long ongoing series of my thoughts on the role of climate change in history, which interfaces with the collapse of American democracy. Other articles in this series: the “Lenin” of climate change; rising fascism; do-nothing Democrats; the death of fossil fuels; the failure of diplomacy to stop climate change (and the diplomats’ apologists).

Do you really know what is likely to happen in our future as a result of climate change and global warming? Do you? I’m not talking about dry statistics involving degrees Celsius of temperature change by 2100, although those numbers are undeniably relevant, and I’m not talking about icebergs the size of [fill in the small U.S. state of your choice] calving off Antarctica, which happens all the time now. I’m talking about what’s really going to happen on the ground in the next 5, 10, 15 or 25 years, in terms of economy, politics and life. I’m talking about the history of the 21st century as it unfolds. Scientific and economic experts have given us some glimpses, but it takes an appreciation of history to put them into real perspective. In this article I’m going to lay it out for you in as concise, no-bullshit terms as I can manage. It has been my experience that very few people, even those very well engaged on climate change issues, rarely think through the implications of what the many predictions on climate effects truly mean.

Before I launch into it, let me get a few things out of the way. First, I’m not making this crap up. The basis of what I’m going to be saying here—temperature predictions, crop yields, cascading effects as studied by economists, etc.—comes right out of the recent (September 2021) climate risk assessment report by Chatham House, a century-old think tank analyzing international relations. The report is extremely thorough, but very statistic-heavy, and they show their sources exhaustively—so this is not idle chatter. Second, to those who will invariably denounce me as an “alarmist,” let me pose a question: when, at any time in the history of the study of global warming and its effects, has any serious, data-backed estimate of climate effects overestimated reality? The disingenuous talking points of oil company shills or fascist global warming deniers aside, a climate scientist has never in the history of the world looked at a climate change impact and said, “Gee, that wasn’t as bad as I expected.” A general rule of thumb in dealing with climate predictions is this: when you see one, assume the reality will be twice as bad and occur in half the time. That said, my own projections hew closely to the Chatham House estimates (meaning I have not taken the liberty of accelerating or exaggerating them).

Now, here’s the meat of the matter. Global warming is already triggering a host of systemic changes across the world, and these changes, as they ripple outwards, will undoubtedly grow worse. I’m going to show you, below, a flow chart of the systemic, cascading effects of climate change as studied by 70 multidisciplinary experts brought together by Chatham House, but first I’ll quote a phrase that the Chatham report repeats several times, including in the executive summary:

[M]any of the impacts described in this research paper are likely to be locked in by 2040 and become so severe they go beyond the limits of what nations can adapt to.

Look at those last two columns, the ones in orange, and especially the last one. Populism. State failure. Market destabilization. Armed conflict. Protectionism. If you know anything about history, does that sound to you like the 1930s and the period leading into World War II? It should: all of those factors were present at that time. The maxim that “history does not repeat itself but it does rhyme” is a cliché, but there’s a kernel of truth in it. The difference here is that, because climate harms are cumulative, the effects are going to be much more permanent and much more severe than the terrible but temporary cataclysm that convulsed the world in the 1930s and 1940s.

Food insecurity linked to global warming is already pinching many parts of the globe and, right now in late 2021, we’re starting to see the beginning ripples of it in first world economies like the United States. Have you noticed a sudden spike in food prices, or that certain items you used to buy are suddenly out of stock? That’s the first quiver of the widespread food crises that are occurring now—not in the future. Next year’s heat waves and droughts will impact crop yields in the most productive farming countries. Expect that to get markedly worse year by year. As crop yields fall in tandem with a rise in temperatures and extreme weather events like heat waves, the long, fragile supply chains that support most of the food consumed in developed economies will unravel. Remember last winter how screwed up things got because a single ship, the Ever Given, was wedged in the Suez Canal? Imagine that kind of effect happening much more frequently, except as a result of supply chain failures caused by weather impacts.

The heat waves, wildfires, sudden sharp freezes and hurricanes will continue, and get much worse, very quickly. I live in Oregon, and the effects of wildfires in early September 2020 was like being under a military siege. Ash rained from the sky and the air quality, even indoors, was health-threatening. My husband and I literally bought gas masks. If this kind of thing isn’t already happening to you, it soon will be. It will keep happening, over and over again. We also had a heat wave event at the end of June (2021) which killed over 1,000 people across the Pacific Northwest—a third of the number who died in the 9/11 attacks. These kinds of mass casualty events will continue to happen with greater regularity. Include disasters like the Texas freeze of February 2021, which resulted not just in death and human suffering but immense economic loss to ordinary people, or take-your-pick of hurricanes of the past four or five years; imagine these sorts of events constantly being in the news, week in, week out. This will come to pass quickly—within a year or two.

As a history teacher, I never expected to one day in September 2020 find myself browsing the specs on military-grade gas masks. Welcome to the era of climate change.

Then the systemic changes worsen. Market destabilization, state failure, populism—all three of these are already happening, but will also get worse. Market destabilization will occur, likely on a global scale, when (I say when, not if) the United States defaults on its debt obligations, as has nearly happened numerous times in the past eight years, or also when the dollar ceases to be the world’s reserve currency, which is inevitable. These changes, or others that have the effect of destabilizing markets, might be the result, intended or unintended, of policies pursued by a right-wing government that will come to power in the United States probably within the next three years. That government will certainly shred what’s left of the social safety net, throw millions deliberately into poverty, and employ state-sanctioned vigilante violence against political opponents. Incidentally this is also what “state failure” looks like. That process is already well-advanced after the presidency of Donald Trump and the January 2021 insurrection. The UK typically experiences political disasters a year or two before the United States does, so you need only look at empty store shelves, the collapse of social services, and political violence there (MP David Amess was murdered just last month; MP Jo Cox was killed in 2016) to get a glimpse of what’s coming here.

The political counterreaction to the entrenched political system’s utter refusal to do anything substantive about global warming will increase dramatically, and very quickly. That too has already begun; mainstream publications like the UK’s Guardian are beginning to make the case for the sabotage and destruction of fossil fuel infrastructure. That will happen. What, you think groups like Extinction Rebellion are going to draw the line at blocking traffic in Piccadilly Circus? If it’s not them, somebody else will start blowing up oil refineries and sabotaging pipelines. As right-wing governments in the UK and United States begin deploying the full weight of their police and militaries to protect fossil fuel interests—which is also 100% guaranteed to happen—the violence will escalate quickly. Nations in the developing world will begin looting, nationalizing or expropriating fossil fuel assets, which will trigger violent responses by fossil fuel companies, who will not for a moment hesitate to kill people in defense of their property. This is the fuse that will light the big one, and the one I’m personally most afraid of: the global war that will bring down civilization as we know it. In the graph from the Chatham House report, that result is shown in the right-hand column, fourth box down from the top, “Armed Conflict.” It means nothing less than World War III.

Science fiction? I wish it was. Historically speaking, it’s entirely within the realm of possibility—indeed, probability. The world has been uniquely stable, in terms of large-scale military conflict, since the end of World War II in 1945. That has less to do with nice-sounding multinational initiatives like the United Nations and more to do with the existence of nuclear weapons (which are mentioned in the Chatham House report). But after 80 years, we can already see the relative peace is becoming increasingly frayed, with recent conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ukraine, Myanmar and other places. Wait until the Troubles start up again in Northern Ireland, which is an inevitable result of Brexit—which itself represents a retreat from multinational cooperation. If Trump comes to power again in 2024 (assuming he’s still alive then), he will dismantle NATO and probably withdraw the U.S. from the United Nations—he was planning to do that in his second term. All the safeguards put in place after the last big war to prevent the next one will be gone. Even if NATO and the UN aren’t formally dissolved, Trump, Brexit, Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin have worked hard enough to water down and delegitimize these institutions that they won’t matter anymore. Don’t expect the United Nations to prevent an all-out conflict.

Settling your differences, 21st century style: climate change will prove quite profitable for arms dealers in the next 20-30 years. Photo by Wikimedia Commons user HDPTCar, Creative Commons 2.0.

The effect all of this will have on our daily lives is almost immeasurable. As supply chains dissolve, food patterns, even in wealthy nations like the United States, will change radically. If the U.S. slips into civil war, as many on both sides of the political spectrum believe is increasingly likely, cities and hinterlands will become battlegrounds. Even a few developed nations sliding into populist fascism will totally destabilize the international order, because fascist nations always strike out at external enemies to divert attention away from problems at home. This will occur against a backdrop of rising revolutionary sentiment explicitly centered around climate issues, such as immediate and unconditional abolition of fossil fuels. If ten of the world’s biggest oil refineries were taken out of commission all at the same time, the world’s economic system would be unable to handle the shock, and much of the developed world would shudder to a halt. This is what civilizational collapse looks like: the fall of the Western Roman Empire on a global scale.

Something will emerge after that. I’m not sure what; perhaps a horse-drawn, candle-lit world where we spend most of our time tilling our backyard farms for enough food to feed ourselves. But that world will move much slower, will use a lot less energy, and will have a lot fewer people in it.

Again I stress: this is not just me with my hyperactive imagination spinning apocalyptic scenarios. It’s in the Chatham House report. They estimate these results will be locked in by 2040. They got there through scientific analysis, but the date itself has historical significance. A period of 99 years, 1815 to 1914, separated the last two great periods of global-level upheaval, the French Revolution/Napoleonic Wars era and the World War I-Great Depression-World War II era. World War II ended in 1945. The year 2040 is 95 years after that. In other words, this sort of upheaval will be arriving right on time.

Now do you see what we’re dealing with? It’s not hopeless—humanity has survived large-scale upheavals like this before, and we will again—but not with the same institutions, lifestyles and values in place. Our world will be immeasurably changed. I think it’s better to be prepared for that, in whatever way we can reasonably be prepared, rather than be blindsided by it. I choose awareness, however painful, over blissful ignorance.

So, I don’t know what to tell you about what’s coming. This is the part of the article where I’m supposed to give you a call to action: “But it might not happen if you [fill in the blank] go vegan! buy a Prius! write your Congressman! vote Democrat! sign my petition!” I’m not going to do that. We must focus on making our families, our communities and ourselves as resilient as possible to be able to withstand these awesome challenges. We must find and hold on to what it means to be human and the seeds of how we rebuild ourselves and our world after fiery trials on this order. This is the true challenge that global warming presents us. That will be an inward journey as well as an outer one.

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