#3: Earth at 2° hotter will be horrific. Now here’s what 4° will look like. | Top 10 2019
Third on the Big Think 2019 countdown reveals this is what the world will be like if we do not act on climate change.
DAVID WALLACE-WELLS: Well, I think when we look outside our windows every day, we see a world that is basically stable, and even if we hear a lot about extreme weather, see horrible news of wildfires and droughts and heat waves that kill people all around the world, we still reorient our emotional expectations for what the world will be like in our own lives. And most of our lives have not been yet all that dramatically disturbed by climate change. But in the decades ahead, I think they will be. There's basically no life on Earth that will be untouched by the force of climate in the decades ahead, and in most cases, that means deformed, damaged, transformed.
I think most scientists would say that the best case scenario is 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming. But personally, I think it'll be practically impossible for us to stay below two degrees without what's called negative emissions technology, which is fanciful tech that has been tested and is successful at a lab scale, but needs to be deployed at global scale to make much of a difference. The UN says that to have any chance of staying below two degrees, we need massive use of this technology, which we don't even know enough to trust. So for me, I orient my best case scenario at two degrees. And unfortunately, that's a level of warming that most scientists describe as the threshold of a catastrophe. Many island nations of the world describe it as genocide. That's how vulnerable they are to especially sea level rise at two degrees. But the impacts wouldn't just affect the island nations of the world. Many of the biggest cities in South Asia and the Middle East would be lethally hot in summer at two degrees, which could happen as soon as 2050. These are cities like Calcutta 5, 10, 12 million people. You wouldn't be able to go outside or certainly work outside without incurring a lethal risk. And that could happen, again, just by 2050, which is one reason why the UN expects that we could have 200 million climate refugees by that same date, 2050. 200 million. They think it's possible that we get as many as one billion, which is as many people as live today in North and South America, combined. I don't think those numbers are realistic. I think they're too high. But even if we get 100 million or 150 million climate refugees, it's important to remember that the Syrian refugee crisis, which totally destabilized European politics, led in its way to Brexit, and has transformed our politics globally through the way it's affected Europe, was the result of just one million Syrian refugees coming to the continent. We're talking about a refugee crisis that is almost certain to be 100 times as large, and it comes at a time when most nations of the world are retreating from our commitments to one another, retreating from our organizations and alliances, retreating from the UN, retreating from the EU, and embracing xenophobia and nativism and nationalism. That's especially concerning when you think about what's ahead, because there are going to be many more people in much more desperate need in the decades ahead. And if we don't welcome them, we'll be committing real moral crimes that from the advantage of today seem unconscionable, but which may become more normal, as we move forward into this new transformed world.
When we talk about worst case scenarios, there are a couple of different factors at play. One is what humans do. This is the most important factor. Will we change course? Will we continue to burn coal? Will we continue to produce fossil fuel emissions? The UN says that the track we're on now, the trajectory we're on now is likely to take us to about 4.3 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century if we don't change course. 4.3 degrees would mean $600 trillion in global climate damages. That's double all the wealth that exists in the world today. It would mean parts of the world could be hit by six climate driven natural disasters at once. It would mean more than double the warfare that we see today. And the impacts would be in our economic activity. It would be in flooding and the refugee crisis.
There are so many impacts that we have not really been able to think clearly about, because all of us are so reluctant to consider these horrifying outcomes. But the fact that they are horrifying should not make us turn away. It should make us focus on them more intently. We all have all of these psychological reflexes that make us reluctant to consider horrible possibilities. And for that reason, it's more important for us to take seriously the science, because we need to fight against those impulses to do better planning, to take more aggressive action than we would if we allowed ourselves to slip back into complacency. But there are cases that are worse than 4.3 degrees. There are what are called feedback loops in the climate system that could conceivably accelerate warming beyond what human action does. So there is what's called the albedo effect, which is a little complicated to explain. But sunlight is reflected back into outer space by any surface that's white; that's why when you wear a white shirt, you're cooler than if you wear a black shirt in the summer. The less arctic ice there is, the less reflective white ice there is at the top of the planet. That means more sunlight is being absorbed, which means that more warming would take place. So as arctic ice melts, the planet's ability to reflect solar energy back into space would diminish, and warming would accelerate. There is frozen in the Arctic permafrost a lot of methane, or I should say a lot of carbon, which could be released into the atmosphere as methane if that permafrost melts. Methane is, depending on how you count, at least 30 and perhaps 80 times as powerful a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. And there is enough carbon in that permafrost to double the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere that we have today. If that were released, it could accelerate warming by a couple of degrees all on its own. There are many more feedback loops like this.
Just this past week there was a study about cloud formation. If we get to about 1,200 parts per million of carbon, which is much higher than we are today at about 410, but it's conceivable early next century, we would completely disrupt the planet system for cloud formation. And that impact alone, scientists say in this study, would add 8 degrees Celsius of warming to the system. So we'd probably be at already 4 and 1/2 or 5 degrees by then, and we could immediately be brought to 12 and a half or 13 degrees Celsius. And that really would make much of the planet literally uninhabitable, not just the equatorial band, not just the tropics, but there would be places in the mid latitudes that would just be too hot to live. And we have not really begun to think about those possibilities. This is the world that we're entering into now, at just 1.1 degrees, but the whole range of possibilities stretches before us, and even the quite optimistic outcomes are horrifying. Two degrees is genocide, the island nations of the world say. Four degrees is at least twice as bad, depending on how you count. And there are possibilities north of 4 degrees, which are even scarier, because it would mean that the climate system had escaped human control.
- The third most popular video of 2019 presents a frightening truth: The best-case scenario of climate change is that world gets just 2°C hotter, which scientists call the "threshold of catastrophe".
- Why is that the good news? Because if humans don't change course now, the planet is on a trajectory to reach 4°C at the end of this century, which would bring $600 trillion in global climate damages, double the warfare, and a refugee crisis 100x worse than the Syrian exodus.
- David Wallace-Wells explains what would happen at an 8°C and even 13°C increase. These predictions are horrifying, but should not scare us into complacency. "It should make us focus on them more intently," he says.
The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming
- Why Do Most American Conservatives Still Refuse To Believe In ... ›
- UN climate change report warns: 12 years left to act - Big Think ›
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>
Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.
- A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
- This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
- The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
The process for measuring the fine-structure constant involved a beam of light from a laser that caused an atom to recoil. The red and blue colors indicate the light wave's peaks and troughs, respectively.
A new study finds that some people just want privacy.
- Despite its reputation as a tool for criminals, only a small percentage of Tor users were actually going to the dark web.
- The rate was higher in free countries and lower in countries with censored internet access.
- The findings are controversial, and may be limited by their methodology to be general assumptions.