#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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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.
Scientists regenerate damaged spinal cord nerve fibers with designer protein, helping paralyzed mice walk again.
- Researchers from Germany use a designer protein to treat spinal cord damage in mice.
- The procedure employs gene therapy to regenerate damaged nerve fibers that carry signals to and from the brain.
- The scientists aim to eventually apply the technique to humans.
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Scientists use new methods to discover what's inside drug containers used by ancient Mayan people.
- Archaeologists used new methods to identify contents of Mayan drug containers.
- They were able to discover a non-tobacco plant that was mixed in by the smoking Mayans.
- The approach promises to open up new frontiers in the knowledge of substances ancient people consumed.
PARME staff archaeologists excavating a burial site at the Tamanache site, Mérida, Yucatan.
Cold hands and feet? Maybe it's your anxiety.
- When we feel anxious, the brain's fight or flight instinct kicks in, and the blood flow is redirected from your extremities towards the torso and vital organs.
- According to the CDC, 7.1% of children between the ages of 3-17 (approximately 4.4 million) have an anxiety diagnosis.
- Anxiety disorders will impact 31% of Americans at some point in their lives.