We know that climate change, if left unaddressed, will produce devastating results for the planet, including the extinction of many species that occupy it. As we expend most of our energy and seek to adapt to these new and harsh conditions, scientists say we are not giving enough thought to the very real possibility that humanity will also be wiped out. A new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) argues that it’s time for researchers to start looking at human extinction as a potential “climate endgame.”
The study looked at other research that seeks to quantify the potential damage from the planet as it continues to warm. They found that too often researchers focus on target temperatures to limit climate change – preventing the planet from warming more than 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius above industrial levels – instead of considering the most catastrophic end of the spectrum.
What happens if we miss our targets set by the Paris climate agreement? What happens if the planet warms up by 3 degrees Celsius or more? For the most part, the study found that scientists haven’t really engaged with these possibilities. The most thorough examinations of these worst-case scenarios were found primarily in non-fiction science books rather than scholarly texts or research articles.
This matters for several reasons. First and foremost, the fact that extinction isn’t irrelevant to us, and we really don’t have a clear picture of what that looks like. No one wants to imagine how brutal and calamitous it would be to get to the point of human extinction, but we may still have to seriously consider the idea. The paper calls on scientists to take a “four horseman” approach to considering the possibility of human extinction, examining the pathways of starvation, extreme weather, disease and war. Everything would be disastrous, but we should know what each path looks like.
The other reason these researchers want to better understand the human extinction scenario is to avoid it. The release of reports of what it might look like might be enough to scare people away. It worked with the threat of an impending nuclear winter during the Cold War, the scientists reasoned in the paper, so why not try it with climate change?
Ideally, we never see what human extinction looks like. But we shouldn’t blind ourselves to the possibility of that happening. If we don’t change our behaviors and kick the fossil fuel habit, there’s a non-zero chance we’ll doom ourselves to extinction. Let’s not rule out the possibility that humanity really is so self-destructive.