Are We All Going To Die?
Let's skip swiftly past the facetious response. Yes: eventually each of us will die.
This page considers the claims that climate change will lead to social break-down and worse in the UK in the coming decades. See eg The perverse fantasies of XR's founder and Stop Telling Kids They'll Die From Climate Change.
These claims seemed alarmist to me, but on reflection, I think there's a low-probability, terrifying possibility that such predictions could come true. The probability rises as temperatures increase. Please read on.
Are We Heading for a Mass Extinction?
Yes: the rate of extinction of plant and animal species is fast and accelerating, with climate change as a major cause. See https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1922686117.
It's probably already too late for millions of species.
Are Humans Heading for Extinction?
No: humans are highly adaptable and resilient. I expect many millions of us will be able to survive on a much hotter Earth.
Are Millions of Humans Going to Die Prematurely?
Yes: a hotter planet implies that more water evaporates and stays in the atmosphere for longer before falling in heavier rainstorms. Rain will fall in different places. There will be more floods and droughts. These changes are occurring now. See eg https://climate.nasa.gov/news/2881/earths-freshwater-future-extremes-of-flood-and-drought/.
Average global temperatures have increased by 1.1°C since 1880 (https://www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/climate-change-global-temperature). Few people seem aware that average land surface temperatures are increasing at nearly double that rate ie 2°C over the same period: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1048518/average-land-sea-temperature-anomaly-since-1850/. Further temperature rise is locked in based on existing emissions, with more to follow if we don't stop emitting. That's bad news for farmers in already hot areas.
Some of our agriculturally productive land is inevitably going to become a lot less productive. The hotter we make it, the worse this gets. At the same time, "the world's population is expected to increase by 2 billion persons in the next 30 years, from 7.7 billion [in 2021] to 9.7 billion in 2050" (https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/population). There will be more, worse mass-starvation events.
It's probably already too late for millions of humans in the less wealthy parts of the world.
Are Millions of Britons Going to Die Prematurely?
Maybe: in the event of global food shortages, I had assumed that Britain's economic power and military strength would ensure that, even though people in poorer countries might starve, we would be able to procure enough food.
Note: the UK imports 40% of its food needs (https://www.nfuonline.com/updates-and-information/public-backs-calls-to-keep-up-food-self-sufficiency-levels/).
What if the people in the countries from which we buy food decide to prioritise feeding themselves and refuse to export? What if those countries receive an economic offer or a military ultimatum from elsewhere that they can't refuse? [I wrote this before Russia invaded Ukraine]
When global food supplies tighten, countries with a surplus are likely to hoard it to maximise their own food-security. Just look what is happening with Covid vaccines.
IPCC AR6 WG2 "Fact sheet - Europe" states:
"Substantive agricultural production losses are projected for most European areas over the 21st century, which will not be offset by gains in Northern Europe (high confidence)"
The UK government Climate Change Committee's June 2021 report "Independent Assessment of UK Climate Risk" warns:
"Climate change poses a direct risk to crops, livestock … through increased exposure to heat stress, drought risk, waterlogging, flooding, fire, and pests, diseases and invasive non -native species."
Vulnerable as we are to wobbles in the jet stream, what if climate change reduces our own agricultural output, coinciding with a global food shortage?
At the same time we will have many more mouths to feed. The "Future of the human climate niche" scientific paper (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1910114117) states:
- "depending on scenarios of population growth and warming, over the coming 50 years, 1 to 3 billion people are projected to be left outside the climate conditions that have served humanity well over the past 6,000 years"
- "Absent climate mitigation or migration, a substantial part of humanity will be exposed to mean annual temperatures warmer than nearly anywhere today."
Given that a large proportion of those people live in Africa and South Asia, the following questions arise:
- where will they move to? Europe will be a popular destination.
- will such an unprecedented migration be possible without appalling bloodshed?
- how will we feed the hundreds of millions arriving in Europe, again without conflict and mass starvation?
Sceptics may suggest that the scenario I have described is unlikely, based on a series of "maybes". I would respond that the likelihood depends on how hot we make it and how badly we trash the planet's agricultural resources. We should be working flat out to ensure that this outcome is vanishingly improbable.
If it appears that the UK will be short of food, the panic-buying, empty shelves and consequent food waste seen during early 2020 will look like a walk in the park.
If people really do end up starving hungry, the apocalyptic visions conjured up by Roger Hallam might yet become a reality.
The following factors are also significant:
- A warming climate could mean that large tracts of land, eg in Siberia, will become agriculturally productive - but what if global food shortages arrive more suddenly than new agricultural land can be brought into production?
- If the UK switched all productive land from animal agriculture to plant-based agriculture (see Food and Climate Change - Food Square Miles), we might achieve food self-sufficiency - however, the transition might not happen as quickly as global food shortages demand.
- Bringing more UK land into agricultural production would increase our food self-sufficiency - but again that would take time.
- Food shortages will certainly lead to rising prices and big reductions in wasted food (see Food and Climate Change - Food Waste), which should give us a bit of leeway; rationing will be required to ensure that the limited food is shared as widely as possible.
- Agricultural productivity must be increased in many parts of the world by adopting more intensive farming practices, simply to feed a growing world population - it's unclear whether production could be further intensified, and fast enough, to compensate for widespread crop failures.
What to Do?
We've been pretty lucky over the last 70 years. History shows us that war, plague and famine can strike out of the blue. We're seriously increasing the chances of bad things happening.
The UK should be improving its food self-sufficiency but that might not be enough.
The most effective way to minimise the chance of disaster is to stop changing the climate. It's in our own self-interest to stop making the problem worse and start acting to reverse it.
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