Time Enough At Last

Feature: Humanity to continue, experts say

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Surrounded by centuries of the collective recorded wisdom of a prosperous, self-governing people, the astrobiologist posed the question to a crowd of about 50 onlookers.

"Are we just going to be a brief geological event like the little layer of clay that shows us the impact that wiped out the dinosaurs?" asked David Grinspoon, astrobiology chairman at the Library of Congress’ John W. Kluge Center.

The center recently convened a daylong symposium—officially titled the "Longevity of Human Civilization"—with engineers, astronomers, anthropologists, atmospheric scientists, and journalists to explore that very possibility. I went to see if I should take out that long-term life insurance policy or not.

The panelists were unanimous: Humans will survive. They will even survive climate change.

Indeed, climate change may be the least of our worries. The panelists mentioned a number of potential catastrophes that could wipe out human civilization: asteroids, volcanoes, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, etc.

Not everyone was buying it though. Kim Stanley Robinson, a science fiction writer, said that scientists should ditch their "apocalyptic dreams" or "rapture for the nerds" and focus on the real threat.

"Can we adapt our environment to deal with climate change and avoid the extinction of humanity?" Robinson asked. "The other stories are much more hypothetical."

Like helium escaping from a balloon, a man in the audience rose to agree.

"The biggest threat is the threat of climate catastrophe," David Schwartzman, biology professor at Howard University, said.

Schwartzman said someone brought up the "‘C’ word, capitalism" earlier.

"Every other socio-economic system had its lifetime and was destroyed or overthrown," he said. "We need to confront this obstacle if we have any chance of confronting this catastrophe."

But he may have to confront it on his own. The panelists assembled at the center of the room put the apocalyptic dream to rest.

"If you’re a coral reef, you’re in big trouble," said Ken Caldeira, atmospheric scientist for the Carnegie Institution for Science Department of Global Ecology.

"[Humans are] probably more likely to be killed by an earthquake or some virus than climate change," he said. "As a personal threat, I don’t think it’s the biggest threat."

Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program, said humans could likely endure even the most cataclysmic changes to the climate.

"A tenth of the population will be displaced in their way of life with even a one meter rise in the sea level," Potts said, according to some estimates. "If that’s all we had to solve, I think we would still solve it."

The species that have avoided extinction historically are the ones who maintain options, diversity, flexibility, and resilience, he said. Schwartzman made the wrong prescription, he added.

"How do we change from one economic system to another? That’s the wrong way to go about it," he told Schwartzman.

The assembled scientists are not alone in their skepticism of doomsday climate scenarios. A survey reported by the peer-reviewed Organization Studies earlier this year found that 64 percent of geoscientists and engineers who responded do not believe humans are causing a global warming crisis or that climate change poses a significant risk.

David Biello, associate editor for Scientific American, said the types of energy options environmentalists typically revile might be key to tempering climate change.

"Intermediate policies, such as carbon storage, may prove absolutely vital," he said. "We ignore them at our peril."

As Schwartzman and others filed out at the panel’s conclusion, I asked Biello if those "intermediate" energy policies include the groundbreaking natural gas extraction technique of hydraulic fracturing—more commonly known as fracking.

"It’s pretty simple to say, ‘boy, if we got rid of coal and burned natural gas it would be a huge step forward in climate change.' We’ve seen that to some extent," he told me.

I asked Biello if he is optimistic about humanity’s survival.

"We’ve been through worse challenges in the past," he said. "I would argue that facing the Pleistocene Ice Age with fur and spears is a much larger challenge than facing the climate change we’re creating ourselves. We made it through that."

"The human way of life, I think, will persist."
Thank goodness.

Daniel Wiser   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Daniel Wiser is an assistant editor of National Affairs. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2013, where he studied Journalism and Political Science and was the State & National Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. He hails from Waxhaw, N.C., and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @TheWiserChoice.

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