The phrase in extremis is a nautical term that describes a situation where two vessels are on a collision course and have reached a point where no action by either vessel can possibly avoid the collision. Some maneuvering can reduce the severity of the impact, possibly saving some lives, but the collision is unavoidable.
Human civilization is in extremis. We are on a collision course with the past and present actions we have made to fuel the Industrial Revolution, two world wars (and numerous “limited” wars,) industrial sized agriculture, and a fast-paced, self-indulgent lifestyle. Sadly, only a small fraction of the humans living today have benefited from these actions, but the vast majority, essentially all, of humans living today, and who will be living in future generations, will suffer from what is happening.
Just as tragic are the consequences to non-human life: the decimation of forests and grasslands; extinction of birds, insects and mammals; the death of the corals and plankton that are the basis for the food chains in the oceans that feed us and give us oxygen. Virtually all living things on the planet are helpless passengers trapped in the steerage holds of the ship headed for destruction.
As was depicted in the movie “Titanic,” the captain and officers of the ship could see the disaster looming before them, but they denied that there was a problem. At first, they thought the lookouts just imagined seeing an iceberg, then the iceberg wasn’t that big, then it couldn’t damage the ship, then the ship was unsinkable. And so the denial and delusion went on, even as the stern was 100 feet in the air and the bow pointed to the bottom. That is what I think of when I see United States senators on the floor of the capitol saying that climate change is just a liberal fantasy.
Well, that “liberal fantasy” has already warmed the Earth by 1 degree Celsius since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Many poo-poo this number; “Just 1°C ? That’s nothing to worry about!” Well, we can see the effects of 1°C warming by just looking at what has already occurred: Two “500-year” storms hitting Houston within months of each other; unprecedented flooding in the Midwest that recently occurred; historic amounts of snow and ice across the United States; loss of sea ice in the Arctic to a degree never before seen; glaciers melting across the globe; hurricanes devastating Puerto Rico and the Gulf states; flooding from sea level rise in Miami occurring on an almost daily basis; a tropical cyclone (i.e. hurricane) striking southeast Africa with a ferocity never before seen; the list goes on and on.
If the things listed above, resulting from a 1°C rise seem bad, just wait. The average global temperature is projected to rise by 2°C by 2030, even if we were to stop all burning of fossil fuels by that year. With the present attitudes of most of the world’s leadership, it is impossible that we will be able to eliminate use of fossil fuels in 10 years time. More than 190 nations signed on to the Paris Climate Accords in 2017, yet none of them are on track to reach the goals they agreed to. One of them, the United States (one of the larger carbon polluters), has withdrawn from the agreement completely. Our political leaders are like the officers on the bridge of the Titanic, denying that the iceberg is a threat. Instead of trying to slow the ship down to minimize the damage from what looms ahead, we are going full throttle toward destruction. We seem hell-bent on insuring that the global temperature will rise by 3-4°C by 2050, maybe by 5-6°C by 2100. Under those conditions, sea levels will rise by more than 200 feet, and much of North America, Europe, Africa, Australia and South America will be under sea water or parched by drought. The regions that provide our food, the oxygen we breathe, and the water we drink will be unrecognizable. The human species might not be extinct, but human civilization will no longer exist.
Even though the collision is inevitable, and is already occurring, we don’t have to continue at all-ahead flank speed. We can slow down our use of fossil fuels, we can do some things to remove carbon from the atmosphere, we can use food sources that aren’t built on the very top of the food chain, and we can change our lifestyles. We really don’t have much choice in the matter, since all those things will inevitably happen once we are trying to survive in a 3°C or 4°C warmer world. But, we can decide to do those things sooner, rather than later, and hope we can preserve a world that our children and grandchildren can live in.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. It won’t be like a class project to see what it would be like to go without meat for a month, or to walk everywhere for a couple of weeks. It won’t be just a handful of motivated individuals sacrificing while the rest of the world goes on with business as usual. It won’t be just the people in one town, or one state or one country completely changing their of life to reduce the destruction of a 2°C warmer planet. It will take the whole planet. The environment will continue to degrade, but just not as fast. This will have to continue for decades, but, after all, it took decades for things to get this bad, and the laws of physics don’t go any faster in reverse. This is not a pretty picture, but all the other pictures I can imagine are worse.
I am 79 years old. In my remaining years, I probably will not have to experience the horrors that I have suggested here. I could easily sit back and say, well, that is going to be tough for someone to fix. But, I can’t do that. I fear for my children and my grandchildren, and for all the children and grandchildren of my community, my state, my country and my world.
So, what can be done? Student demonstrations and protests are helping to focus attention on the problem, but they don’t solve the problem. Seeing an elementary school class make posters about the plight of sea turtles increases the student’s awareness, but doesn’t directly save any turtles. What is needed is for us to support political leaders who are not climate deniers and who will actively promote legislation that will reduce fossil fuel use drastically in the next decade, and completely by 2050. Support means contributing to their campaigns and then to show up and vote! These leaders need to have the courage to stand up to the pressures of the manufacturing, automobile, oil, and industrial-scale agriculture industries who will cry that anything limiting their business-as-usual practices will devastate the economy. Well, the economy is going to be devastated before we get to a 3°C warmer world, and not just here in the United States.
It will be worldwide devastation, so the things listed above need to be done on a worldwide basis. It will be a frightening, difficult trip, but what other choice do we have?