A new policy report from the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration warns that “planetary and human systems [are] reaching a ‘point of no return’ by mid-century, in which the prospect of a largely uninhabitable Earth leads to the breakdown of nations and the international order.” This apocalyptic vision of the year 2050 follows a long tradition of counterproductive doomsaying.
Former Vice President, and Democratic presidential nominee hopeful, Joe Biden, has recently placed the “point of no return” even sooner, in just 12 years’ time. “[H]ow we act or fail to act in the next 12 years will determine the very livability of our planet,” he said earlier this week.
Environmental problems are certainly real, but alarmists do a disservice to the cause of tackling those challenges when they use cataclysmic language to describe the near future.
As Harvard University’s Steven Pinker noted in his book Enlightenment Now, psychological research has shown that “people are likelier to accept the fact of global warming when they are told that the problem is solvable by innovations in policy and technology than when they are given dire warnings about how awful it will be”.
But instead of focusing on solutions, like nuclear power, which does not emit CO2, and other technological breakthroughs that have the potential to reduce carbon emissions, some well-meaning people resort to apocalyptic rhetoric. Humanity has reached the “point of no return” many times already, according to past doomsayers.
In 2006, Al Gore warned that unless drastic measures were taken “within the next 10 years,” the world would “reach a point of no return.” That would place “the point of no return” in 2016.
Thirty years ago, in 1989, an unidentified senior U.N. environmental official told the Associated Press that “entire nations could be wiped off the face of the Earth by rising sea levels” if drastic action was not taken by the year 2000. The ocean has not swallowed any nations since his prognostication.
In 1982, executive director of the U.N. Environment Program Mostafa Tolba said that lack of action by the year 2000 would bring “an environmental catastrophe which will witness devastation as complete, as irreversible, as any nuclear holocaust.” His prediction of an environmental “nuclear holocaust” in just 18 years failed to materialise.
Back in 1970, Harvard University biologist George Wald claimed that “civilization will end within 15 or 30 years unless immediate action is taken against problems facing mankind.” His prediction would place the end of civilization sometime between 1985 and 2000.
Also in 1970, North Texas State University philosopher Peter Gunter wrote, “By the year 2000, 30 years from now, the entire world, with the exception of Western Europe, North America, and Australia, will be in famine.”
In 1969, Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich Paul Ehrlich said, “If I were a gambler, I would take even money that England will not exist in the year 2000.” It is a good thing he did not put down money on that proposition, or he would have had to pay out 31 years later. (In fact, it would have served his bank account well to stay away from from wagers entirely).
The frequency of hyperbolic, failed predictions of catastrophe would be more amusing if they were not so damaging to the public’s perception of real environmental challenges, including climate change.
Fortunately, there are also many environmentalists who hold a less pessimistic and more realistic view. Rockefeller University professor Jesse H. Ausubel, who was integral to setting up the world’s first climate change conference in Geneva in 1979, has shown how technological progress allows nature to rebound. For example, increasing crop yields to produce more food with less land reduces the environmental impact of agriculture. In fact, if farmers worldwide reach the productivity level of the average US farmer, humanity will be able to return a landmass the size of India back to nature.
In addition to technological progress, economic development can also help protect the environment. As people rise out of extreme poverty, they often come to care more about environmental stewardship. The incredible decline in Chinese poverty spurred by economic liberalisation, for example, has coincided with better preservation of forests. China had 511,807 more square kilometres of forest in 2015 than it did in 1990. Once a country reaches around $4,500 in GDP per capita, forest area starts to rebound. This is called the “forest transition” or, more broadly, the “environmental Kuznets curve”.
Many other such reasons for optimism exist. Yet the new report’s “2050 scenario finds a world in social breakdown and outright chaos,” David Spratt, the research director at the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration, told Vice.
Not to be outdone in pessimism, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has predicted that “the world is going to end in 12 years” without urgent action, rather than in 31 years’ time.
In the year 353, a bishop called Hilary of Poitiers also predicted that the world would end in just 12 years, in 365. It is a safe bet that Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez forecast ends up as inaccurate as his was.
Environmental challenges should be taken seriously. And just as with so many other problems humanity has faced, environmental problems should be solvable given the right technology and spreading prosperity. Either way, the world will still exist a dozen years from now.