467 ways to die on a warming planet

17 12 2018

A new study published in Nature has found evidence for 467 ways in which climate hazards due to global warming are making life on the planet harder for humans. It confirms that we are witnessing a shift in the functioning of the Earth system as a whole, a shift to a new state that is unsympathetic to the continued flourishing of human life.

A changing climate is only one feature of a warming globe. Human activity has bounced the Earth into a state that has no equivalent in its 4.5 billion year history.

Clive Hamilton

The Earth’s new trajectory as it spins into the future has led scientists to tell us we have entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. We have crossed a threshold and the geological clock cannot be turned back. The disruption we have caused is increasingly unpredictable and uncontrollable, and it has no endpoint.

There are, therefore, two questions humankind must face. What must we do to prevent serial disasters becoming existential catastrophe? And how can we make our social and economic systems flexible enough to cope with the new dispensation?

There are several reasons an international agreement has proven so hard. The leading one is sabotage by climate science deniers. Can it be countered? Climate science denial was invented and propagated mainly in the United States by the fossil fuel industry in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Activists know how to thwart an industry lobbying campaign. But then something calamitous happened – rejecting climate science became caught up in the culture war. The Tea Party and Fox News were largely responsible for the shift. Before then, even a conservative like Sarah Palin accepted the science and called for action. But after 2009, rejecting climate science became a badge of political identity for conservatives.

From that point onwards, facts no longer mattered.

So the challenge is no longer how to use information to change people’s minds. The challenge is how to change a culture. No one knows how to do that.

Yet it’s too easy to blame the world’s slowness to act on crazy American deniers. Because, in a way, we are all climate science deniers.

The full truth of what humans have done is almost impossible to take in. To fully embrace the message of the climate scientists means giving up the deepest presupposition of modernity – the idea of progress. Relinquishing our belief in progress means we must let go of the future, because we have been taught from infancy that the future is progress.

In our minds, replacing the old future defined by progress with a new future defined by endless struggle requires a period of grieving. Not many people have the stomach for that.

While most people in most countries accept the truth of climate science, they don’t accept its implications. What can be done to change that?

When it comes to communicating the science’s message to the public, there is no magic potion to be found. A lot has been tried and some of it works reasonably well, up to a point. The scientists must keep doing their research and putting it out. Accusing them of alarmism is a calculated political slander; in truth, they have consistently been too cautious in their warnings, especially in IPCC reports.

Yet the meaning of their reports has not sunk in. It’s clear that an Earth warmer by four degrees – and after the unwinding of the 2015 Paris agreement that is the path we have returned to – will impose enormous stresses on all societies.

In poorer countries, it will lead to mass migrations, many deaths and violent conflict. The effects in wealthy countries will depend on who holds power and how they govern. Disasters, food shortages and waves of immigration will magnify resentment against the rich, who will be attempting to insulate themselves from the turmoil around them.

But they too depend on the infrastructure of urban life – electricity and water supply, sewerage and waste disposal, transport systems for food and so on. And they can’t insulate themselves from social upheaval.

Some communities will learn to adapt more effectively. Smaller, cooperative communities will be best placed to adapt themselves to endure the troubles.

But however humans live or die on the new Earth we have made, we are approaching the endpoint of modernity and must accept that it is finally true that man is the environment of man.

• Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and author of Defiant Earth: The fate of humans in the Anthropocene



13 responses

17 12 2018
Chris Harries

I like this. “In a way we are all climate deniers.” A home truth few will accept. But it’s the nub of the problem. Hardly anyone wants to face the music because this is such a wicked issue. This phenomenon is much worse that straight denial because it infects virtually the whole population. Having a go at hard core deniers is a convenient way to feel good about ourselves by deflecting the focus away from ourselves.

Mind you we do need to keep needling them, though it’s a waste os space because it is vested interests in the main that lock in their attitude and so playing the logic card doesn’t work.

17 12 2018
wandering neone

expect a lot of defence reactions when trying to change the culture trough honest interplay (been there done that).
Dynamics generate the most ridiculous excuses and blockages to not question themselves (culture is embedded so deeply that it generates the illusion of entaglement towards their “self”)

The only thing positive that came out of such an effort was my gut feeling of why I never became a misantropist.
People have really no clue on how they are being played, and don’t want to know.

17 12 2018

They forgot to mention the 4,670 ways that life is getting easier on a warming planet, as life expectancy increases,education improves and poverty and hunger continue to decrease worldwide.

17 12 2018
Chris Harries

I can see your glass is 99.9999999 percent full, Jeff.

Yes, we’ve spoiled ourselves rotten and just for the moment can access almost anything we want. Like LG’s advertising slogan: “Life’s Good.”

For the moment.

19 12 2018

life isn’t so good for the millions of poor, refugees, and those fleeing from wars and climate extremes – and the growing numbers of poor and homeless in our cities.

19 12 2018
Chris Harries

Of course. I was replying to Jeff’s tongue-in-cheek optimism. Life’s not so good for all the other natural systems that our lifestyle imposes either. 🙂

2 01 2019
Etyere Petyere

Just until the planetary creditcard gets maxed out . IDIOT!

17 12 2018

ACTUALLY……. life expectancy has started to decrease. Read two articles recently saying this was the case in the USA and the UK. Poverty is getting worse, nearly everywhere. And education? Well as far as I’m concerned it’s nowhere near as good as when I went to school….


23 12 2018
may hem

many yanks are also growing shorter and fatter. soon they’ll look like dumplings!

20 12 2018
Lizzie K

Spot on Jeff.

31 12 2018

It’s true that we are all deniers, at least to the extent that even if we could, or want to, few of us can extricate ourselves from the ‘growth’ economy we are immersed in. Society will need to agree to or be forced to accept a lower expection of what constitutes a “good” life in order to survive but I bet London to a brick that neither of those options will be possible leaving the only alternative of societal collapse to happen sufficiently in time to hopefully save us from ourselves.
Those I have tried to raise this topic with are either not interested, not ready to even talk about it or say fatalisticly “what’s the point” or “what can I do?” I truly am afraid for my grandchildren who have not been complicit in creating this disastrous future.

1 01 2019

Happy new year Mike, I didn’t think civilization was going to get this far.

2 01 2019

Thanks mate, neither did I..!

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