As humanity continues to probe the edges and dark corners of what the natural world can bear, the children have mobilized with concern about their future.

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A charismatic leader who connects climate science to theories of social transformation has been joined again and again in recent months by thousands of protesters to shut down Londons streets and bridges. And a book, simply titled “The Uninhabitable Earth” has made The New York Times best seller list.

What unites these disparate events? They are milestones that document the growing understanding that Earth is reacting to anthropogenic climate change faster than expected.

With only 1 degree Celsius of global warming so far, researchers have already documented an increase in extreme weather, sea level rise, drought, ocean acidification, and marine and terrestrial extinctions. Arctic sea ice volume is down 50% and 70% compared to 1979. Hurricanes are bigger, wetter, slower, and intensifying literally overnight. There has been a 10% increase in the land area under drought and a 12% increase in extreme rainfall.

At the same time, expanding human population (now at 7.7 billion and projected to reach 9.8 billion by mid-century) drives a growing demand for food. Since 1970, food crop production has increased by 300% and half of all agriculture expansion has come at the expense of forests.

Producing food, water, and other essentials requires energy. Over the 200 years that human population underwent a seven-fold increase from one to seven billion, energy consumption grew by a factor of 25 and real gross world product increased 100-fold. In other words, our population not only exploded, manufacturing and lifestyle upgrades that draw on Earth resources grew even faster. All this while Earth hasn’t grown at all.

Accelerating withdrawals from a zero sum system has only one ending: collapse.

The continued burning of fossil fuels spells doom for planet Earth. Flickr: Martin Snicer

The 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, signed by every nation, was designed to stop warming at 2 degrees Celsius. A target of 1.5 degrees Celsius was included in recognition that the higher target likely condemned the sovereign atoll nations to extinction, and denied many underdeveloped communities a chance at a sustainable future.

Today, less than 1% of world population is aligned with Paris targets, which themselves only bring us one-third of the way toward their goal. In fact, at the present rate carbon dioxide is released to the atmosphere, in only eight years 1.5 degrees Celsius will become an impossible dream.

Wait — because of committed warming, the Paris targets are already an impossible dream.

When you turn on your car, there is a lag of decades before the heat-trapping pollution coming out of your tail pipe can be detected as a change in air temperature. This, and the fact that as we convert to non-carbon power sources the air becomes cleaner and allows more sunlight to warm Earthʻs surface, are part of a phenomenon called “committed warming.”

Through past emissions, committed warming equals about 1.3 degrees Celsius this century. Add that to the 1 degree Celsius of observed warming, and it becomes clear that the Paris Agreement has always been a lie.

In fact, recently the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported pathways to stopping warming at 1.5 degrees Celsius begin in the year 2020, and require global decrease in carbon dioxide emissions equalling 50% per decade, each decade, until we reach net zero emissions by 2050 — and then pull carbon dioxide out of the air for the next century or more (known as “negative emissions”).

But in recent years carbon dioxide emissions have increased, not decreased: 1.7% in 2017, 2.8% in 2018, and the jury is still out for 2019. In 2018, the biggest factors pushing emissions down were energy efficiency and renewables, but they would have to be about three times larger to overcome economic growth.

The hard truth is, demand for new energy from developing nations is outpacing the deployment of renewable energy. To make up the deficit, India, China, African and Latin American nations are turning to traditional fossil fuels. Because of this, and growing air travel and trucking, global energy experts forecast increasing carbon dioxide emissions over the next two to three decades.

Without ambitious climate policies — global energy consumption will grow 20% to 30% or more through 2040 and beyond, led largely by fossil fuels. Renewable energy grows rapidly, though it primarily adds to, rather than displaces dirty energy forms.

And if you were wondering about our ability to take carbon out of the air, last year 23 commercial-scale carbon capture and storage projects were in operation or under construction around the world. They captured 40 million metric tons of CO2 annually — only 1/1000th of annual emissions.

A Planet In Near-Ruin

Scientists have made a point of telling the world that carbon emissions cause global warming since the 19th century. Every president since John F. Kennedy was warned about climate change. However, largely because of a campaign by the worlds major oil companies to mislead the public, much like the tobacco companies and their deadly product, we now burn two-thirds more fossil fuels than 30 years ago.

Half of all fossil fuels burned in human history have been burned since 1990. And over that time fossil fuels have increased four fold more than renewable forms of energy. That is, the amount of clean energy that needs to be added each year grows larger and larger.

“Demand for new energy from developing nations is outpacing the deployment of renewable energy.”

You can draw your own conclusions about our future. But I have come to believe that humanity has entered a period of extraordinary transformation. The majority of our population has abandoned indigenous ways of knowing and seeing the world and has instead experimented with separating ourselves from nature.

The result, as our milestones in the first paragraph remind us, is a planet in near-ruin and a human community in strife with itself.

Drought and heat in continental interiors has proven its capacity to disrupt food and water systems. On our current trajectory, the combination of humidity and heat in large areas of tropical land lead to heat-related disease and render them unlivable.

As displaced communities seek new homes, rising authoritarian systems of government close their borders. Conflict results, and global, regional, and local security are at stake.

At some future point the level of suffering will eventually wane, and we will once again see ourselves as stewards of Earth, not separate from, but embedded within the natural systems that make and renew clean water, fertile soil, and a gentle climate.

Editor’s note: Climate Week NYC runs Sept. 23-29, in coordination with the United Nations and the city of New York. This is the first of two related Community Voices from Chip Fletcher.

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