The Climate Emergency

EDITORIAL, 5 Dec 2022

#774 | John Scales Avery, Ph.D. – TRANSCEND Media Service

Two Time Scales

Immediate and drastic action is needed to prevent irreversible climate change. However, the worst effects of climate change lie in the distant future, perhaps as much as a thousand years from today. It is part of our human nature to see what is near to us. We accept the comfort and convenience provided by fossil fuels. It is therefore difficult to mobilize the political will needed for drastic and immediate action.

Some of Antonio Guterres’ Remarks at COP27

Here are a few extracts from the Secretary General’s speech:

“Dear friends, in just days, our planet’s population will cross a new threshold. The 8 billionth member of our human family will be born. This milestone puts into perspective what this climate conference is all about. How will we answer when “Baby 8 Billion” is old enough to ask: What did you do for our world – and for our planet — when you had the chance?

“Excellencies, This UN Climate Conference is a reminder that the answer is in our hands. And the clock is ticking. We are in the fight of our lives. And we are losing.

“Greenhouse gas emissions keep growing. Global temperatures keep rising. And our planet is fast approaching tipping points that will make climate chaos irreversible. We are on a highway to climate hell with our foot still on the accelerator.

“The war in Ukraine and other conflicts have caused so much bloodshed and violence and have had dramatic impacts all over the world. But we cannot accept that our attention is not focused on climate change. We must of course work together to support peace efforts and end the tremendous suffering.

“But climate change is on a different timeline, and a different scale. It is the defining issue of our age.”

Warnings from the Poles

Recently diagonal cracks have been observed in Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, and scientists fear that the glacier could shatter into many pieces, like the windscreen of an automobile.

Here are some quotations from a January 1, 2022 article by Ella Gilbert, of the University of Reading:

“The massive Thwaites glacier in West Antarctica contains enough ice to raise global sea levels by 65cm if it were to completely collapse. And, worryingly, recent research suggests that its long-term stability is doubtful as the glacier hemorrhages more and more ice.

“Adding 65cm to global sea levels would be coastline-changing amounts. For context, there’s been around 20cm of sea-level rise since 1900, an amount that is already forcing coastal communities out of their homes and exacerbating environmental problems such as flooding, saltwater contamination and habitat loss.

“But the worry is that Thwaites, sometimes called the ‘doomsday glacier’ because of its keystone role in the region, might not be the only glacier to go. Were it to empty into the ocean, it could trigger a regional chain reaction and drag other nearby glaciers in with it, which would mean several meters of sea-level rise. That’s because the glaciers in West Antarctica are thought to be vulnerable to a mechanism called Marine Ice Cliff Instability or MICI, where retreating ice exposes increasingly tall, unstable ice cliffs that collapse into the ocean.

“A sea level rise of several meters would inundate many of the world’s major cities – including Shanghai, New York, Miami, Tokyo, and Mumbai. It would also cover huge swathes of land in coastal regions and largely swallow up low-lying island nations like Kiribati, Tuvalu, and the Maldives.”

The Arctic is heating more than twice as fast as the remainder of the world. The World Meteorological Organization has confirmed a new high temperature Arctic record: 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit [38º Celsius], recorded in the Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, 70 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. The reading, taken on June 20, 2020, has now been officially confirmed by the WMO. A spokesman commented that “the temperature is more befitting for the Mediterranean than the Arctic”.

Recent Climate-Related Disasters

One must almost be grateful for recent climate-related disasters. Perhaps they will wake us up and make us act with the force needed to match our climate emergency.

Pakistan, the world’s fifth most populous country, was already suffering from IMF-imposed austerity rules when it was hit by climate-related floods, which peaked between June and August, 2022. Water from melting glaciers in the Himalayas combined with unusually heavy rains to flood large portions of the country, destroying crops, contaminating water sources, destroying homes, displacing many millions, and raising the danger of disease and starvation for tens of millions of people. The response of the international community has been wholly inadequate to deal with Pakistan’s urgent humanitarian crisis.

Rising sea levels and floods in Bangladesh are affecting millions of people in low-lying regions of the country, destroying homes, displacing people, and reducing food production. According to the International Federation of the Red Cross, as many as 7.2 million people have been affected by the floods. Concern is mounting over the much worse floods that the future may bring.

The British Red Cross has stated very recently that nearly 146 million are affected by serious hunger in Africa alone. The agency added that hunger is responsible for 45% of child deaths in Africa.

Outside of Africa, this report mentions three countries of South Asia (Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka) as well as two countries of West Asia (Syria and Yemen). In addition this report lists some countries of South and Central America including Haiti, Honduras and Guatemala.

According to a study, the number of poor people living in extreme heat conditions in urban areas will jump by 700 percent by 2050, particularly in West Africa and Southeast Asia.

“Projected future death rates from extreme heat are staggeringly high – comparable in magnitude by the end of the century to all cancers or all infectious diseases – and staggeringly unequal,” the report said.

A new study by World Weather Attribution found that the summer droughts of 2022, which affected parts of the U.S., Europe, and China, were made 20 times more likely by climate change.

Across the Northern Hemisphere, extreme heat and low rainfall led to several unprecedented events: China issued its first-ever a national drought alert; the United Kingdom recorded its highest-ever temperature; Europe experienced its hottest summer; and the water crisis in the US West intensified, prompting new water usage cuts.

What Will Happen if We Fail?

Let me give you my own opinions on this question. I think that, if catastrophic climate change is not avoided, very many species of plants and animals will become extinct. In fact, this mass extinction has already started. We are already losing species at roughly 1,000 times the natural background rate.

Will humans become extinct? Of course, we know from the geological record that every species eventually becomes extinct, but if we look only a few thousand years into the future, I do not think that humans face extinction.

What I believe will happen (if catastrophic climate change is not avoided) is the following:

Most of the earth’s surface will become uninhabitable, starting with tropical regions and regions that are destined to be underwater due to sea-level rise. This will lead to a massive refugee crisis, which, like the extinction of animals and plants, has already started.

Although most of the earth’s surface will be uninhabitable, there will still be a few regions where human life is possible, for example, the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and high mountain ranges. However, these regions will be small in comparison to our present habitable world, and the global population of humans will be correspondingly reduced. I think that this process will be accompanied by much conflict.

Perhaps this worst-case scenario can motivate us to act with far-sighted vision and resolution, while there is still a small window of opportunity.


John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website:

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 5 Dec 2022.

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