17 min read

The Future is Made of Climate Catastrophe

The Future is Made of Climate Catastrophe
Jancis Robinson

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. We give you the freshest, deepest, no-holds-barred insight about the biggest issues—the ones that matter most.

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Today's Read: 17 Minutes.

What climate change is going to do to our future. In today's Long Read, we break down the latest thinking and research, summarizing the latest findings, and discuss what the evolving picture of what we're really facing in the 21st century. Hint: dire is an understatement.

 1. Extreme heat is forcing America’s farmers to go nocturnal. (WaPo)
 2. Elon Musk has crossed a line. (NYT)
 3. Trump tells supporters how extreme his second term would be. (CNN)
 4. Your data's training AI. There’s little you can do about it. (WaPo)
 5. Settling the climate debt. (IMF)

Today's Issue. Climate. Civilization. Breakdown. Our Future.

You might not know it, but our civilization just had an historic moment. The first "global stocktake." Of what? To see how we're doing, collectively, when it comes to what's perhaps our greatest challenge—climate change. It's a mammoth, historic task, synthesizing  thousands of documents, huge amounts of data, so big it's meant to happen only once every five years. And it's conclusions are—to say the least—dire.

Here's how the FT puts it.

The world is way off track to tackle climate change and remains headed for a temperature rise of up to 2.6C and must take urgent action, the first comprehensive UN stocktake of global efforts to limit warming concludes.


In other words, we're making little to no progress. That's part of a larger set of megatrends—stagnation, the reversal of a centuries-long upwards trajectory. The first global stocktake says: we're not doing well. But the thing is: we're only just finding out what "bad" really is. Take a deep breath, or have a stiff drink, because by the end of this Issue, you might well never be the same.

How dire is hitting 2.6 degrees? We're going to dive deep into it, where we're headed, and what it all means. But for starters—according to cutting edge research that just came out: it's this dire.

"Risk of mass deaths as heatwaves start to pass survivability threshold"

As the world warms beyond 1.5°C, large parts of the world will start to have heatwaves so extreme that healthy young people could die within several hours if they fail to find respite, a study has warned. This could result in mass deaths in places where people and buildings aren’t adapted to extreme heat and air conditioning is rare, says Carter Powis at the University of Oxford.

New Scientist

Scientists  are now beginning to warn of mass wet-bulb events affecting "large parts of the world." You see, the edge of research is evolving fast. We recently discussed a new study that was the first to understand wet-bulb temperature experimentally—not just theoretically. They tested extreme heat in the lab, and found that the actual limit of human survivability is lower—much lower—than was previously theorized in ideal cases. How much so? 5-10°C lower, a tremendous difference. Put a rapidly warming world together with new findings like this, and that's what's leading to dire warnings like at and above 2°C or so, we run the "risk of mass deaths" in "large parts of the world" as the "survivability threshold" is crossed.

So now imagine 2.6°C.

You see, right about now, we have a failure of collective imagination—an imagination breakdown, if you like. It's hard for us to even conceptualize, grasp, grapple with the sheer change of the age we're now entering. The scale and scope of it. How do you really think of even a...single...mass wet-bulb event? Most of us don't. So let's try, together, to picture a world at the level of warming we're currently headed for.

The global mean temperature in 2022 was about 1.2°C. This summer, we hit about 1.5°C at times—and so let's say that we hit about 1.3°C, as an average. 2.6°C is twice that. So now think of the events of this summer—it was the season where the world was startled and shocked. Because the mega-scale impacts of climate change seemed to suddenly arrive with a vengeance, for many. Megafires burned across Canada, from coast-to-coast. Four great heat domes stretched around the globe. Floods ravaged regions from China to Europe to America and beyond. Droughts and crop failures spread. The air quality in many places plummeted, suddenly, dramatically. My friends would say you could smell Canada burning from Manhattan and Washington, DC. It was so off-the-charts extreme, in fact that...

"Half the World’s Population Faced Extreme Heat for at Least 30 Days This Summer"

A new analysis by the nonprofit organization Climate Central finds that more than 3.8 billion people were exposed to extreme heat that was worsened by human-caused climate change from June through August, and at least 1.5 billion experienced such heat every day of that period.

Scientific American

So what does twice as much as warming as...this summer...mean? You could begin, at a bare minimum, to imagine it in a linear way—and that's not correct, but it's a way to start, at least. Twice as many floods, fires, heat domes. Twice as many days of extreme, searing heat. Twice as many droughts, crop failures, ruined harvests. Double the number, frequency, and intensity of all these calamities which seemed to strike our civilization all at once. Mega-scale impacts, only twice as large, twice as often, and twice as long. So now, a city like Phoenix doesn't just have a month of heat over 110 degrees—it has two, maybe a whole summer. But like I said, even that's not correct.

“Our planet has just endured a season of simmering – the hottest summer on record. Climate breakdown has begun. Scientists have long warned what our fossil fuel addiction will unleash. Our climate is imploding faster than we can cope with, with extreme weather events hitting every corner of the planet.”

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, September 2023

Why is the UN's Secretary-General speaking in such vividly apocalyptic terms? The mega-scale impacts of climate change aren't linear. They're nonlinear. A curve, not a line. Twice as much heat doesn't mean twice as much effect, calamity, catastrophe. It means more than twice as much. Perhaps much, much more.

You see, "we're currently heading for 2.6°C" is a problem of Existential Scale. Why? Because around that point, we run the severe risk of tipping points being hit. We should all know what climate tipping points are by now. Here's a brief summary, from perhaps the most authoritative recent paper on the subject.

"Exceeding 1.5°C global warming could trigger multiple climate tipping points"

Climate tipping points (CTPs) have emerged as a growing research topic and source of public concern (13). Tipping points are defined as “a critical threshold at which a tiny perturbation can qualitatively alter the state or development of a system” (1). Several large-scale Earth system components, termed tipping elements, were identified with evidence for tipping points that could be triggered by human activities this century. The initial shortlist constituted Arctic summer sea ice, the Greenland ice sheet, the West Antarctic ice sheet, Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, the El Niño Southern Oscillation, the Indian Summer monsoon, the Sahara/Sahel and West African Monsoon, the Amazon rainforest, and boreal forest.

McKay et al, Science, 2022

2.6°C is an average. A global one. It means that parts of the world will experience more—perhaps much more. Remember, our global average last year was 1.2°C—but Europe's warmed dramatically more than that, to about 2°C. The poles are worse—the Arctic's warmed by an astonishing 3.5C.

What tipping points mean is that in places an average level of warming of 2.6°C leads to even more sudden, rapid warming, above 3°C. And that's a grave danger zone to hit. Why? How much so? The list above, which comes from the most authoritative recent research, points to nine great tipping points—and at 2.6°C? Guess how many are hit. Not just one, three, or even five. All of them.

Current global warming of ~1.1°C above pre-industrial already lies within the lower end of five CTP uncertainty ranges. Six CTPs become likely (with a further four possible) within the Paris Agreement range of 1.5 to <2°C warming, including collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets, die-off of low-latitude coral reefs, and widespread abrupt permafrost thaw. An additional CTP becomes likely and another three possible at the ~2.6°C of warming expected under current policies.

McKay et al, Science, 2022

One of the things we lack today is literacy about these basic facts, but when you really understand them? They're shocking, alarming, and profound. Here's the point of all the above, when you connect the dots.

We're currently on course to hit all the climate tipping points that we know of. Except one, Antarctica's ice sheets, which is the last, most out-of-balance one, without which there'd be essentially no ice left on the planet.

All of them. Except the most extreme one of all, that'd take us to "no ice left, even in Antarctica." Think about that for a second. Startling, isn't it?

Let's put that in more formal terms. What we have here is a dynamic system, with "multiple equilibria." That means that the system settles into a certain number of states. But in between them, it doesn't settle—it races towards balance, or equilbrium, only at certain points. The risk we're running is that 2.6°C isn't an equilibirum at all. The climate can't settle at that point. Tipping points kick in, which send warming much, much higher—3, 3.5 4°C. We don't know where that destabilization ends. And when we hit that threshold, there's no real way to stop that sudden acceleration upwards.

Think about Canada again for a moment. Coast-to-coast megafires, burning all summer. We don't know how to put them out. We haven't the scarcest idea, really, how to handle, manage, or halt calamity on such a scale. This is the first hint of a tipping point being hit visible before our bewildered eyes: boreal forests burn en masse, which are great carbon sinks, of course, because trees store and take in carbon—and as they burn, they release carbon, and when they're gone, the carbon sink they once were is, too. Bang—now the climate has to be much hotter. We're not quite there yet, but it's a virtual certainty that we will be at 2.6°C—that tipping points like that will have been triggered, which will send the climate racing towards an even hotter equilbrium.

So when you really understand what it means, the implications, the message, the stocktake is seriously alarming. It says we're at an historic juncture—the greatest in history. Because it's conclusion, for knowledgeable people, isn't just "the world's going to get warmer shrug, I suppose we can deal with it." It's that we're now in a place of Civilizational Risk we've never really faced before in our journey as a human species—we're headed for a magnitude of warming where all the climate tipping points we know of are likely to be hit, which takes us into a way, way hotter future than even that.

So how catastrophic is that future? Imagining the world at 2.6°C isn't a fruitless exercise—but it needs to expanded and enlarged again, to really be understood. If, as all the science and research we have currently suggests, that isn't a stable equilibrium, but just a threshold towards an even hotter one, then we need to imagine again, and this time, try and picture the world at 3°C, 4°C. What does that world look like? Let's go back to what we discussed previously: scientists are already warning of mass wet-bulb deaths beginning at 2°C. How far and widespread would those be?

"Parts of the world have already grown too hot for human survival"

Under current climate change conditions, 8 percent of the globe by land area experiences conditions that are in the danger zone once every decade. At 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) of warming, a climate change benchmark the world is currently on track to exceed, more than a quarter of the world will experience these conditions at least once a decade.


So what the latest research is beginning to tell us is that at 2°C, something like 25% of the world becomes uninhabitable. That's an upper boundary, but imagine living in a place where, every year, over and over again, you had a 10% chance of dying in a mass wet-bulb event: that's what "once every decade means." Would you take that risk? Unless you absolutely had to? Most people wouldn't. Of course, the wretched and impoverished of the globe will have to accept that risk—but make no mistake, that's not "habitability," that's a death sentence. That people born in the wrong place or without resources will have to try and subsist in danger zones they can't really live in over the long-term is precisely what "uninhabitable" means—a better definition, in fact, than sci-fi dystopias where everything's poisoned and the slightest touch kills you.

A quarter of the world begins to become uninhabitable at 2°C. But maybe even that makes you shrug. So what about 4°C? Shudder. Something like 50% of the world begins to become uninhabitable, and that's if you simply just extend the trend in a linear way. Is that...even...possible?  It seems surreal, but remember, what we know about climate impacts is that they're not linear—twice as much warming yields more than twice as much effect. Even the straight-line linear version of this thinking is startlingly catastrophic. At 4°C it begins to appear that up to half the planet could become uninhabitable—but overquantifying this scale of effect to create nightmares isn't the point. At such scales, it almost doesn't matter anymore what the precise, exact number is, 33.467%, 41.83%, 52.1%—the question becomes: can a civilization survive that? Where's the threshold of its survivability?

Because of course you can't do anything in those zones. Not just "live," which is how most think of it, but produce, trade, work, consume, subsist, organize, endeavour. So how does a civilization survive up to a quarter, a third, half its planet becoming uninhabitable...politically, socially, economically? How many factories go offline? Where and what do we farm? What about water tables? How about simply just transporting stuff from place to place? Who controls what's left? And where do all those people go—at least those who make it? So it's not just about "survivability" of the people living in those future zones of uninhabitability, as in, a remote moral question—the stakes affect us all, in profound, direct ways, though we haven't begun thinking it about that way yet.

You might think this is all exaggeration or hyperbole. Is it? There's going to be a certain kind of person who'll dismiss it, think of it as incredible, or fantastical, some kind of movie script. I get it. It sounds surreal and bewildering even to me. But this is where we are. We now have to think in these unfamiliar, startling terms, at these immense, history-altering scales, to make sense of our plight. Numbers like "25% of the planet becomes uninhabitable" and "100% of tipping points are hit" are now becoming real, before our very eyes, and I'll be the first to agree that it's hard to believe it's real. But it is—and yet it's not just difficult to grasp, it's hard to stomach because it's different. To even think at a scale like this challenges the 20th century mind, because, of course, we've never really had to before. History and futurity used to be things like GDP or population or democracy or lifespans growing or falling at half a percent, gently, slowly, not sudden, tremendous, permanent discontinuities. Not easy to grapple with, and all too easy to go into sulking, or even angry, denial about.

So let's make it even more concrete, by just thinking of America. How much of the USA is habitable at that level of warming, 3°C, 4°C? Think, again, of this summer. And now imagine not just double the frequency, intensity, duration of extreme events—but three, three and a half, four times as much. Heat domes that last three, four times as long, and are three, four times as frequent and big—the ones which are already giving people lethal burns just from falling on surfaces. Three times as many megafires, floods, hurricanes. Droughts which last three times as long. Air quality plunging into unbreathable for three, four times as many days. Certainly, it's not to hard to see how questionable that makes the habitability of places like Arizona, parts of California, Florida, the Midwest. So even through this kind of cursory examination, I think you can begin to see how real the problem is. Phoenix doesn't have a month at the verge of the wet-bulb limit: now the whole summer's at that edge, and on many days, past it. Survivable? Habitable?

"Exposure to noncompensable heat under continued global warming"

The increase in the geographic range of noncompensable heat events described above could cause a discontinuity in the historical relationship between heat and mortality for large parts of the world in the near term. There is a real risk of hundreds of millions of people being exposed to noncompensable heat as part of an extreme event.

Powis et al, Science Advances, 2023

Now, when we think like this, use our imaginations, but in a rigorous way, it's not meant to be taken exactly to-the-letter literally—and this is what causes foolish squabbles—but it's not a metaphor, either. We're thinking in terms of risk. That means we're making order of magnitude best estimates of probability. What scale, level, intensity, duration, frequency, extremity of events are we facing? We can't be precise, until after the fact. But what we can say beforehand is that it's going to be more than double—up to three, maybe four times the old order, normal, status quo.  And when you join up those dots, you begin to see that colossal, civilizational level questions, like "how much of the planet is going to be habitable" are before us now.

All the latest research points to effects of a magnitude unprecedented in modern history, even all of human history. As we discussed, the sober, serious Institute of Actuaries recently concluded half of our economies could be destroyed by 2070. And that tallies all too neatly with the above—up to half the planet becoming uninhabitable. Another recent cutting edge estimate we discussed by scientists concluded up to a billion people could die. How much mass death awaits in all those wet-bulb events, anyways? See how neatly, again, that begins to tally? All the latest cutting edge thinking, research, analysis is trying to tell us something. We appear to be seriously, severely, gravely underestimating the costs, risks, price to be paid in the age we're entering now, in every dimensions—economically, socially, politically, right down to life itself.  

The stocktake's crucial for that reason. The UN's understating the message, for many reasons. It's a diplomatic organization, and so it has to be...diplomatic. Polite, careful, measured. It doesn't want to create panic, and that doesn't mean that you should head for the hills screaming, but it does mean that...we should all be literate with the facts, ideas, thinking above. It's trying to join up efforts to stop the above from happening—even if, so far, they're not working as well as we'd want them to.

And that's the point, really. The way that leaders, diplomats, heads of organizations and states have been taught to think about climate change goes like this. We  were successful, in the early days of fighting climate change, at reducing expected levels of warming from really severe levels, 4°C and above, down to maybe 1.5 or 2°C—a tolerable, "acceptable" level, a compromise between past, present, and future. We solved most of the problem, in other words. This mindset's trickled down to the average person, through pundits, bad journalism, poorly-thought-through opinions. And so today, we're in this bewildering position, where the average person's told there's not that much of a problem—and yet all around us, the world seems to be on fire.

That old conclusion's badly mistaken. Now we're beginning to understand that it's more or less flat out wrong. We didn't solve the problem of limiting warming to some kind of acceptable, tolerable level at all—not even close. We're headed for 2.6°C, but chances are 2.6°C doesn't mean 2.6°C—it means 3°C, 4°C, because the more we learn, the more we understand it's probably not a stable equilibrium. But at those severe levels of warming, we face the greatest catastrophe in human history. All of it. Huge swathes of the planet become uninhabitable, Fire Belts, Flood Belts, Drought and Famine Zones, where if the heat doesn't kill you, the mega-weather will. Meanwhile, our economies fail in spectacular ways, unable to provide the basics, food, water, air, and all that's made from them, which is everything, at civilizational scale anymore. See how basic forms of finance like insurance are already becoming unobtainable in places? How crop failures are spreading? As a result, our societies come undone, and our polities fracture, into chaos, demagoguery, authoritarianism, rage, and despair—a process that's already beginning to happen.

And that brings me full circle. How should we think about climate change? How bad is it going to get? What kind of future do we face? Right now, there's a haze of confusion surrounding it. Everyone's got an opinion, and many are groundless. And so the same process of cognitive breakdown as a norm is happening for it as does now for so many other issues. Pessimists and optimists call each other names, while trolls, fools, deniers and minimizers, revelling at this circular firing squad, rub hands in glee and gloat. In the end, our we're all worse off this way. We should all be literate with the facts—and the conclusions they point, to too. I'd put them this way—the Big Message everyone should know.

Right now? We're headed for 2.6°C of warming, which is enough to likely to trigger all but one of the tipping points we know of...and that takes us to yet another, even higher level of warming.

Along this road, we face surreal, unimaginable levels of catastrophe, like up to 25-50% of the planet becoming uninhabitable, and half our economies getting destroyed.

How dire is that? Judge for yourself. I'd sum it up this way. As things stand, the future is climate catastrophe, writ large, on a civilizational scale, an age we're only just entering, and have had just the smallest taste of yt.

This isn't a joke, it isn't a drill, and it isn't some kind of sci-fi novel. This is where we are. The status quo of our civilization. The stocktake can't say what it needs to say most, because that'd be against the rules of diplomatic politesse. What we're doing isn't working. The way the stocktake puts it is this: "the window's rapidly closing." It is—but it doesn't spell out how, finely enough. What that means is that everything around us now needs the fastest and deepest set of transformations in human history. Not just energy—think of something like the larger economy. We still don't have a global carbon tax. We don't have any shared global vision for how to make any of our basics, from plastics to agriculture to steel to even intangibles like data in a non-catastrophic way, let alone a hundred Manhattan Projects for doing it all. We haven't lined up the financing and built great global institutions to spearhead these Existential Challenges.

The First Global Stocktake

Key finding 4

Global emissions are not in line with modelled global mitigation pathways consistent with the temperature goal of the Paris Agreement, and there is a rapidly narrowing window to raise ambition and implement existing commitments in order to limit warming to 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

—UNFCCC, September 2023

Now, hopefully you understand what the dry sentence above really means. Catastrophe on a scale that shakes the human journey. That'll etch scars onto history forevermore, and write a coda into the human soul for the planet it doesn't have anymore, and never will again.

We have about a decade left to accomplish a level of transformation never before accomplished by any civilization in all of human history. Otherwise? Well, that's why I asked you to imagine. Because if we don't, we're all but certain to  end up on the escalator to hell sketched out above. We hit a level of warming which takes us to an even higher one, and then, at that point? Modern civilization as we know it can't exist in many places, and as that number of places grows, institutions and systems break and buckle and collapse like twigs. We can't stop a megafire yet—go ahead and tell me how we protect a hundred million people, two, five from heat that can kill them in hours. An economy. A society. A democracy.  

Which of our Megatrends should we file this under? Civilizational Risk. The Age of Extinction. The Age of Scarcity. All of them. Our civilization's a fork in the road.

We're not there yet, don't misunderstand me. The point is that we're on that path. We're not on the path, even remotely, where we can breathe a sigh of relief and say "catastrophe averted." We're headed straight for the biggest iceberg in human history—and so far, our efforts to turn the ship around aren't working. They've changed course a degree or two, but the iceberg's bigger than that, and we're still hurtling directly towards it.

That's why we made this an Issue.

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