16 min read

The Exocaust. A Billion People Could Die From Climate Change.

The Exocaust. A Billion People Could Die From Climate Change.

I’m Umair Haque, and this is The Issue: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported publication. Our job is to 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: 16 Minutes.

New research. The unimaginable price of climate change. A billion lives lost. In today's Issue, we discuss how what the mass mortality from climate change means economically, socially, politically, and philosophically. Hint: think the greatest event in human history.

 1. Countries are starting to give animals legal rights. (WaPo)
 2. How billionaire techno-oligarchs are creating an autocratic reality. (VF)
 3. The summit of the future: a pact for people and planet. (ProSyn)
 4. Why do we work nine to five? The history of the work day (CNN)
 5. What’s driving an increasing number of hurricanes to rapidly intensify? (SN)

Today's Issue. Climate Change. Mass Mortality. The Unthinkable.

Let's not mince words. It's been an apocalyptic summer. Climate change is finally entering public consciousness—because it's mega-scale impacts arrived, with a vengeance, around the globe. From Canada's coast-to-coast megafires, to the town of Lahaina incinerated and levelled, to floods, hurricanes, and great heat domes, stretching around the breadth of the planet.

Where are we heading? Recently, we discussed new research that shows half of our economies could be destroyed in the next few decades. 50% of GDP—gone. That comes from a source that's as sober and serious as it gets—The Institute of Actuaries. As we peer into the future—what else happens? How about...the human toll?

Consider what startling new research concludes.

"Scientists Warn 1 Billion People on Track to Die From Climate Change"

A recent review of 180 articles on the human death rate of climate change has settled on a deeply distressing number. Over the next century or so, conservative estimates suggest a billion people could die from climate catastrophes, possibly more.

Science Alert

Give yourself a second to really take that in. That's an astronomical number. How big is it? That's a tenth of the human species, by the time climate change hits its peak. But even that's a poor way to try to grasp such a colossal number, which is hard to grapple with at all. If a family's four people, that means one in every three families on planet earth, roughly, will lose someone to climate change. Of course, those impacts won't be evenly distributed: some families will perish entirely, while others will be lucky enough not to. A starting point is just to initially try and get an intuitive feel for what such a number means.

How did the researchers get to this startling number? I want to highlight how clear and rigorous, yet intuitive and accessible, this study really is. It proceeds with a very simple line of logic and reasoning.

"Quantifying Global Greenhouse Gas Emissions in Human Death"

This is the first review to analyze the substantial body of literature that enables approximate quantitative estimation of the human cost of carbon emissions, measured in lost human lives

Several studies are consistent with the “1000-ton rule,” according to which a future person is killed every time 1000 tons of fossil carbon are burned (order-of-magnitude estimate). If warming reaches or exceeds 2° C this century mainly richer humans will be responsible for killing roughly 1 billion mainly poorer humans through anthropogenic global warming.

Pearce & Parncutt, in Energies

See how clear that is? A thousand tons of CO2 equals one future death. As one of the scientists points out, that's a "scientific consensus." That might not sound like a lot, but when you do the math, and add it all up, as the researchers did, at 2° C, that's...a billion lost lives.

This is crucial research. In the same way that the Institute of Actuaries gave us what's probably the first authoritative, realistic estimate of how much the economic damages could be, this research is among the first to really take seriously the question of what the human cost will be. And we'll come back to that. First, let me continue discussing the study a little bit.

"The 1000-ton rule says that a future person is killed every time humanity burns 1000 tons of fossil carbon.

It is derived from a simple calculation: burning a trillion tons of fossil carbon will cause 2 °C of anthropogenic global warming, which in turn will cause roughly a billion future premature deaths spread over a period of very roughly one century."

So how are these deaths to occur? Think of what's already happened this summer. Numerous regions around the globe saw relentless heat, from the American West to Southern Europe to parts of Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. Cross that line, and you're already toying with the lives of billions. Then there's mega-weather, of course—we still don't know the death toll from Lahaina, for example. Add to that more indirect, yet still very real, causes of mortality, from crop failures, famines, droughts, the disease and poverty which all those cause, and the conflicts they result in.

So what is this, exactly? It's not a prediction—as in, this is the number. It's a "an order of magnitude best estimate." That means that, as in many times in science, we're trying to establish a range. That range? "Somewhere between 0.1 to 10 deaths per 1000 tons of carbon burned."  Remember, the number above is 1 death per 1000 tons of carbon burned. The range, though, is both lower, but also higher—up to ten deaths per ton of carbon burned. Why?

"Technically, the 1000-ton rule does not take into account possible climate feedback loops, which could make future environmental fallout from carbon emissions even worse, even faster."

That means the scientists were being—as they say—conservative. "That leaves a lot of room for scenarios even more dire than the one outlined here. "When climate scientists run their models and then report on them, everybody leans toward being conservative, because no one wants to sound like Doctor Doom. We've done that here too and it still doesn't look good."

We know how this could begin to happen. As we discussed recently, the survivability threshold of wet bulb temperature's recently been tested in the lab for the first time. And it's been revealed to be five to ten degrees lower in reality than in theory. Those new results mean parts of the world are already hitting the limits of survivability, now—at barely 1.3 degrees of warming. So what about at the 2.6 degrees we're headed for? Then we begin to think of sudden mass mortality events, around the world, every summer, getting more and more severe.

"Deadly humid heatwaves to spread rapidly as climate warms"

Life-threatening periods of high heat and humidity will spread rapidly across the world with only a small increase in global temperatures, a study has found, which could cause a sharp acceleration in the number of deaths resulting from the climate crisis.

The extremes, which can be fatal to healthy people within six hours, could affect hundreds of millions of people unused to such conditions. As a result, heat deaths could rise quickly unless serious efforts to prepare populations were undertaken urgently, the researcher said.

Dr Colin Raymond, at the University of California, Los Angeles, said: “Many areas are only slightly below the non-compensable heat level now, so as the planet continues to warm, the total increase in exposure will be exponential."


Pause for a second to really take all that in. This is the kind of research that immediately provokes a reaction. There's a strange thing that happens when people read information like this. The Dunning-Kruger effect kicks in. People who aren't experts, let alone climate scientists, immediately feel threatened, want to pick a bone, prove they're smarter. The kind of person who'll immediately want to quibble,  who'll instanteously say: "that's impossible! It can't happen here!" Let me caution you against that. This is one reason we're surrounded by so much folly. Instead, read the paper yourself. Learn. Because...this is serious, thoughtful, careful, cutting-edge research. It combines climate science, economics, and philosophy—it's a new synthesis of how to think about the human costs of climate change. It deserves to be taken seriously.  

Now let's discuss what this all means. How does this research make you feel? What's  the message, the implication, the meaning? You might initially be a little lost for words, maybe even  reeling a little. Let's start with some simple context.

A billion people lost is the single greatest event in the history of the human species. To put that in perspective, perhaps around 75 million people died during World War II. That's the total figure—soldiers, civilians, battlefield deaths, disease, famine, starvation. That was the single greatest calamity we've known as a species so far. Here we're talking about an event that's an order of magnitude greater than that. (It doesn't do, by the way, to think about this on a per capita basis—percentages. Every life lost here is a unique, singular tragedy.)

Sound implausible to you? Then by all means halve the number. That's still half a billion people. How do we get there? The same way you go bankrupt: slowly, and then all at once. The killing heat's a discontinuity: suddenly, our bodies don't function. Bang. The human mind doesn't handle sudden changes like that well, especially on mass scale. Too hard to imagine. Incomprehensible. But this is the reality of what we face: a threshold of killing heat arriving—and then, the unthinkable begins to happen.

The heatwaves in Europe killed over 60,000 people. Now imagine what happens when the wet-bulb threshold is crossed in the Indian Subcontinent, the American West, Southeast Asia. Or just consider this: "world's largest study of global climate related mortality links 5 million deaths a year to abnormal temperatures." If we're at 5 million people per year already, but the trendline of damages and impacts is accelerating...draw your own conclusions. The point isn't to convince you of a single number: it's that all of us should be literate with the magnitudes and scales at issue here.

Because of course most of us sadly aren't. Who knows that climate change is already causing 5 million deaths a year? Not a headline you read, really. But it should be. The absence of knowledge gives rise to a lack of...progress. Which is turning into a broader trend of regress. We speak of cities in the future being lost to climate change—but 5 million people is a major city. We're already losing that much, now. We just don't know it yet.

When we think about World War II, of course, we remember the Holocaust, especially—the systematic attempted annihilation of those the Nazis considered subhuman. Modern history's definitional genocide. Yet here we're speaking about a scale even larger than that. And when I say that, I'm not making a "comparison," and I don't intend to trivialize the Holocaust, but to honor it. Because of course its message was that annihilation is the gravest degradation, inhumanity, injustice. The Holocaust changed us—forever, as much as there are still those who want to us backwards into hate and horror. How so?

What happened after the Holocaust? The world began to change in a way it hadn't for centuries, perhaps millennia. Great, groundbreaking ideals rose—like an end to war, violence, hunger, disease, poverty. Great institutions were created to bring those ideals to life—the UN, the World Bank, the IMF. We don't recognize it enough anymore, but these were among humanity's greatest accomplishments—just agreeing on these ideals, and building institutions to enact them. And for decades, thereafter, we made progress. War and violence didn't cease, but they did recede. Deprivation fell. Extreme poverty plummeted. Our oldest and deadliest diseases, like polio and smallpox, were eradicated.

We don't think of it this way, but the Post-War era was a Great Reformation for humanity. We really did accomplish bringing these ideals—ending war, conflict, hunger, disease, poverty—to life, and of course, not in an absolute way, but in the sense that dramatic progress was made, and the world changed. Institutionally, economically, politically, socially. Capital flowed to nations whom were once just enslaved, Europe went from millennia of conflict to history's greatest union, social democracy rose in richer countries, and democracy itself marched forward across the globe.

Now the stakes are higher. The highest they've ever been, in 300,000 years of our history. We face a Capital-E Event greater than anything we've ever known, which will take place over decades, and is already arriving. Next to it, those old ideals haven't lost their luster—but they do need redefinition and reimagination and reinvention. An end to violence, conflict, poverty, war, disease, deprivation. When we brought these great ideals to life, what were we really saying, as a species? Enough, we cried out—as the great existentialists, in the ashes of war, Camus, Sartre, wrote. Existence is all we have. Existence itself is suffering. Our work here is to diminish suffering in and for every life we can. This is all there is. It is what nobility, truth, freedom, all are, where they converge, their purpose and meaning.

From "Existentialism is a Humanism"

"This is humanism, because we remind man that there is no legislator but himself; that he himself, thus abandoned, must decide for himself; also because we show that it is not by turning back upon himself, but always by seeking, beyond himself, an aim which is one of liberation or of some particular realisation, that man can realize himself as truly human."

Sartre, 1945

Everything else is senseless. Nauseating, as Sartre said. Absurd, as Camus put it. To do anything other than this—let each existence realize itself, and reduce harm, suffering, deprivation—is madness, idiocy, ruin, tragedy, stupidity. In the ashes of war, this idea gripped the world. Because the world had learned that the hard way, from the horror and violence of the Nazis, driven to annihilationism by demagoguery and fantasies of supremacy and Thousand-Year Reichs. Senseless.

So. On the one hand, we have these noble ideals—the Pillars of Modernity: ending, reducing, limiting suffering, in all its forms, from war to hunger to disease and so forth. These ideas gave shape to our world. But now we approach an Event in which these ideals, in their old forms, have almost no meaning. When we face an Event at the order of magnitude of a billion deaths—we're confronted with death, suffering, disease, conflict, violence, on an unimaginable scale. An unthinkable one, economically and socially.  An unspeakable one, morally. And so right now, the place we're in is becoming incomprehensible, to us, as a civilization.

But we are all going to have to think about this. Whether we like it or not. The more we study the future, it seems, the more dire conclusions get. Note how these two lines of cutting-edge research tally: the Institute of Actuaries concluding half our economies could be destroyed—and scientists arriving at a billion possible dead. Those are at the same orders of magnitude—together, they begin to paint a plausible, compelling portrait of the future, and reinforce one another too.

And so the question becomes: what are we willing to tolerate?  After all, what are the implications of a billion people...lost...to climate change? What does that say, about who we are, what we're capable of, what we accomplish? Morally, economically, politically, socially?

As the researchers point out, many of those people will be poorer. As those who've, for example, been scorched or burned to death just by falling onto superheated surfaces in places like Phoenix, were. That has dire implications for the global economy though, because of course, while in the rich West, we might dismiss all this, secure in our air-conditioned creature comforts, the truth is that's the very labour force which makes our cheap stuff.

A billion people lost to climate change  is an economic calamity, right in line with the Institute of Actuaries' conclusion that half our economies could be destroyed by it. It'd created profound labour shortages, of course, which would send the prices of everything skyrocketing—and that's on top of crop failures and water running out. It'd also create a classic Depression, which is caused by a fall in demand, that goes on to create a vicious circle of plummeting spending, investment, and rising unemployment. And of course it'd leave that much less over for the public purse—kiss social contracts goodbye.

It's indecent to speak of it in just those terms, though, because what we're confronted here with is a moral calamity, and political tragedy—history's largest. This is an Event so grave and so great that futurity will have to name it, in the same way that we refer to "the Holocaust." Do you know what "Holocaust" means, literally, its etymology?

Holocaust /ˈhɒləkɔːst/


Middle English: from Old French holocauste, via late Latin from Greek holokauston, from holos ‘whole’ + kaustos ‘burnt’ (from kaiein ‘burn’).

If "Holocaust" means "all is burned," or "burnt offerings," implying a sacrifice, what do we call something on this scale? In my mind, sometimes, I call this "The Exocaust," meaning "the outside is burned"—referring to the planet. Sometimes, I call it "The Chronocaust," the time of burning. I imagine you could also call it something like "The Geocaust." The absence is the point.

We don't have a word for this. We don't have vocabulary for it. Language. That tells us we don't even know how to think about it yet. Research like this provides the impetus and the spark. Next comes the work of really grasping the meaning of such an Event.

When language is missing, that implies...everything else, is, too. As a civilization we're still dependent on fossil fuels. But that means something deeper still: our institutions, systems, and mentalities are, too. We're missing every single kind of institution, norm, and even idea, that we really yet need to contend with, let alone prevent, tragedy, calamity, disaster, on this scale, at the species level, of a history-fracturing kind. Hence, it's becoming glaringly apparent that we're unprepared for the age we're entering now: The Age of Extinction.

When I say every institution and norm, consider what I really mean. Economically: we still don't have a carbon tax, amazingly enough, as a world economy. Politically: we heavily subsidize fossil fuels to this day, by probably around ten times the amount we invest in climate renewal. Legally: despite decades of trying, ecocide isn't yet a crime against humanity. Culturally: Barbie and Oppenheimer are the stories of this summer—not...a billion people lost to climate change. Socially: our social contracts barely function as it is—so what will they look like in the face of the greatetst challenge in all of human history? And that's the small picture.

Here's the big one. We are going to have to make a Great Transformation. Beyond modernity. Remember its pillars? Those old ideals: an end to war, hunger, disease, conflict, deprivation, this explosion in moral imagination, this great  reformation, sparked by the unthinkable horror of world war. It's not that those old ideals don't matter—it's that they've never mattered more, and yet they're now slipping out of our grasp. How do we realize them? As in literally make them real again, in an era where the future is Exocaust, where a single Capital-E Event of unimaginable suffering and sorrow threatens to unfold before our eyes?

Just as we recreated the world then, we will have to do it...again. Today's macro-scale institutions are trying—there's no doubt about that. The UN's Secretary General is perhaps the only world leader speaking about climate change in these terms—calling it a choice between collective suicide and collective action. We are going to need institutions capable of acting at a far bigger scale—faster. So far, we have none of those. Think of something as simple as a Global Climate Investment Bank—we have no systems whatsoever at this level, as a civilization. We are flying blind into a civilizational emergency—without a single system at the level we need to emerge from it, let alone prevent it.

Let me put that another way. If we don't act collectively—what's the alternative? To just...let it all unfold? Because two degrees, which is what this research is based on—appears more and more to be baked into the system. This summer, we're at the edge of what the old limit was supposed to be in various places. And that came as a shock to many—just how ruinous the impacts were, from flood to fire to spreading crop failure and so forth. We're cruising towards two degrees—and as we do, yesterday's anodyne, rosy predictions have suddenly been found to be badly wrong. The mega-scale impacts of climate change did arrive, ahead of schedule, we found out this summer. What makes us think, then, that the next level won't?

Because that's what we're really talking about here: the next level. This summer was a small taste of what a world at 1.5 degrees of warming looks like. The next decade or so, probably much faster, more and more places will begin to find out what that means—for example, Europe's warmed faster than average, and its fires, droughts, and crop failures give us the beginnings of a picture that awaits for all. The next level, though, is around two degrees of warming, or if you like, two "plus"—because after that, we don't know when tipping points are suddenly hit. That's the threshold where we will begin to really experience these calamitous scenarios and forecasts—mega-scale death, half our economies destroyed, effects of this magnitude, which, right now, are still unthinkable. Just as today's effects were unthinkable—orange skies over Manhattan, from coast-to-coast fires in Canada—a decade ago.

We have two choices. At this juncture in human history. Which is the most critical of all, so far. And only two. One, we wait for disaster to happen—and then, provoked to sorrow and near-madness by it, have a reformation. Two, prevent the disaster now, by putting the reformation first. Wasn't that the lesson that the 20th century was really trying to teach us? To get it right next time? Put reformation before disaster, so as to prevent it? And break the old cycle of history, in which tragedy followed tragedy, and sometimes, here and there, little by little—and always too late— transformation, at last came? Get it right next time, whisper all the great minds of history to us, from Camus to Sartre to Frankl to Aristotle to Einstein. Don't make the same mistake again. Break history's chains, once and for all. Shatter agony's wheel on the rocks of wisdom, with the hands of mercy. But which choice are we making so far?

Which of our Megatrends should we file this under? The Age of Extinction. The Age of Scarcity. Civilizational Risk. "Extinction" doesn't mean "we all die." But it does mean that as part of an Extinction Event reaching into deep history and futurity, the consequences for the human species will be the most profound in all of our history.

Findings this calamitous should make us think. If we really do hit this awful precipice, of death at this scale, the world as we know it will cease to exist. Who's going to make all your stuff? Kiss the economy goodbye. If a billion people's lives are on the line, how many more do you think will flee—and how much fodder will that give demagogues and lunatics, to focus on that, instead of doing anything constructive? There goes politics. As we inure ourselves to mass death—which we're perfectly capable of, Covid teaches us—what happens to the norms of decency, trust, and coexistence that make a healthy society? What does democracy even mean in such a world, where it's every person for themselves?

What do you notice about this research? Some things are evident by their absence. I didn't see many major-league headlines about it. Did you? Just like the research by the Institute of Actuaries which said half our economies could go up in flames barely made any. Incomprehensible—and so we're told, by their very absence, to dismiss figures and facts like these, at a sociocultural leve, unprepared to really grapple with what they mean, to try and contend with them. That's difficult work. Demanding, challenging—and times are tough enough already. But everyone should understand the stakes we face, as a civilization, as societies, as people. These are facts, figures, ideas, concepts, that all should be familiar with. How else do we ever make the wiser choice? That's why we made this an Issue.

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