Human Extinction and Climate Change

  • Émile P. Torres at Salon on the history of ideas about human extinction;
  • The latest data on climate change is scary; September was the hottest month ever.
  • Peter Gabriel’s “I Grieve”.
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The scary thing is that a certain branch of Christians are *looking forward* to this. (See Hemant Mehta item in yesterday’s post.)

Salon, Émile P. Torres, 8 Oct 2023: We’re all gonna die! How the idea of human extinction has reshaped our world, subtitled “For most of human history, we didn’t think the end could possibly happen. These days, we can hardly count the ways.”


The topic of human extinction — its possibility, its likelihood, even its inevitability — is everywhere right now. Major media outlets publish articles and broadcast interviews on the subject, and prominent political figures in several countries are beginning to take the idea seriously. Some environmental activists are warning that climate change could threaten humanity’s survival over the coming centuries, while “AI doomers” are screaming that the creation of artificial general intelligence, or AGI, in the near future could lead to the death of literally everyone on Earth.

Having studied the history of thinking about human extinction, I can tell you that this is a unique moment in our history. Never before has the idea of human extinction been as widely discussed, debated and fretted over as it is right now. This peculiarity is underlined by the fact that only about two centuries ago, nearly everyone in the Western world would have agreed that human extinction is impossible. It isn’t how our story ends—because it isn’t how our story could end. There is simply no possibility of our species dying out the way the dodo and dinosaurs did, of disappearing entirely from the universe. Humanity is fundamentally indestructible, these people would have said, a pervasive assumption that dates back to the ancient Greek philosophers.

The article is an overview of end-of-the-world thinking over the ages. The writer just published a (very expensive, academically published) book on the subject, Human Extinction: A History of the Science and Ethics of Annihilation, in July.

Aside: I recall the observation that some people are attracted to end-of-the-world thinking, just as they are attracted to conspiracy-thinking, because in a weird sense it makes them feel special. They’re alive at the time of the end of the world!. They’re the ones who understand what’s going on that everyone else does not!


The problem isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse. This past September, across the globe, was the warmest month ever.

NY Times, Zeke Hausfather, 13 Oct 2023: I Study Climate Change. The Data Is Telling Us Something New.

Staggering. Unnerving. Mind-boggling. Absolutely gobsmackingly bananas.

As global temperatures shattered records and reached dangerous new highs over and over the past few months, my climate scientist colleagues and I have just about run out of adjectives to describe what we have seen. Data from Berkeley Earth released on Wednesday shows that September was an astounding 0.5 degree Celsius (almost a full degree Fahrenheit) hotter than the prior record, and July and August were around 0.3 degree Celsius (0.5 degree Fahrenheit) hotter. 2023 is almost certain to be the hottest year since reliable global records began in the mid-1800s and probably for the past 2,000 years (and well before that).

More charts, more evidence. It’s been more-or-less predicted. The writer looks for reasons to hope.

It’s now clear that we can control how warm the planet gets over the coming decades. Climate models have consistently found that once we get emissions down to net zero, the world will largely stop warming; there is no warming that is inevitable or in the pipeline after that point. Of course, the world will not cool back down for many centuries, unless world powers join in major efforts to remove more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than we add. But that is the brutal math of climate change and the reason we need to speed up efforts to reduce emissions significantly.

On that front, there is some reason for cautious hope. The world is on the brink of a clean energy transition. The International Energy Agency recently estimated that a whopping $1.8 trillion will be invested in clean energy technologies like renewables, electric cars and heat pumps in 2023, up from roughly $300 billion a decade ago. Prices of solar, wind and batteries have plummeted over the past 15 years, and for much of the world, solar power is now the cheapest form of electricity. If we reduce emissions quickly, we can switch from a world in which warming is accelerating to one in which it’s slowing. Eventually, we can stop it entirely.

We are far from on track to meet our climate goals, and much more work remains. But the positive steps we’ve made over the past decade should reinforce to us that progress is possible and despair is counterproductive. Despite the recent acceleration of warming, humans remain firmly in the driver’s seat, and the future of our climate is still up to us to decide.

I am not optimistic. Especially because of the climate-change deniers, and the religious zealots cheering it on.


From Peter Gabriel’s next album after So and Us, called Up, this song: “I Grieve.”

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