|I am, of course, referring to human extinction, whilst countless non-human but, nonetheless, brother and sister species plunge into extinction around us, leaving a void, a silence and a grief.
I am reporting from the year 2040, and I remember 2022 very well. The Working Group II contribution to the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report had just been released, focussing on Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability. As such it was grim reading but still, at times, attempting to assuage the very real concerns of the individual reader, whether a “hardened” climatologist or a soft-hearted oncologist like myself. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres declared that the abdication of world leadership as “criminal”, that “delay means death”, with “half of humanity living in the danger zone”. Nonetheless he still felt “net zero emissions by 2050” to be sufficient, when patently it was not.
Unfortunately, from my current vantage in 2040, I see that the predictions of climactic deterioration to have been too conservative. We have now crossed 3.0⁰C of global temperature increase. The IPCC process continued for many years after 2022 but after the Glasgow “phasedown” coal negotiation debacle it never really recovered any credibility. The coal-fired power plants were responsible for at least 1 million deaths per year, with air pollution claiming 4 million more. COP pledges and targets were never fully met. The vulnerable “South” was never supported nor compensated for the inequity of their plight.
From 2020 greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions began a relentless rise (the total CO₂ for 2021 was is 36.3 billion tonnes, a rise of 6%), as the barons of black energy ruthlessly pillaged the moribund Earth, despite the Carbon Disclosure Project identifying the 100 companies responsible for 71% of all GHG emissions. The killing of Mother Earth is surely matricide. The crime of Ecocide however, now sits alongside Genocide, Crimes Against Humanity, War Crimes and the Crime of Aggression in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The names of those culpable, from government, industry, finance and the military, are being collected.
Multiple critical tipping points have now triggered one another. The Arctic became ice-free through the summer of 2032. The melting permafrost has belched out megatons of CO₂ and methane. The Amazon now exists in name only.
Adequate adaptation has not been possible in the majority South, with negligible access to space-cooling devices, with one billion souls exposed to “above lethal heat event thresholds”, leading to great mortality, mostly not documented and not acknowledged. There is social disarray, with failing crops and mass migration over land and by sea.
In Australia, in that 2022 report, climate impacts were correctly reported to be “cascading, compounding and aggregating across all sectors and systems due to complex interactions, projected to grow in scale, due to a concurrent increase in heatwaves, droughts, fires, storms, floods and sea level (high confidence)”. Serious storms and heatwaves actually followed the report’s release.
Unfortunately, there was no serious government response at any level. The opposition declared that “a strong response to climate change could boost the economy”, for example a 2030 emissions reduction target of 43%. Their Powering Australia plan, which included further renewable energy stimuli and electric vehicles, proved woefully inadequate.
Australia had the highest emissions per capita and per unit of GDP among wealthy developed nations. Australian air temperature over land had increased by 1.4°C from 1910. In 2019, the national average maximum temperature exceeded 39°C on 33 days (more than the number observed from 1960 to 2018 combined). The increased temperature was expected to rise steadily as a result of the impact of very long residence time atmospheric CO₂ already “in the system”, the absence of any falls in CO₂ emissions, the impacts of other greenhouse gases (notable methane) and the solar cycle maximum (adding 0.1⁰C – 0.2⁰C). Even so, the government did not respond, even at the eleventh hour, condemning the population to eventual damnation.
From my vantage in 2040 it is confirmed that the Barrier Reef is dead, the koalas are extinct and we have lost the Northern Jarrah, Alpine Ash, Snow Gum and Tasmania’s pencil pines (which can normally live 1300 years).
The IPCC recommended the “use of more systemic, collaborative and future-oriented engagement approaches and a step-change in adaptation action to address climate risks and to be consistent with climate resilient development (very high confidence)” but felt that “current adaptation falls short on assessment of complex risks, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation. It is largely incremental and temporary given the scale of projected impacts, it has limits and is mainly reactive rather than anticipatory”. Adequate adaptation was never achieved in Australia. No technological solution was ever found.
The Climate Action Tracker thermometer (in November 2021) indicated a likely increase in global temperature by 2100 based on real world action on current policies to be +2.7⁰C (range 2.0⁰C – 3.6⁰C). The upper end has proven to be correct and thus consistent with Representation Concentration Pathway (RCP) of 8.5. Increasing humidity has only worsened this parlous situation.
Projecting into the future, the aggregate loss of wealth in Australia, due to climate-induced reductions in productivity across agriculture, manufacturing and service sectors will exceed A$211 billion by 2050 and A$4 trillion by 2100 for RCP8.5.
In Sydney, at the end of the century, 12,500 will die annually of heat-related causes, a mortality equivalent to all cancers.
Given these dire trends, evident back in the early 2020s, several groups declared the likelihood of human extinction (Professor William Rees, Deep Adaptation , the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, the Future of Humanity Institute, and groups promoting Degrowth). Rees, in particular, used ecological footprint analysis to demonstrate that “overshoot” is the fundamental problem, of which the climate crisis is a consequence. Humanity, in consuming 100 billion tonnes of material each year (by far mostly in the rich North), is exceeding the Earth’s sustainability – the equivalent of 1.7 Earths! North America, Western Europe and Australia must urgently reduce consumption to 20% of current levels for all of humanity to survive, requiring radical changes to our social life, for example, private cars would not be acceptable!
I can report some good news from the year 2040. With the End in sight there has been the emergence of a pervasive global compassion, an apparent spontaneous desire by the remaining leaderships to correct the innumerable wrongs of the past, notably inequity and all forms of discrimination and the evils that flowed therefrom. The source of this unexpected benevolence is unclear but it may be a gift from Gaia, the consciousness of all remaining life forms, requesting that humanity leave the planet, as there is now a need for a prolonged process of recovery from the centuries of despoliation.
In Australia an all-party Government of Unity has prevailed, in good spirits, unanimously accepting the Uluru Statement, with generous funding and indigenous representation. An inspirational decision was made to establish the Ministry of Impending Extinction, the Minister being an indigenous woman with impeccable credentials. She has declared that to “minister” now means “to furnish relief or remedy, to care for with devotion”.
We, like other nations, had not consulted our indigenous brothers and sisters, with their deep connection to their traditional country, their understanding of the inextricable interdependency of all life forms and their extensive histories, holding deep knowledge from observing and living in a changing climate over thousands of generations.
This ministry has now replaced most other government departments, as the singular need arises to support a population in universal distress, bewilderment and grief. The key personnel are now those skilled in palliative care, including death doulas, all being trained and recruited in great numbers. Those with great spiritual expertise are now sought out. There remains a great need for all health staff, particularly those skilled in trauma, infectious disease, emergency medicine and, of course, psychology, but numbers are infinitesimal and facilities depleted.
There are close relationships with other national Ministries of Impending Extinction, enabling a global network of support, exchange and deep communication. This is now the predominant focus of “government”. The value of human life, our moral responsibility and our connection to each other, to all living beings and to the Earth herself is on the agenda. Truth and Reconciliation Commissions are being hastily convened. Through the remains of the internet reparations now flow, vast funds to support vestigial populations in the South, many of whom ironically have migrated to the North in desperation.
Of great importance, many ethical issues have arisen, requiring a specialist department of ethical deliberation, applied philosophy and spirituality, representing all social groups, with particular attention to include all minorities, even single members of decimated sub-cultures.
Finally, there was recognition of the causes and conditions that have led to this sixth great mega-extinction and the terminal climate catastrophe: the rapacious extractive colonial history which is foundationally responsible for untold suffering, persecution and death, the forced exclusion from country, family division, and the alienation of humanity from the life-sustaining biosphere.
As I reflect on my own career in palliative care, I remember that one must ensure each individual passing life (and thus the collective also), must be offered the experience of dignity, meaning and purpose, essentially within an intimate relationship of trust and care, even with a benevolent stranger, a true Homo sapiens et misericors (both wise and compassionate). Each individual (as well as the collective) may also wish to seek forgiveness from Mother Earth.
What legacy shall we leave? Perhaps some evidence of our best nature, our great achievements, representing each micro-culture throughout time. Who will ever witness our legacy? Perhaps only the Earth herself.