What would you say if I told you that the climate crisis already happened? That real-world ecosystem collapse takes place at different times in different places. Billions of people have already starved to death or been displaced by climate change. The future is here — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.
Would you believe me?
Have a look at this graph. Notice anything strange about it?
The vertical bars represent how much rain fell in the Sahel Desert each year, with positive numbers for wetter than average and negative numbers for dryer than average. What this graph shows is that the annual monsoon of Sub-Saharan Africa was turned off in the late 1960’s. (Go here to learn more…)
What else do we know about this region? It is the part of the world that is famous for widespread malnutrition and hunger, after farming collapsed in the 1970’s and many people were forced to migrate into neighboring areas. This led to ethnic conflict — some of which evolved into extreme forms of violence.
What most people don’t realize is that this shutdown of the Sahel Monsoon is the result of human-caused climate change. We created apocalyptic conditions for roughly 1 billion people — and we did this fifty years ago!
So when people dismiss global warming as “doomsday” they are doubly wrong. Firstly, they ridicule those who see how serious this situation is (using language of the absurd to dismiss it). And secondly, they presume the collapse-of-the-future won’t happen — when in reality it already did.
Just look at the image below. People are starving in the region of Africa where the monsoons shut down half a century ago. And here’s the thing: researchers who study the Earth have now pieced together how it happened. The guilty party in this case was industrial nations of Western Europe in the 19th Century. (Two research studies on this topic can be found here and here.)
Factories were built in places like London and Berlin. These were the early days of the Industrial Revolution when factories were run primarily by burning coal. The coal released special kinds of sulphur dust (called aerosols) that is known for its cooling effects in the atmosphere.
It was only in the last decade that the research became conclusive. These cooling dust particles grew in number throughout the 1800’s and early 1900’s. This caused a series of subtle, indirect changes to things like the surface temperature of the Atlantic Ocean and the weather patterns over the African continent.
Long story short, the factories of Western Europe caused the global climate system to change its behavior. The result being that a monsoon rain pattern in Africa was shut down. This caused farming to collapse, which led to mass migration and conflict as people became increasingly malnourished and starved. Or said another way: The doomsday of climate change ALREADY HAPPENED.
Why does this matter for us today? Because we are continuing to change the planet at an accelerating pace. The changes include loss of topsoils, acidification of the oceans, deforestation, extraction of minerals, and warming of the atmosphere. In some regions of the world — sub-Saharan Africa being one of them — globalization has already produced apocalyptic consequences. We blindly followed pathways of technological and economic development without knowing there would be repercussions in other parts of the world.
Everything is interconnected. The planet functions as a meshwork of interwoven systems and processes. What we do to one part of the Earth will have impacts elsewhere. There is no avoiding this fundamental scientific truth about how planets work, ours included.
Yet still there are politicians (and economists) who live in the delusional fantasies of their childhood. They behave as though humans are not part of the natural world. As if we can endlessly grow our economies, build more factories, consume more goods and services, and there will be no harms done.
These people are behaving like privileged children. They know not what their actions do. And they so far have managed to insulate themselves from harms that arise elsewhere so they don’t care if their hoarding behavior has consequences. But this is not going to be the case for much longer.
According to the Stockholm Resilience Institute, humanity has now crossed four of the nine “planetary boundaries” that define a safe operating zone for planetary civilization. We are fully in overshoot-and-collapse mode now. So we had better start behaving like it.
Onward, fellow humans.
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