Tag Archives: predictions

COVID Is Just The Beginning

Lest yesterday’s semi-optimism distract us…

The Biden Administration will undoubtedly ramp up production and distribution of the COVID vaccines, and most of us are desperate for a return to something approximating “normal.” It is highly unlikely, however, that we will recognize the next decade  or two as even approximating our version of “normal.”

The Brookings Institution has put the most positive possible spin on that reality, advocating for adoption of the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goals. The report notes that the pandemic has put a spotlight on global problems like “food insecurity, gender inequity, racism, and biodiversity loss, alongside longstanding gaps in access to education, jobs, and life-saving technologies,” and points out that these are all problems that the Sustainable Development Goals address.

That’s clearly good advice, but it’s probably coming too late.

Pandemics are connected to climate change, and they aren’t even the worst of those consequences. The science deniers, fossil fuel interests and others who have retarded efforts to avoid the worst results of climate change may have doomed humanity, or a substantial portion thereof, to a future somewhere between dismal and dystopian.

Have you noticed the lack of insects the past several years? The absence of bugs that used to smash into our windshields? Fewer mosquitos and fireflies? That’s just the more obvious evidence of a collapse in the global insect population.

The world’s insects are hurtling down the path to extinction, threatening a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems”, according to the first global scientific review.

More than 40% of insect species are declining and a third are endangered, the analysis found. The rate of extinction is eight times faster than that of mammals, birds and reptiles. The total mass of insects is falling by a precipitous 2.5% a year, according to the best data available, suggesting they could vanish within a century.

The planet is at the start of a sixth mass extinction in its history, with huge losses already reported in larger animals that are easier to study. But insects are by far the most varied and abundant animals, outweighing humanity by 17 times. They are “essential” for the proper functioning of all ecosystems, the researchers say, as food for other creatures, pollinators and recyclers of nutrients.

If that isn’t worrisome enough, recent studies suggest that previous warnings of planetary warming may have been understated. Media outlets are reporting that warming is likely to be more severe than previously expected. World temperatures could rise 15 percent more than expected this century. Ice sheets are melting more rapidly than anticipated as well, increasing sea level rise. 

We have already seen a dramatic rise in hurricane strength, wildfires and other results of our environmental heedlessness. Recent studies suggest a far more dangerous future.

Past models have suggested a 2 degree rise in global temperature. That’s bad enough-with a 2 degree rise, sea levels would rise by 1.6 feet, global heatwaves would become common, and subtropical areas would lose a third of their fresh water. Nearly all coral reefs could die. 

Now, studies are suggesting the planet might become 5.3 degrees hotter. That’s 33% higher than most previous estimates–and it would probably mean extinction of the human race on Earth.

According to a recent scientific paper published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne (an independent think tank),

Climate change poses a “near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization,” and there’s a good chance society could collapse as soon as 2050 if serious mitigation actions aren’t taken in the next decade…

What might an accurate worst-case picture of the planet’s climate-addled future actually look like, then? The authors provide one particularly grim scenario that begins with world governments “politely ignoring” the advice of scientists and the will of the public to decarbonize the economy (finding alternative energy sources), resulting in a global temperature increase 5.4 F (3 C) by the year 2050. At this point, the world’s ice sheets vanish; brutal droughts kill many of the trees in the Amazon rainforest (removing one of the world’s largest carbon offsets); and the planet plunges into a feedback loop of ever-hotter, ever-deadlier conditions.

 “Thirty-five percent of the global land area, and 55 percent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability,” the authors hypothesized.

Meanwhile, droughts, floods and wildfires regularly ravage the land. Nearly one-third of the world’s land surface turns to desert. Entire ecosystems collapse, beginning with the planet’s coral reefs, the rainforest and the Arctic ice sheets. The world’s tropics are hit hardest by these new climate extremes, destroying the region’s agriculture and turning more than 1 billion people into refugees.

Meanwhile, last year, 150 members of Congress—all Republicans—rejected the scientific consensus that human activity is driving climate change.

Apparently, humans will continue to fiddle while the Earth burns….



Predicting Outcomes? Or Producing Them?

A reader of this blog recently sent me a link to an article about prognostications, noting that its central message had application to the discussions that take place on this blog–especially in the comments.

She was correct.

The article began with a story about the author’s brother, who had been born with cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and other conditions that made the doctors believe he’d be unlikely to live past his first birthday; they informed the parents that there was a 95% probability that the baby wouldn’t make that birthday.

Nevertheless, year after year, the brother outlived the doctors’ predictions.

Jason’s ‘95 per cent’ wasn’t just an indifferent number. My brother’s life is evidence of the politics of probability: the life-defining feedback loop that exists between our values and the information that shapes them. What we know about the future depends, in part, on what we think is worth knowing – and what we think is worth knowing depends, in turn, on what we believe the future already holds.

Researchers who measure various physical phenomena frequently worry that the act of measuring  may affect the behavior of what is being measured, leading to inaccurate results. The author of this article has a similar concern about the act of prediction:

In other words, if a condition is thought to result in a low chance of survival, it translates into less care for the person with it. Invoking probabilities can create a fatal cycle that shapes how people understand the range of options at their disposal, and even the value of their children’s lives. Disability communities know this all too well. The idea that disability implies disadvantage is regrettably widespread, as loose talk about ‘tragedy’ and ‘struggle’ suggests. A wealth of research suggests that doctors routinely misjudge the quality of life that people with disabilities enjoy. If one judges such a life not worth living – as even Socrates ignominiously suggested – there’s no point fighting for treatment or questioning the conditions that generate the chances of success. Probability, far from being neutral, can directly contribute to injustice.

The political application of this observation is obvious: if we believe that the district in which we live and vote is “safe” for the other party, we are much more likely to skip voting; if enough of our neighbors do likewise, we have created the predicted result.

If the public response to yet another mass shooting is limited to bemoaning the “fact” that the NRA’s influence is too strong to overcome, Americans will fail to do the organizing and agitating that can counter that influence.

There has been a wake-up call prompted by the election of Donald Trump; many, many  people who previously didn’t follow political news have become aware of the “brokenness” of America’s government. If they respond with angry acceptance–if majorities of Americans believe that the country is so far down the road to corporatism and corruption that a return to more democratic, ethical governance is unlikely–then we will fail to organize, agitate and vote in numbers sufficient to effect that change.

Being human, we will always engage in prediction. But we need to be careful that we don’t act in ways that reinforce–or even bring about– our gloomiest prognostications.