Climate Primer #11: Other Planetary Threats

To summarize, climate crisis is the defining issue of the century. Buildup of anthropogenic greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere is driving global heating, while a convergence of global crises threatens to rupture key planetary boundaries beyond which organized human life on Earth would be threatened.

Before moving on to address some of the key drivers of climate crisis/acceleration towards rupture of planetary boundaries, I thought it would be worthwhile to briefly reflect upon other planetary-level threats to human thriving and survival on Earth. In the post on toxic substance contamination, the threat of nuclear war – relative to fallout, radiation, and nuclear winter came up – but it’s worth pointing out again that lasting contamination aside, nuclear war itself poses an existential threat to the future of human life on Earth.

Other such threats include the possibility of an asteroid (or, in a less likely scenario, a comet) striking the Earth; an especially severe megavolcano eruption; perhaps certain types of solar phenomena; the worst pandemic in human history (with the caveat that, to date, there has obviously never been a pathogen that caused human extinction); and an invasion of hostile extraterrestrials (not a prospect over which I lose sleep). For each of the threats in this paragraph, institutional efforts are in place to monitor the risk so as, in concept, to allow for mitigatory action to be taken in advance to the extent possible; however, in practice, as the sorry state of pandemic preparedness in many countries around the world has shown (including the United States, which was ranked the nation most prepared – in 2019 by the Global Health Security Index – for a pandemic) that sometimes the appearance of preparedness is just that.

In my view, given the limited resources we possess as a species (internally divided, and in no way unitary), the sane approach to such species-level existential threats is to attempt to assess the likelihood and the extremity of each threat; based on a well-calibrated product of the two, to determine which threats pose the most imminent and plausible risk to human thriving on Earth; and to allot resources accordingly towards prevention, where possible, and preparation, where necessary. The failure to take such an approach in view of the clear and present threat of climate crisis bespeaks many of the same systemic institutional and political failures that have fueled the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic and its corollaries, and the work of this decade, and well beyond, is to break through the corruption, negligence, cruelty, and indifference that underlie the failure to take climate action before it is too late.

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