Are we prone to see the end of the world? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Adam Frank doesn't think the world is going end. The planet, he argues, is far more robust than that. The human habitability we have come to rely on, however, is going to be stressed.

Apocalypse When?

Farmers team up to rescue cattle from exposure to the toxic volcanic ash at a farm in Nupur, Iceland, as the volcano in southern Iceland's Eyjafjallajokull glacier sends ash into the air. Brynjar Gauti/Associated Press hide caption

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Brynjar Gauti/Associated Press

We have a penchant for imagining disaster and the bigger the conflagration the better. Predictions of the end of the world have a long and (luckily) unfilled history.

So where does that put discussions of climate change?

I am in the middle of Ian McEwan's wonderful novel Solar.  In it, a misanthropic, self-centered, Nobel-prize-winning physicist Michael Beard takes a gig as the head of a new climate research center even though he is not particularly interested in the subject.  Beard is suspicious of anyone who talks earnestly about the fate of the planet and is unimpressed by the predictions of climate science.  In Beard's (and McEwan's) words:

There was an old Testament ring to the forewarnings, an air of plaque-of-boils and deluge of frogs, that suggested a deep and constant inclination, enacted over centuries, to believe that one was always living in the end of days, that one's own demise was urgently bound up with the end of the world and therefore made more sense or was just a little less irreverent. The end of the world was never pitched in the present, where it could be seen for the fantasy it was, but just around the corner, and when it did not happen, a new issue, a new date, would soon emerge.  The old world purified by incendiary violence, washed clean by blood of the unsaved -- that is how it had been for Christian millennial sects: death to the unbelievers!  And for the Soviet Communists: death to the kulaks! And for the Nazi's and their thousand-year fantasy: death to the Jews! And then the truly democratic equivilent, an all-out nuclear war: death to everyone!  When that did not happen, and after the Soviet empire had been devoured by its own internal contradictions, and in the absence of any other overwhelming concern beyond boring intransigent global poverty, the apocalyptic tendency had conjured another beast.

Beard later becomes a convert to climate science for a variety of reasons not all of which are noble (at least as far as I have gotten in the book).  But in spite of that plot twist the beautifully written idea expressed above holds a truth:

We have a tendency to lean toward the apocalyptic.

But does that mean we are apt to pick up on the predictions of a science that fulfills this tendency and inflate them to fill our ego-bound desire to be part of the ultimate drama?

When I hear people talk about climate and the end of the world I usually put my astronomer hat on and try to think in tens of thousands to tens of millions year long timescales.  I have no doubt in the general trend of findings in climate science.  We have changed the atmosphere's chemistry and Earth's climate systems will change as a result.  I do not, however, think the world is going to end.

The planet is far more robust than that.

What is likely to happen, to a greater or lesser degree, is that the human habitability we have come to rely on is going to be stressed.  The more that happens the more the project of civilization that we are all married to may face its own stresses.

Apocalypse? Unlikely.  A long, hard and unstable time? Much more probable.