We are dead: Climate change and Guy McPherson


KINGSTON, R.I. - Climate change is the sickness of our civilization, and the prognosis is bleak. For a while, Dr. Guy McPherson, professor emeritus of natural resources and ecology & evolutionary biology at the University of Arizona, was relatively optimistic. There was a time when he believed that, if modern industrial society were to suddenly cease to operate, the planet could be saved. Not any more, he says. Planet Earth is now in hospice, nearing the end.

Waiting to hear him speak, the atmosphere in the East Auditorium at the University of Rhode Island is festive, almost jubilant. Everyone is smiling and gregariously introducing themselves to me. Though most of us aren't scientists, there is an unconscious letting down of our guard: we are among our own. No matter the origin of our disparate backgrounds, we all believe that climate change is real, and that human beings are the primary cause. There is electricity in the air and everyone is excited.

I make the rounds and meet Patricia Hval, the humble curator of the Babcock-Smith House Museum in Westerly, R.I. Though not a URI faculty member, she is responsible for McPherson's presence here tonight. She had originally invited him to speak in Westerly but couldn't find a venue, so she organized a URI event along with Dr. Peter Nightingale, whom I finally meet in the flesh after some email correspondence.

Peter is a slight, elderly Dutchman with quick vibrant movements and an infectious smile - like so many others tonight (including our speaker) he exudes charisma. He is a physicist, and though he doesn't agree with McPherson's specific prognosis, his views on climate change are uncompromising. In our telephone conversations, he voices frustration at the meager efforts of world governments to curb carbon emissions. He makes an apt analogy with Dick Cheney's "one percent doctrine": If there is even a 1 percent chance of a terrorist attack, then the United States must do everything in its power to stop it. Why then, Nightingale asks, is the same logic not applied to climate change, which has a statistically predictable trajectory and the potential to kill many more people than any other threat?

Nightingale opens up the lecture with a song on his ukulele. The anthem is called "Fight For Fossil Free!" and we all have lyric sheets. Soon I am singing along with everyone else in the packed auditorium. The energy of the crowd is palpable. McPherson steps up to the podium and makes his case. He'd an odd duck, splendidly dressed, and it's hard to take your eyes off him. He is dressed in well worn leather dress shoes, '90s Carhart pants and a slick blazer, and has perhaps the goofiest haircut I've ever seen in my life. There is something strangely dashing about him, a streak of Indiana Jones. He is positively arresting.

Guy McPherson believes that life on Earth will more or less be extinct by the year 2060, and the evidence he presents is compelling and well sourced. Of the creatures that may live, mankind is not among them. We'll run out of food and water. We'll be swept away by typhoons, and freeze in winter storms of unusual intensity. We'll dry in the sun, and our mummified remains will break apart in sandstorms, our disintegrated body matter swirling around like dervishes of dust. Now, Guy didn't actually use any of these morbid descriptions, but that is where my mind went after hearing the overwhelming amount of factual information that he presented. If he's a flake, as some have accused him of being, then he is the most learned and exhaustively conclusive flake I've ever met.

We've known for a very long time that climate change is real, and that it has been specifically caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The first scientific paper linking the two was released in 1847. That's right, I said 1847. Media blackouts, apparently, are nothing new.

McPherson believes that the effects of climate change are exponentially progressive and irreversible based on two factors: the lag of the effect of carbon emissions, which is about 40 years, and consequently the creation of self-reinforcing feedback loops. So what does that all mean? Well, it means that we are reaping the fruits of 1970s carbon emissions.

But surely emissions have decreased, right? No. Not even close. Worse, there is no sign that emissions are even slowing down, much less reversing.

2009, the onset of the the Second Great Depression Great Recession, set a new record for carbon released by humans into the atmosphere. This record has been consecutively broken every year since. This is where the self-reinforcing feedback loops come into play. There are many of them, but I'll start with one that I understand as a layman: the release of methane over cold regions.

Permafrost contains copious amounts of methane, which is now being released into the atmosphere as the permafrost melts. Though methane dissipates in the atmosphere at a faster pace than carbon, its heating effects are far greater. So as more methane is released, more permafrost melts, releasing more methane. .. get it? But the methane will just break up in the atmosphere and the crisis will be over, right? No. The warming will affect the whole planet, destroying natural heat sinks such as rainforests, leading to the release of even more methane.

McPherson shows us an authentic photo of Siberian children roasting marshmallows over a methane fissure in Siberia. It's a small crack in the Earth, and some industrious youngster has lit it on fire. But they no longer light the fissures on fire, because the cracks are now a kilometer wide. No major news agency reported it.

If the prognosis on Earth's condition is so grim, then why bother reporting it? McPherson uses the analogy of medical malpractice. If your doctor examines you and concludes that you have six months to live, McPherson asks, wouldn't you like to know the truth? Those in the scientific community and elsewhere who minimize the impending calamity and totality of climate change are committing malpractice by withholding this crucial and pertinent information from us. The Earth is in hospice, and the prognosis is grim.

I pray to God that he's wrong.

Photo: Poster announces a speaking appearance by Guy McPherson and a showing of a film about him. Guy McPherson's Facebook page

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  • In my lifetime the destruction has been empirically clear. Humanity is a ship of fools taking everything beautiful down the primrose path. Children today will be the cannibals of tomorrow.

    Posted by Dennis Michael Meaney, 11/15/2014 9:45pm (10 months ago)

  • Some need denial to remain sane. Some need intellectual acceptance to remain sane, perhaps, from my point of view, I might largely put McPherson in this camp overall, and the list goes on for all of us to get our heads around our ultimate death, as both individuals and as a species.

    However the reader does it, if it works for you and any group you align with, "I remain for it" ... as long as what keeps you sane does not purposely cause others to go "insane", e.g, as but one example, as long as your not a sadist, whose objects do not, from their own needs to keep "sane", represent willing masochists, thus making them, the sadist and the masochist, on the other hand, willing partners in their mutual joy, and sense of mutual support for one another, to keep each other "sane".

    The vast majority of us can (have the capacity to) in one non-carnal sense, "love" all your human fellow creatures, as you, I do hope "love thyself". The word "caritas" represent one word for that kind of love in both Latin, as well as English, as long as one does not confine oneself to one definition that defines the word as only "Christian" love for all our fellow human beings.

    I have significant doubt many who read what I write here will understand, in fact, what I've just written as I intend it become understood. That requires the great effort of human forebrain calorie burning "work" to "understand", as far as I remain aware. It remains easier, in fact, for most of us, to just lay back, and become lured by others such as those who presently lead us thus gaining most often, in our "advanced" culture, financial profit exclusively to themselves, from the sale of their "leadership", in all sorts of endeavors and ways.

    Unless and until the reader can identify another earlier in time prior source for the exact same synthesis I've just but barely above covered, then I claim both common law copyright, 2014, "Ser"; as well as grant Creative Commons (CC) license for its use by others.

    Sincerely, in goodwill and caritas to all,


    Posted by "Ser", 11/03/2014 3:58am (10 months ago)

  • Excellent comment. McPheerson exudes credibility. If he's a flake, it's a very good act. I have a feeling like mourning and I will have to talk this over before I can work out response.

    Posted by geoffrey lachner, 10/06/2014 12:04am (11 months ago)

  • Now that's the kind of professor I like to hear. He opens up his lecture on a ukulele and the audience gets to sing along. I could easily ignore his crazy hairdo.

    Still there was something I did not like about his impact. It sounded like he was saying it was all over. We’re dead in the water. Or more accurately, we are in hospice because “life on Earth will more or less be extinct by the year 2060.” And 46 years is just a blink of the eye compared to the millions of years of life on earth.

    My preference is to look at the consensus of scientific opinion as recently reported by the largest organizations of scientists in the US, AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science). They said, “We are at risk of pushing our climate system toward abrupt, unpredictable, and potentially irreversible changes, with highly damaging impacts. The sooner we act, the lower the risk and cost. And there is much we can do”.

    So I thank Jonathan Pressman for promoting this discussion and suggest we hear more about the AAAS statement. Their statement, by the way, reflects the thinking of 97% of climate scientists today.

    Posted by Beatrice Lumpkin, 04/25/2014 7:22pm (1 year ago)

  • Welcome to the DISinformation age. We're not actually told anything. I try my best not to add, but, my best may be coming too late.

    Posted by Shawn M. Schliepp, 04/24/2014 11:10pm (1 year ago)

  • In Matthew 24, verse 22, discussing the end of times, Jesus says,

    “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened."

    The whole chapter is worth a read. He has a lot more to say. But for this comment, all I can say is, pray that God will indeed shorten the days. At this point, there is little or nothing we can do.

    Implementing socialism in all the industrial countries, unlikely in any meaningful time frame, might mitigate the situation somewhat, say enough to save a few people for a while. But even that wouldn't avert the catastrophe. The best hope I see, for the older folks among us at least, is that we won't live to see the worst of it. God help the young people...

    Posted by Paul Perkins, 04/24/2014 4:05pm (1 year ago)

  • I am from Israel, and I feel quit alone with the subject of weather change and the cataclysmic events we are facing and heading for. I warned my children to stop breeding while each have two children. My son and the elder daughter listened, the third one got a new son, the third, two days ago. I feel as if she did it in defiance, and I can do nothing about that. Almost every day I am crying and in deep depression from all that. Although, at least 10 years have past since I started to read about all that. I can’t think about one person who is listening and want to know what is going on. At least I stopped two of my three children to broaden their family friend around me asking how dare I get into something like that, this is not your business they say. Well, that is the civilization we belong to.

    Posted by Eve, 04/22/2014 6:37pm (1 year ago)

  • He's not. Long before I ever heard of Guy, a good friend asked me "how long"... I thought long and hard for days, evaluating all that I knew. Finally, about 6 months ago, I told her 5 years. I said it may not be the "final moment", but it will be big enough where people will know how late to the table we are and that any action will be for naught. I cried when I told her because we both have children.

    Then, someone gave me Guy's book. It was a relief to know that I wasn't the only one that came to that independent conclusion. And, it also shook me to my very bones for that very same reason.

    But, after facing the trauma of this knowledge, Guy's words stay with me, and I hope they stay with you too:

    "If it's damned if you do, and damned if you don't, you do!"

    Posted by Jackie Heinl, 04/20/2014 10:12pm (1 year ago)

  • This is an outstanding piece of journalism. The topic is of critical importance, and the writing impeccable. I came across it on my Facebook page, and was astonished that it had only a handful of "likes," far fewer than the other (mostly silly) entries. Humans have both the greatest access to information and the greatest ability to ignore it. Pity.

    Posted by Stephanie Donaldson-Pressman, 04/19/2014 9:11pm (1 year ago)

  • To become hopelessly resigned to gloom is as premature as false hope cockeyed optimistism when we really don't know how close we may be to the next miraculous discovery or invention or awakening to change the whole paradigm into a new one that can see its way to a new beginning. We can't ever allow our disappointment to be our destiny, no matter how grim & intractable it may seem. It's something to keep us busy with our minds off our doom in the interim anyway.

    Posted by Ken Lundgreen, 04/19/2014 2:00pm (1 year ago)

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