This is a story that's running at the moment - hugely sensationalized and made as pessimistic and gloomy as could be. in many of the papers, especially the sensationalist press, it's presented as a "Doomsday prediction". It's nothing of the sort.The number of scientists, 15,000 is correct, and that they were warning about climate change and other issues is correct, so the snesationalist press got that much right. However, they don't say the world will be destroyed.

The letter actually says there is much we are doing right, but that there is much more we have to do to see ourselves through to 2100 and beyond. Their message is that we have to continue what we are doing, and do more, in order to avoid widespread misery in the future.

Short summary:

"We submit, that in order to prevent widespread misery caused by catastrophic damage to the biosphere, humanity must practice more environmentally sustainable alternative to business-as-usual"

This is one of those things where it’s all a matter of what you choose to emphasis when you report the letter

So first, yes, there are many things you can say that are going wrong and they go through some of those in some detail. If you focus only on those our situation can seem hopeless.

However, there are many things also that we are doing right, and yes, if you emphasize those too much you may get complacent and think we haven’t got to do anything except laze around as everything will work out. They also cover these too.

The truth is between those two extremes.

There are many things going wrong, but also many things going right. We are facing major challenges but we have also shown we can work together despite huge political differences.

There are some breaks in our favour too. In particular they remark that our population is leveling off in a way that nobody expected a few decades ago. It looks as if our population is going to stabilize at 11 billion or possibly even decline to less than that, so long as we keep up our progress in improving health and education of people in poor countries.

Our food security is actually increasing. We have reached peak child. The progress in green technology and renewables has been astounding and far faster than expected. Other things which they don't mention - China particularly is strongly behind renewables now, which I think would surprise the writers in 1992. And there are major initiatives under way to deal with the challenge of increasing food production in Africa which is the continent with the highest projected population increase in the world.

If you ignore all the positives this seems a bleak and hopeless letter, as if there is nothing we can do and we are facing a future of inevitable widespread suffering. That’s how the press is running this story in most of the headlines today.

But the message intended by the scientists is the opposite of that. They say there is hope and optimism - but that we have to make sure we continue the things we are doing to work with our situation and reverse the things that went wrong, and work even harder at that.

In this post I will emphasize the positive side of our situation to compensate for all the negative press there is about this story. The sensationalist press and even the mainstream press journalists “love a good doomsday” as I’ve seen over and over while debunking these stories. This is no exception. They turn it into a doomsday story by way overplaying the negative side of the letter and downplaying everything that is positive in it.

IN DETAIL

This is an example “Future Day of Doom” story in the Daily Express: Doomsday warning to humanity is signed by 15,000 scientists

What do they actually say?

You can read the letter for yourself. It is linked to as a pdf from the Short summary:

They talk about the major problems identified in 1992 which have not been solved yet and many of them have got worse, apart from the ozone layer. That’s the part of the letter that the Doomsday press focuses on almost exclusively.

But this is what they say next, after talking about the problems - they talk about

  • our advances in tackling extreme poverty and hunger,
  • the rapid decline in fertility rates (so that our population is no longer expanding exponentially)
  • the improvements in education including education of girls and women (helping with the population issues),
  • decline in rate of deforestation, and
  • rapid growth in renewables - clean energy.

All of that is new since 1992. So there is a lot we are doing right here!

To quote from the letter:

“The rapid global decline in ozone depleting substances shows that we can make positive change when we act decisively. We have also made advancements in reducing extreme poverty and hunger (www.worldbank. org). Other notable progress (which does not yet show up in the global data sets in figure 1) include the rapid decline in fertility rates in many regions attributable to investments in girls’ and women’s education ( Population Division | Department of Economic and Social Affairs | United Nations), the promising decline in the rate of deforestation in some regions, and the rapid growth in the renewable-energy sector. We have learned much since 1992, but the advancement of urgently needed changes in environmental policy, human behavior, and global inequities is still far from sufficient”

They then go on to say what we need to do in the future in their view for a sustainable future

Many of their recommendations are to do with preserving the environment and to keep ecosystems in good health.

Others are to promote greener technology and to keep up the progress in reduction of fertility rates in developed countries.

Again for the details I’ll just quote from the letter again.

Examples of diverse and effective steps humanity can take to transition to sustainability include the following (not in order of importance or urgency):

  • (a) prioritizing the enactment of connected well-funded and well-managed reserves for a significant proportion of the world’s terrestrial, marine, freshwater, and aerial habitats;
  • (b) maintaining nature’s ecosystem services by halting the conversion of forests, grasslands, and other native habitats;
  • (c) restoring native plant communities at large scales, particularly forest landscapes;
  • (d) rewilding regions with native species, especially apex predators, to restore ecological processes and dynamics;
  • (e) developing and adopting adequate policy instruments to remedy defaunation, the poaching crisis, and the exploitation and trade of threatened species;
  • (f) reducing food waste through education and better infrastructure;
  • (g) promoting dietary shifts towards mostly plant-based foods;
  • (h) further reducing fertility rates by ensuring that women and men have access to education and voluntary family-planning services, especially where such resources are still lacking;
  • (i) increasing outdoor nature education for children, as well as the overall engagement of society in the appreciation of nature;
  • (j) divesting of monetary investments and purchases to encourage positive environmental change;
  • (k) devising and promoting new green technologies and massively adopting renewable energy sources while phasing out subsidies to energy production through fossil fuels;
  • (l) revising our economy to reduce wealth inequality and ensure that prices, taxation, and incentive systems take into account the real costs which consumption patterns impose on our environment; and
  • (m) estimating a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term while rallying nations and leaders to support that vital goal.

I think many would agree with them on many of the main points. This is the reason for the Paris Agreement and why many are urging the politicians to move towards stronger and stronger measures to protect Earth which is also the stated aims in the Paris agreement too.

SOME COMMENTS ON AND CRITICISM OF THE LETTER

I’m a little surprised myself that they say so little about climate change and don’t mention the Paris Agreement. at all. They do touch on climate change, but only mention it once and hardly discuss it at all.

Also the idea that the Earth has a finite carrying capacity in their point (m) is true in a way - but whatever that capacity is, it is way way beyond our current population.

If we used biointensive agriculture we could feed ten times the world’s population from the same agricultural area - though with a largely vegetarian diet.

If we used the agricultural methods developed for space colonies, we could feed the same population from a thousandth of the area needed for normal agriculture. Indeed, if we used those methods based on a fast growing crops, a rapid crop rotation once a month, and hydroponics, we could feed those eleven billion people using just the area of Germany for agriculture and the rest of the world could be a nature reserve.

"Wheat plants of various ages showing the "conveyor" approach that was used in the Bios experiments, Young wheat plants are in the foreground, with more mature plants toward the back. The aisle between benches is narrow (to leave as much space as possible for the crops). The post, with some environmental sensors attached, further obstructs the aisle. Crew members planted various herbs and other special plants in the corner and next to the wall to the left, space that would otherwise be wasted." photo from here

With 1970s technology the Russians were able to produce nearly all the food needed for one person from just 30 square meters of habitat.

We can get an idea of how efficient these methods are by working out the total land area needed to feed the world on a vegetarian diet. With a million square meters to a square kilometer, then we just need to multiply the per person areas in square meters by 11,000 to get the area in square kilometers needed to feed 11 billion

  • BIOS-3,(design for space colonies), 30 m², so 330,000 km²
    (smaller than Germany at 348,672 km² see list of sovereign states and dependencies by area)
  • Biointensive mini gardening. 325 m² per person, so 3.575 million km²
    (a little over the area of India at 3.288 million km²)
  • Conventional agriculture, 4000 m² per person, so 44 million km²
    (About the same as US, China, Russia and Brazil combined)

By comparison, the Sahara desert is 9.2 million km². With the BIOS-3 system, we would need only 3.6% of the Sahara desert to feed those 11 billion people. Much of the Sahara is the result of recent desertification which needs to be reversed. Large aeas are also uninteresting sandy areas that do not need to be preserved as nature reserves. With biointensive mini gardening we could feed those 11 billion people from 39% of the Sahara desert. We can have greenhouses in the desert as was shown with the saltwater greenhouses which use the sunlight for desalination and bring in fresh water from the sea, actually adding to the aquifers.

We are actually doing this already in a small way. This is an Australian desert project. The sea water is used to make water through the sunlight in the desert, and cool down the greenhouses.

https://youtu.be/46Vzc8flmaQ

These ideas could be used to reverse desertification in the Sahara desert and other deserts. This is how it works:

Diagrams by Raffa be from wikipedia

It not only lets you grow crops in the greenhouses - it can also help make the surrounding areas more habitable, so you’d get trees and crops growing in an area around the greenhouses as well. Doesn’t extract anything from desert aquifers, rather, it adds to them.

I’m not saying we will cover the Sahara desert with salt water greenhouses. But it would be one way to hugely increase agricultural production with reasonable expense and fairly low tech as such things go. It shows that it is more of a political than a technical problem. There are many possible engineering and technical solutions if we can find a way to make the politics and the financing of them work.

The total land area of the Earth is 148 million km². But of course much of that is desert, mountains, ice etc, some is uncultivated and animals require more land area than plants. For a vegetarian diet, and if we don’t include fishing that’s about 30% of the land area of the entire world used for agriculture if we achieve 4000 m² per person, i.e. about one acre per person (calculation as 100*44,000,000/148,940,000).

With conventional agriculture you can see it’s a major challenge. But we can do it. With more intensive agriculture then there is plenty of growing space for everyone up to well over 11 billion people.

So though the Earth has a finite carrying capacity for humans, it also depends on the technology used and the methods of agriculture.

So I’m not sure if you can come up with an answer to “what should the desired population be” until you also answer “What method of agriculture will be used to feed them?”.

And we can also do a lot by means of a new green revolution in Africa, something which is already underway, as well as reversing desertification, another major project in northern Africa - and they don’t mention either of those things at all.

As for power then solar energy from a small fraction of the Sahara desert would power the entire world. All that in a sustainable way without impacting on the natural world if it was done well.

The large red square there would be enough to provide electricity for the entire world for 2005. This was a scheme, now abandoned - that could have powered most of Europe from panels in the Sahara desert and HVDC long range transmission lines. It shows how there is abundant power available just from solar panels in deserts

OVERALL CONCLUSION

This letter doesn't change anything. It is not a new set of projections of the future. We have many of those already from scientists. This is not a projection and doesn’t claim to be, but rather a plan for action and opinions from experienced scientists.

It's just expressing rather forcefully what the Paris Agreement says, and what other scientists have said, but on a wide range of topics.

The main point - whether they are right in detail, or not - is that it's not saying those things will happen. It's saying we must stop them happening.

Also, they are not talking about a danger to humanity or civilization - they never say that in the letter. They talk about "widespread misery and catastrophic biodiversity loss". They don't talk about "the end of civilization".

It's a risk of flooding, of climate refugees, of failed crops and droughts, of important habitats being destroyed - the end of coral reefs for good - things like that. In the worst case widespread misery and famine. Not an extinction or civilization ending thing. 

They are also doing this in order to make sure we continue the efforts we are already making and redouble them to protect and preserve our planet.

MORE DETAILS LOOKING AT THE POSITIVE SIDE OF THINGS

As they say - the population is already leveling off. The middle of the range projection now has our population level off at 11 billion at around the year 2100 and not grow any further. Lower projections have it level off at ten billion or even start to decline towards the end of the century.

So whatever happens, we aren't headed for Malthusian type exponential growth because we have reached peak child already. In the graph above, the red dotted lines show the upper and lower limits for the 95% prediction interval. The blue lines are for +- 0.5 children per couple average. You can look up the data here, the graphs page for the UN population division.

Though we may not reach peak population this century, and may continue to have some modest growth after 2100,most parts of the world have a good chance of stabilizing before then, especially the more developed countries.

The least developed countries are the ones that would get most population growth. The most rapid growth is in Africa in the projections. You can see a break down for each region of the world here,

Older figures from 2014. Most of the population growth is in Africa by the end of the century by these figures, with everywhere else leveling off by then, the least developed countries are the ones that grow most rapidly, so that's a reflection of the situation in Africa

This is a pattern that’s universal across all the different political groupings and religious beliefs. Muslim countries also are seeing zero growth. The main pattern is that wealthier countries have lower population growth.

These are the projections from the graphs page for the UN population division. And - the world population has grown for the last 12 years even after we reached peak child. This is due to increasing life expectancy From the World Health Organization page on life expectancy

"Global average life expectancy increased by 5 years between 2000 and 2015, the fastest increase since the 1960s. Those gains reverse declines during the 1990s, when life expectancy fell in Africa because of the AIDS epidemic, and in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The 2000-2015 increase was greatest in the WHO African Region, where life expectancy increased by 9.4 years to 60 years, driven mainly by improvements in child survival, and expanded access to antiretrovirals for treatment of HIV."

This chart shows the number of children under age 5, it actually shows a very slight increase from 2005 but almost level, it's from this summary: World Population Growth , you can see how the world population currently continues to grow roughly linearly, while the number of children stays steady, showing that life expectancy is increasing worldwide.

This is a useful chart showing world population growth rate and population on the same chart helps to understand how they projection of 11.2 billion for 2100 works - but the growth rate here is taking account of increasing lifespans. If the graph showed the number of children born, it levels off at 2005.

Then, it may surprise you to know that we actually produce more than enough food to feed the world. We have starvation for political reasons at present. It's an income and distribution problem.

As an example, the world had a food surplus of 510 kcal / cap / day in 2010 increased from 310 kcal / cap / day in 1965. All the indications are that we should be able to feed 10 billion people.

One of the areas where we can make a big difference most easily is in Africa. The “Green Revolution” which revolutionized yields world wide rather passed Africa by, and Africa is one of the places that still has rapidly growing populations. If we can do the same for Africa that we have already done in other places like India this will make a big difference for food security. That’s the motivation behind the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA). See also AGRA

There's also a lot of progress in reversing desertification in northern Africa with motivating local farmers proving to be the key. See.The “Great Green Wall” Didn’t Stop Desertification, but it Evolved Into Something That Might. The Sahara desert covers a vast area and if we can reverse desertification then it can make a major difference.

See also my

Debunked: Soon we won’t be able to feed everyone because the world population is growing so quickly - some of this is copied from that earlier post which also goes into some of it in more detail


See also List of the articles in my Debunking Doomsday blog to date and you can try searching that page for a word like “Nibiru” or “Yellowstone” or whatever to find articles of interest.

Also if you want to help make a difference, you can sign and share these petitions- and do have a look at the comments to get an idea of the scale of the problem. Click “Join Conversation” to see more of them.

You may also be interested in my:

  • Google News Without The Nonsense. It’s much the same as Google News, with the sensationalist nonsense fake news filtered out. Try sorting it “by relevance” as well as “by date”

And if you need help - well message me of course and comment on any of these posts - and you can also join our Facebook group Doomsday Debunked. See also Seven tips for dealing with doomsday fears