As every ecologist knows, and apparently very few other people, the rate of environmental change is among the most important factors controlling the continued survival of individuals, populations, and species. If the environment occupied by an individual or a species changes, then the individual or the species must change.
Evolution by natural selection is typically a relatively slow process, requiring at least one generation and usually many generations to ensure adaptation. For species such as Homo sapiens, our ability to procreate comes at a relatively late age, thereby guaranteeing a minimum of a few decades for adaptation to occur.
Unfortunately, the ongoing and projected rates of environmental change far outstrip the ability of our species to adapt. Indeed, Strona and Bradshaw pointed out in their November 13th, 2018 paper published in the renowned and conservative journal, Scientific ReportsScientific Reports, the ongoing rate of environmental change exceeds the ability of any life on Earth to keep up. Their paper was titled, “Co-extinctions annihilate planetary life during extreme environmental change.” The extreme environmental change to which the paper refers is 5 to 6 degrees C above the 1750 baseline within a few centuries. Based on the peer-reviewed papers I have been citing for more than a decade, and the supporting papers that have been published more recently, I cannot imagine it will take centuries to achieve 5 or 6 degrees of planetary heating. In addition, because the ongoing and projected rates of environmental change are so severe, I cannot imagine we have centuries or even decades with habitat for humans. If by centuries you mean days, then we have plenty of time remaining. However, the time for adaptation to occur is long behind us.
Let’s go back to a famous misquote from Charles Darwin and then proceed to more recent information. The commonly used misquote from Charles Darwin comes from his book, On the Origin of Species, published in 1859. It goes like this: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”
Nicholas J. Matzke, of the Department of Integrative Biology, University of California, Berkeley, worked out the history of this misquote. His source includes the writings of Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge. The quote started out as a paraphrase Megginson wrote in 1963. The paraphrase goes like this: “According to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
This accurate statement is from Megginson’s peer-reviewed paper Lessons from Europe for American Business. It was published in Southwestern Social Science Quarterly in June of 1963. It was published in Southwestern Social Science Quarterly in June of 1963. You can find his paraphrase of Darwin’s work on page four of the issue, the second page of Megginson’s paper. I’ll read it again: “According to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.”
The point, which is still valid despite the misquote, is that the rate of environmental change is tremendously important for the continued survival of individuals and species. How are we doing so far on that front, and what does the future hold?
I’ll start with the most conservative of sources, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its October 8th, 2018 report, Global Warming of 1.5 degrees. In this report, the IPCC includes this line: “These global-level rates of human-driven change far exceed the rates of change driven by geophysical or biosphere forces that have altered the Earth System trajectory in the past …; even abrupt geophysical events do not approach current rates of human-driven change.” In other words, the abrupt rate of planetary overheating is the fastest in planetary history.
As I have pointed out previously in this space, the IPCC is conservative. This fact was pointed out by the conservative, peer-reviewed journal BioScienceBioScience in its March 2019 issue. The paper in BioScience was authored by Herrando-Pérez and three other scholars. It is titled, Statistical Language Backs Conservatism in Climate-Change Assessments.
As I have pointed out frequently in this space, vertebrates cannot keep up with the ongoing and projected rates of environmental change. This finding goes back to a paper published in the peer-reviewed Ecology Letters Ecology Letters authored by Quintero and Wiens published on June 26th, 2013. The paper is titled, “Rates of projected climate change dramatically exceed past rates of climatic niche evolution among vertebrate species.” The paper indicates that the projected rates of environmental change would require rates of niche evolution that are 10,000 times faster than rates typically observed among species. In other words, the stunningly slow rate-of-change projected by reports published before 2013 still outstrips the ability of vertebrates to adapt. Mammals cannot keep up, either, as reported in the prestigious peer-reviewed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences with a paper by Matt Davis and two other scholars published on October 15th, 2018.
Vertebrates cannot keep up with ongoing and projected rates of environmental change. Mammals cannot keep up, either. Both of these findings are based on conservative sources. As vertebrate mammals, Homo sapiens therefore falls into two broad categories labeled can’t keep up.
According to a peer-reviewed, open-access paper published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences on January 11th, 2023, “In 2022, the world’s oceans, as given by ocean heat content, were again the hottest in the historical record and exceeded the previous 2021 record maximum.”The paper was written by Lijing Cheng and 24 other scholars and is titled, “Another Year of Record Heat for the Oceans.” It’s the latest indication that the rapid release of heat and greenhouse gases associated with the next El Niño Southern Oscillation bodes poorly for the continuation of habitat for humans.
So, then: What does the future hold? As I have reluctantly pointed out frequently in this space, the future looks bleak for Homo sapiens and all other life on Earth. I have occasionally mentioned the importance of ice floating on the Arctic Ocean. Earth has retained this ice for a very long time. In fact, according to a paper published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, “Humans have only ever lived in a world topped by ice.” That’s the lead sentence in the final paragraph of a paper written by University of Connecticut professor Mark C. Urban. Urban is director of the Center of Biological Risk and a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. In this short paper, he writes: “By reflecting sunlight, Arctic ice acts as Earth’s air conditioner. Once dark water replaces brilliant ice, Earth could warm substantially, equivalent to the warming triggered by the additional release of a trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The ice also determines who gets rain. Loss of Arctic sea ice can make it rain in Spain, dry out Scandinavian hydropower, and set California ablaze.”
A trillion tons of carbon dioxide sounds like a lot. In fact, Earth’s atmosphere currently holds 36.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. An additional trillion tons is equivalent to about 25 years’ worth of emissions. Allow me to [re-]read the take-home line from Urban’s short essay: “By reflecting sunlight, Arctic ice acts as Earth’s air conditioner. Once dark water replaces brilliant ice, Earth could warm substantially, equivalent to the warming triggered by the additional release of a trillion tons of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.” Imagine 25 years’ worth of warming shortly after the Arctic ice is gone.
Bear in mind that Harvard University professor of atmospheric science James Anderson was quoted in Forbes on January 15th, 2018: “The chance there will be permanent ice in the Arctic after 2022 is essentially zero.” Professor Jennifer MacKinnon of the University of California-San Diego and the Scripps Institution also expects an ice-free Arctic Ocean this year. She was quoted by CBS News on April 23rd, 2021 upon release of a peer-reviewed paper she lead-authored in Nature Communications.
In other words, we can expect an ice-free Arctic Ocean this September. We will have very reliable information about the potential for the first ice-free Arctic Ocean during our time on Earth in early April of this year, when the US Naval Postgraduate School issues its 6-month ensemble forecast. If we do witness an ice-free Arctic Ocean later this year, then we can expect full effects next year.
Until then, I’ll be living with intention, integrity, and love. I will continue to promote the notion of Planetary Hospice. After all, even if Earth was not in the midst of at least the ninth Mass Extinction Event in the last billion years, our lives would still be finite, and most of us would consider them short. I have already outlived one of the most influential writers in my life, Edward Abbey. The desert anarchist lived for 62 years and 44 days. Upon release of this video, I’ve lived 62 years and 329 days, a full 285 days longer than Cactus Ed. Slightly less than a year might not sound like much. If that’s the case, then I encourage you to live more fully … to squeeze all the goodness, even the seemingly undesirable pieces of goodness, out of every single day.
McPherson, Guy R., Beril Sirmack, and Ricardo Vinuesa. March 2022. Environmental thresholds for mass-extinction events. Results in Engineering (2022), doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rineng.2022.100342.
"Dr. Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and the world’s leading authority on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for twenty years. His published works include 14 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on TV and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger, cultural critic, and co-host of his own radio show “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes." source
Dr. McPherson wrote this article in March, 2022 for the journal Results in Engineering and republished this draft at his website on January 23, 2023. See this Quote Investigator page for a discussion of the Megginson quotation which is mistakenly but repeatedly attributed to Darwin. ~ Ed.