Will global warming destroy our civilization?

There’s a point of view one hears that puzzles me.  Paul Krugman put in the New York Times last week:

“Terrorism can’t and won’t destroy our civilization, but global warming could and might.”

What mechanism of destruction do these people have in mind? Lately I’ve asked colleagues what they think and found no consensus. One proposes that if the temperature rises 2 degrees, that might tip us into a regime where it rises 20 degrees. Another says even 3 degrees might make us unable to farm and we would starve.  Some think the point is that drought or famine might lead to war or mass migration. But then, so did World War II, without destroying our civilization.

My opinion is that global warming is extremely serious and may cause us all kinds of trouble. But I suspect the present mood, in which people elevate this threat above all others, will change when a city is destroyed by a nuclear bomb, or a war starts with Russia or China, or machines grow more capable than humans, or a global information collapse destroys the world’s financial system, or Crispr and the like unleash unimaginable horrors of biology.

[26 November 2015]

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