Why Humans Won’t Go Extinct From Climate Collapse

This brilliant dinosaur almost got my french fries yesterday. They didn’t go extinct at all, and neither will we. Our circumstances will just be reduced, and we may be stealing french fries from the artificial species that take over.

Dinosaurs didn’t go extinct. They became birds. One shat on my wife last week. They’re doing fine. In the same way, humans will survive climate collapse. But I suppose you expected something better than survival.

It Only Takes A Village

Human migration over the past 200,000 years. PNAS

The ancestral population modern humans come from was likely just tens of thousands of people in Africa and a ‘bottleneck’ of maybe even a few hundred people is what populated the rest of the Earth.


Whatever we call ‘us’ came from a hardy band that would be a small concert today. Whatever fuckery we do to the Earth would have to literally kill all of us and it won’t. It will kill a lot of us, but more than enough will survive for the species to survive. One Facebook network would do.

If you go further back, at every point in the graph below, one of your relatives was alive, be they hominid, rat-like, reptilian, or just cells. It’s crazy to think about, but you are from a long line of survivors going back to the dawn of life. That line can get frayed and torn, but it is very, very difficult to cut.

As you can see, there’s a wide range of temperatures that we can physically adapt to. The big difference, however, is that for the vast majority of our existence, we just moved. When the going got tough, the tough got going. Our ancestors were constantly migrating, whether it be a cell flagellating across the ocean or humans crossing the Bering Strait.

As you can also see, our time as hominids (from say 1,000,000 years ago, or 1,000 thousands) has been relatively quite stable. While it’s possible for us to physically live in a hotter world, we’d have a drastically reduced range from today. Then if you look at our time as historical humans (from say 10,000 years ago), our civilization is built around even less variation.

While hominids could migrate, human civilization can’t just get up and move. We can’t just get up and move Dhaka, Miami, or Jakarta as they flood. We can’t just get up and move the population of India and Pakistan as they roast. While the human species will almost surely survive, this particular civilization is toast.

This graph, based on the comparison of atmospheric samples contained in ancient ice cores and more recent direct measurements, provides evidence that atmospheric CO2 has increased dramatically since the Industrial Revolution compared to paleoclimatologic (past climate) measurements over the past 800,000 years. (Credit: Luthi, D., et al.. 2008; Etheridge, D.M., et al. 2010; Vostok ice core data/J.R. Petit et al.; NOAA Mauna Loa CO2 record.) (NASA)

It’s a leading indicator, but the amount of CO2 we’re dumping into the air well exceeds historical levels, and it’s only getting worse through all the summits we hold. The indicator that faithfully follows is temperature, and then all hell breaks loose (if you hadn’t noticed).

To zoom back out, you can see that the really bad paths we get on if we don’t stop right now (5+ degrees of warming) take us back to fucking dinosaur territory, which will certainly make fossils of many of us, along with most of our animal cousins.

Past and future trends in global mean temperature spanning the last 67 million years… If emissions are constant after 2100 and are not stabilized before 2250, global climate by 2300 might enter the hothouse world of the early Eocene (~50 million years ago) with its multiple global warming events and no large ice sheets at the poles. Credit: Westerhold et al., CENOGRID. Via

And yet even this level of damage—while catastrophic from a civilization level—is not enough to stop the human species. We’re like cockroaches with guns. Humans occupy every corner of the Earth, and as long as even a few hundred people survive, they can repopulate the Earth. And we can almost certainly manage much more than that. It will just suck.

To me, the likely situation is something akin to what happened to the dinosaurs. We find a niche where we can survive and even thrive, in time, but some other more adapted creature inherits the Earth. The dinosaurs would have literally looked down on our rat-like ancestors, but here we are. And to me, the most likely candidate is artificial life, that corporations and their ilk will inherit the Earth. But that’s another story.

My only point here is that human beings won’t go extinct from climate collapse. We are suffering an ‘extinction-level’ event like the dinosaurs, but like the feathered dinosaurs that tried to steal my french fries yesterday, we’ll endure.