Isaac Asimov predicts Global Warming findings in 1971

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January 1971 issue of Penthouse. The print says, "Isaac Asimov dates the end of the world. It's closer than you think." This was in 1971. It is now 2012
January 1971 issue of Penthouse. The print says, "Isaac Asimov dates the end of the world. It's closer than you think." This was in 1971. It is now 2012
Back to Issac Asimov's essays on the population problem


In 1971 in an essay published in the January issue of Penthouse, of all places, Isaac Asimov made a remarkable estimation of what would be the result of the continued burning of fossil fuels. The title of his essay was The End and in it he tried to estimate when our world civilization would come to an end. His first point was to show the ridiculousness the present situation (1971) if the human population was allowed to increase without limits. At the then present rate of population growth Asimov estimated that by 2436AD the earth's surface, including the oceans, would be covered by humans to twice the density of Manhattan at noon. By 3530AD the whole mass of the Earth would consist of human flesh. Continuing supposedly to the absolute end, by 6826AD all matter in the Universe would have been converted to human flesh. Obviously somewhere down the line, the growth of the human population would have to cease.

Asimov next tried to estimate when that would be. He reasoned that covering the earth surface with humans to twice the density of Manhattan could be feasible if, all animal matter on this planet were converted to human flesh and all plant matter was converted to 100% edible algae. There would be no other life. No lions, tigers, bears, or elephants. Not even a bee, gnat, or mosquito. Also no shrubs, grass, or trees. Just us and the algae. This is a perfectly ridiculous situation, but Asimov asked, "do we even have the energy to get to this point in 2436"?

An aside here. Asimov made me realize that for every kilogram of human flesh created on this planet, means one less kilogram of animal matter. The earth is in a biological equilibrium. The solar energy impinging on this planet can support only a finite mass of photosynthetic plant life and that mass of plants can only support a finite mass of animal life. So when we add another 2 billion souls to this planet by 2045 that means there must be an equivalent mass of those 2 billion subtracted from the mass of animal life. That means extinction for some animal species no matter how much we want to save them. More humans means less animal life. The equations must balance.

The End was published in the collection of Asimov's essays Today and Tomorrow and ... 1973
The End was published in the collection of Asimov's essays Today and Tomorrow and ... 1973

Thus back to business. Do we have enough energy to get to 2436? At the present (1971) increasing rate of world energy consumption, all recoverable fossil fuels would be burnt by 2105. If technological advances allow us to harness the energy from all fossil fuel deposits, both the recoverable and non-recoverable, then there would be 7.5 times more fuel. How long would this last? Until 2150! What! Only 45 more years? Such is the power of exponentially growing consumption. OK, what about using nuclear energy? Uranium and thorium could provide 100 times the energy of the fossil fuel deposits. Does this get us anywhere? Nope! It only gets us to 2285. We are not going to have enough energy to get to 2436!

So perhaps we can get to 2285. But as Asimov noted, if all the recoverable fossil fuels were burnt, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere would 25 times that of today. The temperature on the earth's surface would be 18 to 90 deg Celsius[1] greater than today. This is an inferno. We would be fried. OK, so we are not even going to make it to 2150. Where will it end?

This is where Asimov's conjectures become spooky. He figures that when the CO2 content of the earth's atmosphere doubles to about about twice the current CO2 content of the atmosphere, he wrote this in 1971, then the temperature of the earth's surface would increase by 3.6 degrees Celsius. This would happen by 2070. Then the ice caps would melt, the coast lines would be flooded, the prime areas of farming real estate would be gone, climates would be altered, and our plants would no longer grow and produce the same quantities of food in this new environment. We would starve.[2]

It is funny, but Asimov's date for when the earth's atmospheric CO2 content is doubled and his accompanying temperature increase is spot on the current estimations from climate scientists after they spent millions of dollars collecting evidence to back their findings. Is this remarkable? No, not really. Any savvy scientist could have come up with similar results figuring things out on the back of an envelop. The millions of dollars spent on climate research is to show that these reasonable conjectures are really true. This is not rocket science. To any half-way competent scientist worth his salt it is obvious as to what will happen. We had warnings all the way back to 1971. So now that we have scientific proof, why are we spewing out CO2 as if we are in a hurry to meet our own doom?

Thus did Asimov predict the end would come in 2070? Nope. He stated that before that, population overcrowding in cities and the increase competition for food and resources would lead to societal breakdown starting in 2000. Are we seeing that? Perhaps, in some parts of the world.[3]

What else did Isaac get wrong. Well he wrote

To prevent this (the CO2 greenhouse effect, i.e., global warming), we might make every effort to switch from fossil fuel to fission fuel, but in doing that, we would be producing radioactive ash in enormous quantities and that would present an even greater and more dangerous problem than carbon dioxide would.

Dead wrong. Radioactive ash is not spewed out into the environment like some coal burning smokestack. It is contained and all the radioactive spent fuel produced, until we run out, can be stored in some reasonably small geologically stable facility indefinitely. It has all been worked out. There is the Yucca mountain facility in the U.S. ready to go, but it has been closed because the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, doesn't want such a facility operating in his state, Nevada. It's a political problem, not an engineering or scientific one.

footnotes

  1. the temperature estimate was a quickie calculation done by myself. Isaac didn't do this.
  2. It is interesting that 4 years after this essay was published, Newsweek published an article which said we were probably headed for the next ice age. How could they have gotten it so wrong? Isaac Asimov got it right and he wasn't even a climate scientist. But he was a scientist. He could do simple math. We were emitting CO2, and the problem was obvious. I think the scientists who contributed to that Newsweek conclusion were outsmarting themselves. The temporary cooling trend that was then seen was due to aerosols in the atmosphere. They precipitate out of the atmosphere quite quickly. The CO2 stays there forever. The CO2 is always going to win in the end. It's Physics. Asimov saw that. For every climate denying idiot who harks back to the 1975 Newsweek article, they should hit him over the head with Asimov's even earlier essay.
  3. There are examples of Somalia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Afghanistan which are all failed states. To this list we maybe adding Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, and Mali.
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