This is what the world will look like in 100 years if we do nothing to stop climate change

Climate change experts forecast our ecological future if humanity continues polluting at the current rate

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 4, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Ruins of a city, apocalyptic landscape (Getty Images/vicnt)
Ruins of a city, apocalyptic landscape (Getty Images/vicnt)

Aside from its meteorological effects, climate change is also wreaking havoc on our minds: Younger generations are bitterly denouncing their elders in climate protests and mental illnesses are spreading as people feel powerless to avert catastrophe. 

"The floods and fires, droughts and lethal heatwaves we are experiencing today will become much more common and more severe."

Unfortunately, this is one occasion where the figurative sky is really falling. The prophets of doom-and-gloom are correct in that food shortages, social instability and extreme weather events will define our future.

Of course, it's not entirely too late. Humanity still has a chance to reduce its dependency on oil, coal and gas for our energy needs. 

And if we don't, the future will be bleak indeed. Salon spoke to experts to assess what the Earth will look like 100 years from now if we do nothing to change the current trajectory of industrial civilization. Perhaps predictions will jump-start humanity into action.

Food will be scarcer

As far as eating is concerned, unfettered climate change will lead to a "dramatic reduction in sea life and fish and seafood," according to Dr. Michael E. Mann, a professor of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania. This means that there will fewer areas of arable farmland for agricultural production; there will be less food, both in quantity and quality, and as infrastructure problems pile up humanity will suffer what Mann described as a "collapsed food distribution system."

This would happen in a two-fold manner, on land and in the sea. John Hocevar, a marine biologist and director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign, elaborated on this scenario. On the land, there will be far less usable farm land as temperatures continue to rise and precipitation becomes dicier. In the ocean, coral species will start going extinct and — as reef ecosystems collapse — they will take down the food web with them.

"Krill abundance will decline in Antarctic waters, impacting everything from penguins to whales," Hocevar explained. "Ocean acidification, the evil twin of climate change caused by direct absorption of carbon dioxide into water, is likely to wipe out whole classes of plankton, leading to a transformation of marine sea webs that is impossible to imagine."

There will be "far worse extreme weather events than those we see today. withering droughts, epic floods, deadly hurricanes, and almost inconceivably hot heatwaves; a typical summer day in midlatitude regions like the U.S. will resemble the hottest day we have thus far ever seen."

Dr. Alice C. Hughes from the University of Hong Kong's School of Biological Sciences projected that, as a result of food scarcity issues, humans would have to adapt through mass mechanization of agriculture and reducing meat consumption. Indeed, meat production relies heavily on ecologically unsustainable factory farms, and requires animals to be fed farmed food that could simply be fed to humans, meaning it is far less efficient in terms of energy required to produce per calorie.

As the economy adjusts to the new conditions imposed by climate change, the area of farmland will likely have to expand in size and therefore drive high extinction rates (which are already skyrocketing due to climate change). There will also be "an increased reliance on imported pollinators (because of this intensification of agriculture and changed climates making areas unsuitable for native species)," meaning that crops which rely on pollinating insects like bees will need to bring in new methods for spreading their seeds — or may utterly collapse from existence while unsuccessfully trying. As shifts in temperatures and seasonality cause various crops to become extinct, it will change how humans produce their food.

Hughes also predicted that global diets will become more uniform, since the loss of agricultural and livestock variety will lead to a loss of local color in diets. In addition, "changing in global fisheries as many upwelling areas for high productivity will shift," which will combine with our current unsustainable fishing practices to "massively reduce the number of fish species that can be harvested."

The great migration

Hocevar and Hughes both pointed to another major change to human existence that will be wrought by unfettered climate change: the rise of climate refugees, or people who are forced to flee their homes as they become uninhabitable. For hundreds of millions if not billions of people, this will include coastal cities that are overwhelmed by sea level rise, and possibly desert cities like Phoenix which become too hot to inhabit year-round.

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"Sea level rise will render many coastal areas uninhabitable," Hocevar wrote to Salon. Hocevar noted that this would impact food production since as a result "much of our farm land will no longer be as productive." Hughes alluded to the social consequences of this flooding, writing that "the inundation of many coastal areas, including islands will cause significant displacement of human populations, and these climate refugees will need to be moved to different countries."

"Climate refugees will increases and create all sorts of tensions," writes Dr. Kevin E. Trenberth, Distinguished Scholar at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "The odds of a major war and perhaps a pandemic resulting in greatly diminished populations is finite. Many parts of the tropics will no longer be livable. Many coastal regions will be inundated."

The weather gets chaotic

"I'll be long gone.  Perhaps civilization will be too?"

All of the experts agreed that climate change will lead to increasingly frequent and disastrous instances of extreme weather like hurricanes, floods, heat waves and wildfires.

Mann told Salon that there will be "far worse extreme weather events than those we see today," including "withering droughts, epic floods, deadly hurricanes, and almost inconceivably hot heatwaves." In southern parts of the United States, an ordinary summer day of the future will "resemble the hottest day we have thus far ever seen."

Trenberth said that if global temperatures rise to 3°C higher than they were in the pre-industrial era, humans can expect longer summers, shorter winters and there will be larger areas with not enough rainfall or, in some cases, floods. Hocevar explained that "the floods and fires, droughts and lethal heatwaves we are experiencing today will become much more common and more severe." Overall, if climate change does not get contained through human efforts, Mann predicted a future similar to those out of Hollywood sci-fi apocalypse films.

"Given a worst-case emissions scenario, we're potentially looking at a dystopian world that resembles what Hollywood has depicted," Mann wrote to Salon.

Trenberth was even more pessimistic.

"I'll be long gone," Trenberth wrote. "Perhaps civilization will be too?"

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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Agriculture Apocalypse Climate Change Earth Global Warming Reporting