Will the Earth be habitable in 2100?

The blame game

A couple of years ago, I accepted an interview request from a conservative radio host. It was about the time that Drew Gronewold and I were talking about high water levels on the Great Lakes. We maintained a warming climate could produce both record-high and record-low lake levels. Critics latched onto this statement as proof that climate scientists attribute anything we want to global warming. I understood that criticism, and I wrote a little piece called “Actually, climate scientists don’t blame anything they want on climate change.”

I researched the radio host and was prepared to meet for a productive conversation. I focused on a couple of key concepts, and as we closed, he asked how I felt about dire predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Did I believe the world was going to end in 10 years, he asked, “as the IPCC said?”

“Of course not,” I replied, and we spoke for another 30 minutes.

That interview never aired. Why? It did not play into the polarized narrative of the talk show’s business model.

The question of habitability

Turpan Oasis in Northwest China

The amazing underground tunnels that bring water to form the Turpan Oasis in Northwest China provide historical testimony to humans’ abilities to adapt. (Colegota, CC BY-SA 2.5 ES)

More recently, a Michigan alumnus asked me a similar question. “If we do not meet the goals of the Paris Agreement, do you think the Earth will be uninhabitable in 2100?”

Again, the short answer is, “Of course not.”

If Earth is uninhabitable in 2100, it will not be because our climate cannot support human life.

As always, my longer answer requires context.

The two different questions arise from the same place. In 2018, the IPCC released Global Warming of 1.5 ° C: An IPCC Special Report. The media covered it widely, often using such extreme headlines as “The world has just over a decade to get climate change under control, U.N. scientists say.”

But as we consider the question of habitability, we should recognize that immense ranges of temperature and precipitation already characterize the Earth’s climate. People have adapted to extreme cold in Siberia. Others are thriving in the hot, arid Middle East. The amazing underground tunnels that bring water to form the Turpan Oasis in Northwest China provide historical testimony to humans’ abilities to adapt.

In the climate of 2100, there will be plenty of environments between these current extremes. Hence, it is safe to conclude that Earth will be habitable.

Sustaining life

Omar Sharif in Dr. Zhivago

In the 1965 film Dr. Zhivago, starring Omar Sharif, the endless Russian winter became a character in its own right A set in Spain doubled for the oppressive, soul-crushing Siberia. (MGM, 1965.)

Though humans have adapted to these extremes, they do not support large populations. More targeted questions for 2100 may be: How many people can the planet support? How many will have access to technological adaptation strategies, such as floating cities? Does the human species have the ability to maintain planet-supporting infrastructure?

Humans have, always, experienced changing climates and harsh weather; it is part of our very nature. In the temperate, mostly stable climate of the past 10,000 years, we have grown accustomed to large and small adaptations. We’ve internalized expected climate extremes in our behavior and practice. We have seen industry and policy changes when we’ve experienced new extremes; for example, stronger building codes on the South Florida coast following Hurricane Andrew.

These two facts — that we can live in extreme conditions and that we have innate experience in managing our exposure to climate – establish (in me) some confidence in our capacity to cope with the coming changes.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Though the climate of Earth will be habitable in 2100, we will be experiencing new extremes. Each decade will be different from the previous and next decade. The climate future could be quite bleak.

What to expect

Earth’s average surface temperature will increase over the next several decades. Ice will melt and sea levels will rise. These developments will exacerbate existing challenges and create new ones. People will flee the flooding and inhospitable coasts while others will experience extended, severe drought. Temperatures will be dangerously hot in more places and at more times than ever before. Less of Earth will be as agreeably habitable as in the past.

Ecosystems and our relationships with ecosystems will continue to change, creating even more insecurity on the planet. Whole populations will be forced to relocate, and agricultural regions will shift according to available resources. Our building practices and engineering specifications will have to evolve.

The flaw in the message

Smoke stacks

Lowering emissions is critical to avoid the “worst effects” of global warming, according to the IPCC. (Image: iStock.)

As the climate changes, it is the human response that will either safeguard or imperil the planet’s future habitability. In 2007, Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Prize for Peace for their efforts to bring these issues to the world’s attention so we could anticipate and prepare for this change.

And I must point out the IPCC report cited by my radio interviewer does not say all will be lost in a decade if humans don’t get a handle on our carbon dioxide emissions.

The report stated that by 2030 emissions need to be below 2010 levels by certain percentages to meet 1.5 ° or 2.0 ° C warming goals. This is critical to avoid the “worst effects” of global warming.

There is no evidence we will meet those goals and we are fast approaching that increase of 1.5 ° C.  Are we, then, condemned to “the worst effects?”

The false choice

Kevin Costner in WaterWorld

In the futuristic film ‘Waterworld,’ the polar ice cap has completely melted and the sea level has risen over 25,000 feet, covering nearly all of the land. (Universal Pictures, 1995.)

Here is the problem with that argument. It places our very existence in balance: “Meet this goal or climate will be an existential threat.” It also wrongly suggests that if we meet the goal, we will have avoided dangerous climate change. Problem solved. This is not true.

The 2030 goal is part of a process similar to “flattening the curve” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as in our responses to COVID-19, if we fail to meet the 2030 goal, we are making the problem worse. We are committing to a more difficult path and more damage, including loss of life. From a mitigation perspective, we will need to continue to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the decades following 2030. Drastically.

More importantly, this “do-or-die” message diminishes the serious attention we should be paying to adaptation. We already have experienced and are committed to more warming. And we must develop a more systematic and anticipatory approach to extreme storms, fires, droughts, and floods. Today’s decisions regarding adaptation and mitigation will influence the quality of life for decades to come.

There is a more subtle communication element at work too. Though the emissions curve for carbon dioxide is relentlessly increasing, we have, in fact, avoided significant emissions. This is due to improved energy efficiency and growth in nuclear, wind, and solar energy. We’ve also increasingly transitioned from coal to natural gas to produce electricity. So, while the chatter in the public discourse is that we have “done nothing” to meet the 2030 goal, that is far from the truth.

Still, there is an urgency right now to reduce emissions further and take more drastic action. If we don’t, the moves we make between now and 2100 will become riskier, more difficult, and more expensive. The more slowly we reduce emissions, the more bleak 2100 becomes.

It never has been easy

For some people, the projected “peril” of 2030 is a motivating factor in reducing emissions. Others are defeatists who find the 2030 goals impossible and thus irrelevant. And there are those who put faith in technology to maintain a habitable planet.

Framing climate change in a semblance of realism is most important. This way, people can see what needs to be done and place themselves in personal, professional, and political positions to face the challenges it brings. As individuals, we need to broadcast effective influence so that more of us can understand, anticipate, and address future problems.

It won’t be easy. Never has it been so true that our here-and-now behavior will so directly impact the next hundred years. Never has it been so critical to revisit and adapt our decisions on a personal and societal level. Never has it been so true that we need a global and holistic approach to humanity’s choices and actions.

Climate change is a hard, wicked problem. But it is in the capacity of human ingenuity to anticipate, to address, and to thrive.

(Lead image from the Paramount Classics documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” 2006.)


  1. Joe Golonka - 1989

    Thank you, Professor Rood, for cutting through the simplistic and too-often ideologically driven chatter that so often characterizes the climate change debate. False choices as well as improper framing and projection too often render an objective and solution driven discussion of this critical subject as difficult and even frustrating.

    Although an evidence-based approach is foundational to science as well as most other other disciplines, our early 21st Century culture seems fraught with flawed premises as well as minimal efforts to discern actual evidence or to apply critical thinking. It is unrealistic to expect media talking heads and others whose existence depends on agendas of misinformation to change their approach. Despite this, I do remain optimistic that a partnership of the scientific community and thoughtful political leadership will ultimately lead to a sustainable outcome for our species.

    Joe Golonka


    • Richard Rood


      thanks for reading and writing, and I am glad you thought the piece did “cut through” some of the muck.

      I am optimistic that there will be some pockets of thoughtful political leadership. and hopefully, they will tilt things in the right direction.



      • Rod Dumas - 16

        Thank God for Joe Biden! He is at least a start
        But it will take others to have the stones to carry on. It is the ultimate question whether man is good or bad! It may be decided in our lifetime!


    • tracy everitt - none

      Humans , all of us, are afraid to face the obvious, certain outcome…we prefer to accentuate the positive… Personally have always felt that the earth will suddenly close down on us all…She behaves behaves, not as human scientists predict…and she always has been hurt by us humans, far worse than we admit…she is dying, quickly!…I give us 5 years before water wars, famine, devastations from climate disasters, and all those things are pushing nations into the madness of mob behavior, a madness which will finally cause a nucellar war, kill us all.


    • Brian Herberger - 1988

      I have long wondered under the best of conditions, say we clean up our act in monumental ways (totally intended), how many people can this planet support? What is the estimated population in 2100 baring global castophre? Floating cities would have to be reality it seems to me. I don’t think humans are stupid for using natural resources, emitting carbons, burning fossil fuels, but it has consequences and resources run out. I’m just a high school/military educated guy in his 50s, but seems to me the planet will be just fine, not so sure about us however.


    • Michael Miller - 12

      Your writing was found to be closer to reality than many will admit to. I personally am effected by the thinking that has pushed the automotive building to the point of no more gasoline powered vehicles I just don’t understand how we’re going to get there at the rate of the mining the elements required to build the batteries or chargers needed I feel like we need to develop hydrogen power safe enough for the average joe I also believe we need clean nuclear energy as the sun doesn’t always shine and wind doesn’t always blow that said I guess we will find out thank you for your articlee


  2. Russell Wyndham

    Human hubris causes us to believe that we are far more powerful/influential than we really are. Earth will be alive and thriving for many thousands or millions of years to come.


    • Jay Itay - 2016

      I think it a far better example of human hubris that you think nothing will happen to us. I don’t doubt the earth will be alive and thriving in any segment of time. What I doubt is that human society wont fall well before that, as resources become scarce and livable land fails to support our numbers.

      Just because life will still exist on earth doesn’t mean it will be a pleasant place for us to live. I’m no expert, but what is being said in this entry is not “we’ll be fine”. It’s “we should probably do something or there will be consequences. Maybe not as bad as extinction, and certainly not in the next 10 years, but no walk in the park either”.


  3. Yves Le Goff - 1987

    Among the more targeted questions, one seems worth adding: How soon will our civilization collapse? E.g. 2040 per revised MIT LtG model.


  4. John Snow

    Human beings, taken as a whole, are ignorant, stupid, short-sighted, selfish, greedy, lazy and indifferent to the suffering of others. These shortcomings will be the end of us. If we followed the advice of environmentalists and climate scientists, we might just be able to take the measures necessary to avert partial or complete extinction, but we are in the hands of politicians who generally see no more than four or five years ahead and for whom there is always another, more urgent problem. We need to plan 25, 50 and 100 years ahead to stand any chance and there needs to be a huge redistribution of wealth and technology from rich countries to poorer ones. Anyone who doubts that the path civilization is on leads to extinction should read ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’ by David Wallace Wells. Perhaps the USA will wake up when Florida goes under water, but by then it will be too late.


    • Ro Dumas - 1970

      …..just without us!!!


    • Brian Herberger - 1988

      I agree with pretty much every thing you said John. I don’t think politicians or we as a society can “fix” the problem. Seems to me things are just headed towards their natural conclusion. Maybe we can slow it down, but we all know reality is Mother Nature and this planet are not within our control.


  5. Martha Johnson - B.A., Univ. of Pa.

    Professor Rood said that doomsday predictions are unnecessary. He stressed human adaptability and ingenuity. His point was that we need scientific and political changes now, or very soon, to avoid the worst effects of climate change: parts of the earth becoming uninhabitable, segments of the population dying.

    I found Professor Rood’s piece reassuring. Based on his clear commentary, we can put away the nonsense, roll up our sleeves and get to work. I will write all of my representatives about the need for rapid climate action, and help others to do the same.


  6. Patrick Boucher

    Yes, many humans will adapt but can the same be said for the rest of the animal world? How many will decrease or face extinction? What effect will any these groups have on the larger picture? We claim to be “at the top” but we are not living in a homeostatic relation to the environment. Yes the media led many, including c’est moi, to believe inhabitability was inevitable. But we must be cautious. The effects bring felt are delayed. As Al Gore’s excellent movie implies climate change started with the Industrial Revolution when pollution started ona massive scaleand mother nature started coughing. We started producing more waste than could be removed. We started an imbalance. We still must do all we can to eradicate, not only reduce/adapt for future of animal kingdom which is defined as all living entities. We started the fire!


  7. Sheila Wall, MD - 1983

    Thank you! As a woman who grew up during the Cold War, I think more balanced views on climate change will motivate people more than doom and gloom which creates hopelessness and depression. Until recently, there wasn’t a lot a single person could do. There isn’t a lot now, but there is some. But what has been done has been marginally effective and points toward greater accomplishments in the future. My most recent visit to LA was in 2022. My previous visit had been in 1986. The effect that the climate changes made thus far are impressive. In 1986, driving into LA from anywhere meant observing increasing air pollution—in places there was so much that one couldn’t see more than 20’ ahead. In 2022, the air, even downtown, was remarkably better—and this had been due primarily to tough emission standards and laws. So changes can work. I suggest, though, that Democratic votes in the future are more likely to sustain current successes and allow for more!


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