Le changement climatique est-il la fin inévitable de toute civilisation ?



Des scientifiques suggèrent que la civilisation humaine n’est pas la première à être menacée d’extinction par le réchauffement climatique de sa planète.

Les colosses de pierre

Le dimanche de Pâques 1722, le navigateur hollandais Jakob Roggeveen, alors à la recherche de la mythique Terra Australis découvre une forteresse volcanique au beau milieu de l’océan Pacifique. Cette île, qu’il baptise île de Pâques, ne compte plus que 4 000 habitants. Mais elle était quelques siècles auparavant le siège d’une civilisation assez développée et sophistiquée sur les plans artistique et technologique pour construire les colosses de pierre qui veillent encore sur elle.

Pour le biologiste américain Jared Diamond, ce sont justement ces colosses dressés dos à la mer qui sont responsables de la périclitation de cette civilisation. Il estime en effet que pour les transporter de la carrière du volcan Rano Raraku, d’où les colosses étaient extraits, jusqu’à la côte, les habitants de l’île de Pâques ont dû les faire rouler sur des rondins, et donc sacrifier des dizaines d’arbres. Ils ont « détruit, sans le savoir, les ressources naturelles dont dépendait leur société » et commis un véritable « suicide écologique ».

Crédits : Arian Zwegers/Flickr

Cette thèse est discréditée par plusieurs chercheurs, qui plaide pour leur part pour un déplacement des colosses par rotation – soit en position horizontale, soit en position verticale. Pour ces chercheurs, la déforestation de l’île de Pâques est multifactorielle. L’anthropologue hawaïenne Mara Mulrooney affirme par exemple qu’elle a été causée à la fois par l’agriculture sur brûlis et par l’arrivée des rats aux alentours de 1200. En l’absence de prédateurs, les rongeurs ont selon elle proliféré au point de détruire la flore et l’avifaune.


Mais si, comme le reconnaît une étude publiée en mai 2018 dans la revue scientifique Astrobiology, « les détails de leur histoire font toujours débat, de nombreux travaux indiquent que les habitants de l’île de Pâques ont épuisé leurs ressources, ce qui a conduit à la famine et à la fin de leur civilisation ». Et leur exemple est fréquemment « utilisé comme une leçon pour le monde en termes de développement durable ».

Les auteurs de cette étude ont donc choisi de s’en servir comme d’un point de départ dans l’élaboration d’un modèle mathématique capable de déterminer les différents destins possibles d’une civilisation et de sa planète, qu’ils présentent de manière interdépendante. À mesure que la population d’une civilisation augmente, elle utilise davantage les ressources de sa planète, et en utilisant davantage ces ressources, elle modifie la planète.

L’île de Pâques leur a notamment permis d’illustrer le concept essentiel de « capacité porteuse », qui recouvrela taille maximale de la population d’un organisme qu’un milieu donné peut supporter. « Si vous passez par un changement climatique très important, votre capacité porteuse peut chuter parce que l’agriculture à grande échelle peut par exemple être fortement perturbée », explique l’un d’eux, l’astrophysicien américain Adam Frank. Mais l’originalité de leur travail repose sur le fait qu’ils ne se penchent pas uniquement sur le destin de l’humanité et de la planète Terre, mais de l’univers tout entier.


Une chance sur dix milliards de billions

Comme le rappelle l’étude, il est clair, depuis la deuxième moitié du XXe siècle, que l’activité humaine a profondément modifié le système terrestre. Et si le réchauffement climatique, entraîné par les émissions de CO2 en est la représentation la plus spectaculaire, ce changement se caractérise également par la déforestation et l’effondrement de la biodiversité. Il a été décrit par le néologisme « anthropocène » comme la période durant laquelle l’activité humaine est devenue la force géologique dominante sur la Terre.

L’anthropocène apparaît en outre comme un point de basculement. Ses conséquences sur la civilisation humaine sont inconnues, avec des prédictions qui vont de l’adaptation à l’effondrement. Mais les auteurs de l’étude doutent que la situation actuelle de la Terre soit inédite. Car une autre étude, publiée en mai 2016, tend à démontrer que la civilisation humaine ne serait pas la première civilisation technologiquement avancée de l’histoire de l’univers.

Cette étude montrait en effet que les chances pour que l’humanité soit la première espèce intelligente de l’univers sont d’une sur dix milliards de billions. Ce qui est incroyablement faible. « Pour moi, cela implique que d’autres espèces intelligentes et technologiques ont très certainement évolué avant nous », affirmait alors Adam Frank. « Si nous ne sommes pas la première civilisation de l’univers, cela signifie qu’il existe probablement des règles selon lesquelles le destin d’une civilisation aussi jeune que la nôtre peut advenir », dit-il aujourd’hui.

« L’idée est simplement de reconnaître que le processus du changement climatique peut être quelque chose de générique », poursuit-il. « Les lois de la physique veulent que toute population jeune, en construisant une civilisation énergivore comme la nôtre, provoque nécessairement une réaction de la part de la planète qu’elle habite. Aborder le changement climatique dans un contexte cosmique peut nous donner une meilleure idée de ce qui est en train de nous arriver et de ce que nous pouvons faire pour l’éviter. »

Les quatre scénarios

Le modèle mathématique élaboré par Adam Frank et son équipe ont permis d’identifier quatre scénarios possibles quant au devenir d’une civilisation et d’une planète données. Le premier est celui du « dépérissement ». La population augmente aussi rapidement que l’état de la planète se dégrade sous l’effet du réchauffement climatique. Puis elle atteint un sommet avant de décroître tout aussi rapidement, en raison des conditions de vie de plus en plus difficiles. Elle finit par atteindre un niveau stable, mais vraisemblablement insuffisant à perpétuer une civilisation technologiquement avancée.

Crédits : University of Rochester / Michael Osadciw

Le deuxième scénario est celui de la « durabilité » : la population et la température planétaire augmentent avant de se stabiliser à des niveaux sans conséquences catastrophiques. Ce scénario ne peut se produire que si la population en question reconnaît que ses activités ont un effet négatif sur sa planète et qu’elle passe de l’utilisation de ressources à fort impact à des ressources à faible impact. Sur Terre, par exemple, cela signifierait passer des énergies fossiles aux énergies renouvelables.

Le troisième scénario est celui de  l’ « effondrement sans changement de ressources ». Comme dans le scénario du dépérissement, la population augmente aussi rapidement que l’état de la planète se dégrade. Mais une fois le sommet atteint, alors que les conditions de vie sont devenues insoutenables, la population chute inexorablement. C’est la fin de la civilisation. Seule l’espèce peut éventuellement espérer survivre.

Le quatrième – et le pire – scénario est celui de l’ « effondrement avec changement de ressources ». Comme dans le scénario de la durabilité, la population reconnaît que ses activités ont un effet négatif sur sa planète et passe de l’utilisation de ressources à fort impact à des ressources à faible impact. Mais sa réponse s’avère trop tardive : la situation semble un temps se stabiliser, puis elle se dégrade de nouveau et la population s’effondre.



Est-il encore temps d’emprunter le chemin de la « durabilité » ?

Vers lequel de ses scénarios se dirigent la Terre et l’humanité ? Adam Frank et son équipe ne sont pas encore en mesure de répondre à cette question. Mais s’ils parviennent maintenant à calculer la durée de vie d’une civilisation, ils pourront se faire une idée de sa capacité à surmonter une « crise existentielle » et à emprunter le chemin de la « durabilité ». En attendant, ils se contentent d’envoyer un nouvel avertissement à l’humanité.

« Si l’on modifie trop profondément le climat de la Terre, on ne pourra peut-être plus revenir en arrière », souligne en effet Adam Frank. « Même si l’on recule et qu’on commence à utiliser des ressources solaires ou d’autres ressources à faible impact, il pourrait être trop tard, car notre planète a déjà changé. Nos modèles montrent que nous ne pouvons pas penser comme une population qui évolue d’elle-même. Il faut que nous pensions à des planètes et des civilisations qui évoluent ensemble. »

Afin, s’il en est encore temps, d’emprunter nous aussi le chemin de la « durabilité ».


Couverture : Interstellar. (Warner Bros.)


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