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I'm making a story where criminals are exiled to an uninhabitable, dying, resourceless Earth.

The prisoners must wear oxygen masks/protective suits in order to breathe on Earth's now heavilly polluted surface.

My question is, when will Earth get to this state?

Thanks for reading this :)

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome. When does your story need it to? We solve worldbuilding problems, not make story decisions (nor predict real-world events). Please take our tour and refer to the help center for guidance. Enjoy the site. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2022 at 15:18
  • $\begingroup$ Ok. Guess I won't ask then. Boom! Problem solved. 🙃 $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2022 at 15:51

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TLDR version: This effect would be localized.

There is a strong tendency to convolute climate change and pollution. Climate change is causing an overall increase in temperature, a generalized shift in were moisture accumulates, and the acidification of the oceans. None of this results in less oxygen on the surface.

There are some parts of the world where wearing a filtration mask is necessary to keep your lungs from getting damaged due to the industrial pollutants. Most of the world recognizes that it creates an environment where people can't safely live much less work, so anywhere with a responsible government will force the industries to clean up their emissions, or to convert it into a disposable form, the way we do with fly ash. There are a few counter examples, like Beijing but even the worst of the industrialists recognize that you can't have industry without workers.

For the entire planet to get that way, you would need highly automated (workerless) industry and some kind of global catastrophe that wiped out almost all of the plant life.

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    $\begingroup$ “some kind of global catastrophe that wiped out almost all of the plant life.” So like… climate change? $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Aug 26, 2022 at 16:44
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    $\begingroup$ This answer completely neglects the fact that mass global deforestation will significantly reduce the amount of breathable oxygen in the atmosphere. Deforestation gets worse as the climate heats up and dries out, and as water tables become more acidic. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Aug 26, 2022 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ So, funny thing, land plants in general will be able to adapt to climate change just fine. In a worst case scenario, we'll lose some of the longer lived plants, like the sequoia, but smaller plants, like thistle, will happily fill in the gap. Sea creatures won't survive the acidification, and a lot of land creatures won't be able to find the things that they, specifically, eat in their territory, but the plants will keep growing. Deforestation and urban sprawl will primarily cause biodiversity loss, but the idea that it could deplete oxygen is nonsensical. 2067 has crap science. $\endgroup$ Aug 26, 2022 at 19:17
  • $\begingroup$ @Topcode, no. Climate change alone won't do it -- there are plenty of heat-tolerant or cold-tolerant plants willing to move in response to any temperature shifts. In order to drop the oxygen level, you need a drastic climate change on the order of a snowball Earth or a runaway greenhouse. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 26, 2022 at 23:35
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark “or a runaway greenhouse” so kinda like… climate change. $\endgroup$
    – Topcode
    Aug 26, 2022 at 23:37
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Oceans die

Fine SF concept lifted from Soylent Green. Oceans are dying and with them go 80% of the oxygen. The oxygen that is produced from forests high in Siberia is consumed by fires that burn in the dessicated, deserted lands farther south. These fires burn until local oxygen is gone, then start up again if some shows up.

Your people need masks for supplemental oxygen. Ambient oxygen in most places is only about 5%.

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    $\begingroup$ Two problems with this: 1) oceans don't just die. Killing off the phytoplankton in the ocean is hard, and there's so much of it that something will quickly evolve to deal with any changing conditions. 2) Wildfires require oxygen. I know this sounds obvious, but it means that as the oxygen levels drop, it gets harder for fires to start and grow. Wildfires require more oxygen than humans do, so you'll eventually reach a point where humans can still breathe, but fires can't start. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Aug 26, 2022 at 23:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Mark - so you are saying soylent green really is made of plankton? $\endgroup$
    – Willk
    Aug 27, 2022 at 2:19

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