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Researchers Point To ‘Dangerously Unexplored’ Risk of Global Climate Catastrophe

This story includes details on the impacts of climate change that may be difficult for some readers. If you are feeling overwhelmed by this crisis situation here is a list of resources on how to cope with fears and feelings about the scope and pace of the climate crisis.

Climate science has left the most severe outcomes of the climate crisis “dangerously unexplored,” says a team of experts who are calling for a new research agenda to prepare for worst-case scenarios.

“Facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst,” write researchers in an analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Positing outcomes like “worldwide societal collapse” and even “eventual human extinction,” the international team of researchers writes that there are many good reasons to be concerned about a global climate catastrophe or a “climate endgame.” Events throughout human history show that climatic changes have caused or contributed to civilizations collapsing or transforming, and have also played a role in each of the five mass extinction events in Phanerozoic Earth history, the current geologic time period that started roughly 538 million years ago.

Research shows that climate change can drive threat multipliers—like international conflict or the spread of disease—and lead to “system-wide synchronous failures” through indirect stresses like water and food scarcity, they add. In the wake of these disasters, human societies will likely be weakened and vulnerable to other threats, such as nuclear war.

The worst outcomes become more likely, and more severe, in global warming scenarios with temperatures that rise 3°C, 4°C, or higher above pre-industrial levels. But while these scenarios are entirely possible, climate research has focused on anticipating less severe pathways, to the near-exclusion of the more extreme outcomes. A prior study used text-mining to show that reports issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underrepresented 3°C-warming pathways compared to the likelihood of them coming to pass.

“We know least about the scenarios that matter most,” study lead Dr. Luke Kemp from the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk told The Guardian.

The researchers attribute the underrepresentation of extreme scenarios to several factors. For one thing, complex risk assessments are more difficult to conduct, even if they’re necessary and may be more realistic. Perhaps more influentially, research has focused on projecting the outcomes of meeting the target of the Paris agreement to keep average global warming below 2°C, “with an aspiration of 1.5°C”, without sufficiently exploring the consequences of missing that target. Climate researchers have also tended to “err on the side of least drama” in response to media pressure that criticizes climate scientists as being too alarmist.

But to prepare for what will happen if those targets aren’t met, “as people, as societies we need a good risk assessment of climate change,” study co-author Tim Lenton, a University of Exeter climate scientist, told Inside Climate News. “We don’t need to know just the most likely outcome, we need to look at the low-likelihood, high-impact things.”

To fill that knowledge gap, the study calls for a research agenda that builds understanding of extreme climate change dynamics and their long-term consequences, explores climate-triggered pathways that lead to mass suffering and death, investigates social fragility and vulnerabilities, and synthesizes those research findings into “integrated catastrophe assessments.”

“We have modeling on these different things, food systems, migration, conflicts, but it seems like nobody has really put together the toolkit to take a proper look at the possibility of cascading risks, including social fragility,” Lenton said.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Researchers Point To ‘Dangerously Unexplored’ Risk of Global Climate Catastrophe"

#1 Comment By Frances Deverell On August 3, 2022 @ 11:01 AM

My colleague, Phillip Symons, wrote a whole book on this subject, “Surviving Civilization’s Collapse”, pointing out all the historical precedents and calling us to get prepared. This article is most timely since we are currently on track for 3-4 degrees of warming, possibly more, by the end of the century. We are just at the point of exponential warming as the permafrost begins to release its methane as only one example why. Government and private sector response is totally inadequate for the realities our children will have to face. I just hope I don’t live long enough to see it for myself.

#2 Comment By Andy Kadir-Buxton On August 3, 2022 @ 12:00 PM

The Uninhabitable Earth book is a book that details what will unfold for every degree of warming, and is based on science that is already done. Buy your local politician a copy, it might save your life.

#3 Comment By Charles H Jefferson On August 3, 2022 @ 4:33 PM

Just an observation from the limited capacity I have to sample the information swamping the Internet. It was used in another context but seems to fit here also.
There seems to be strong evidence that we as a species have gained the upper hand in using our Finite Biosphere beyond it’s sustainable capacity to support life on this planet as we have known it. We have introduced sources of energy that far exceed that which built the Biosphere and are using it to “feather our own nest” for the present. We are now experiencing in climate change and dwindling resource supply and extinctions the consequences as we cripple the Biosphere by taking too much and polluting what is left for the future. Perhaps the main reason is the exponential growth of using energy in excess of what the Biosphere is designed to operate with. We know the principle and use it in everyday activity but fail to realize that it also applies at the planet level. So now we have overpopulated this planet with our species, humans, and increased our take from the Biosphere far beyond it’s sustainable yield for life sustainability. Our answer seems to be to increase the use of energy and resources! Why the disconnect with reality? Why do we want to break the Biosphere, so it will be useless for our progeny, for that is what we are doing with a vengeance in almost all we do in excess? We are adept at breaking things with energy (force), also at just the right amount for many applications , shy of breaking . We still may be able to ease up in time not break the future for all our progeny . Time is running out fast!
Ecojustice will be done by extinction, the way we are going about it, me thinks.

#4 Comment By Phil Chubb On August 5, 2022 @ 8:37 PM

Government-funded “mainstream” researches and their organizations have to appear “responsible” rather than “alarmist” because governments have to make the funding palatable to electorates with majorities who have no interest in significantly upsetting the economic status quo. If many government-funded scientists said what they really think is soon going to happen to life as we know it out loud, they’d be pilloried as alarmists and would probably lose funding. Apocalyptic future predictions are therefore left to private – mostly individual – influencers.

Various future apocalypses are well known and have been widely discussed. However, governments and the organizations they fund have ignored or minimized the probabilities of them occurring to date.