Experts are ignoring the worst-case scenarios of climate change, including societal collapse or potential human extinction, however unlikely they may be, a group of top scientists claims.
Eleven scientists from around the world are calling on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s authoritative climate science organization, to produce a special scientific report on “catastrophic climate change” to “make clear how much is at stake in a worst.” -Case scenario.” In their perspective piece in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they throw up the idea of human extinction and global societal collapse in the third sentence, calling it “a dangerously underexplored topic.”
The scientists say they are not saying the worst will happen. They say the problem is that no one knows how likely or unlikely a “climate endgame” is, and the world needs those calculations to fight global warming.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be anywhere near extinction in the next century just because humans are incredibly resilient,” said study lead author Luke Kemp, of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge in England. “Even if we have a 1% chance that a global catastrophe will die out in the next century, that 1% is way too high.”
Climate catastrophe scenarios “appear likely enough to merit attention” and can lead to prevention and warning systems, Kemp said.
Good risk analyzes take into account both the most likely and the worst that could happen, the study authors said. But due to resistance from non-scientists who reject climate change, mainstream climate science has focused on examining what is most likely and also disproportionate to low-temperature warming scenarios that come close to international goals, said co-author Tim Lenton , Director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter in England.
There is, according to Lenton, “not enough emphasis on how things, the risks, the big risks, could plausibly go wrong.”
It’s like an airplane, Lenton said. It’s overwhelmingly likely that it will land safely, but only because so much attention has gone into calculating the worst-case scenario and then figuring out how to avoid a crash. It only works if you research what could go wrong, and that’s not being done enough on climate change, he said.
“There may be more at stake than we thought,” said Jonathan Overpeck, the University of Michigan’s Dean of the Environment, who did not participate in the study. He fears that the world could “stumble” on climate risks it doesn’t know about.
When global scientific organizations address climate change, they tend to look only at what is happening in the world: extreme weather, higher temperatures, melting ice sheets, rising seas, and plant and animal extinctions. But they don’t take enough account of how these resonate in human societies and interact with existing problems — such as war, hunger and disease, the study authors said.
“If we don’t look at the overlapping risks, we’re going to be painfully surprised,” said Kristie Ebi, professor of public health and climate at the University of Washington, a co-author who, like Lenton, has been involved in United Nations global climate assessments .
It was a mistake pre-COVID-19 health experts made when assessing possible pandemics, Ebi said. They talked about the spread of disease but not lockdowns, supply chain problems and spiraling economies.
The study’s authors said they worried about societal breakdowns — war, famine, economic crises — that are more related to climate change than physical changes on Earth itself.
Outside climate scientists and risk experts have been both kind and cautious in focusing on the worst of the worst, even as many dismiss talk of climate doom.
“I don’t think civilization as we know it will survive this century,” University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, a former Green Party MP in British Columbia, said in an email. “Resilient people will survive, but our societies that are urbanized and supported by rural agriculture will not.”
Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of technology company Stripe and Berkeley Earth has in the past criticized climate scientists for using future scenarios of sharply increasing carbon pollution when the world is no longer on that faster warming path. Still, he said it makes sense to consider disaster scenarios “as long as we’re careful not to confuse the worst-case scenario with the most likely outcome.”
Talking about human extinction is not a “very effective means of communication,” said Brown University climate scientist Kim Cobb. “People tend to immediately say, well, that’s just, you know, arm waving or doomsday yelling.”
What’s happening just before extinction is bad enough, she said.
Co-author Tim Lenton said examining worst-case scenarios couldn’t find anything to worry about: “Maybe you can thoroughly rule out a number of these dire scenarios. Well, this is really worth spending your time on. Then we should all cheer up a bit.”
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