The possibility that climate change could wipe us out has not been given enough attention and requires urgent consideration if we are to avoid a worst-case scenario, according to a new report. As a first step towards salvation, the authors urge the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to stop looking on the bright side and conduct a “special report on catastrophic climate change.”
“Could anthropogenic climate change result in worldwide societal collapse or even eventual human extinction?” ask researchers in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “At present, this is a dangerously underexplored topic. Yet there are ample reasons to suspect that climate change could result in a global catastrophe.”
Building on this worrying sentiment, study author Dr Luke Kemp explained in a statement that “climate change has played a role in every mass extinction event. It has helped fell empires and shaped history. Even the modern world seems adapted to a particular climate niche.”
In spite of these terrifying precedents, though, the researchers point out that “the IPCC has yet to give focused attention to catastrophic climate change. Fourteen special reports have been published. None covered extreme or catastrophic climate change.”
This tendency to ignore our impending downfall, they say, may reflect “the culture of climate science to 'err on the side of least drama,' to not to be alarmists.” As a consequence, the fall-out from a global temperature rise exceeding 3°C (5.4°F) above pre-industrial levels remains largely underexamined, despite the fact that many climate change models predict such an increase.
Bucking this trend, the researchers call for a "climate endgame" research agenda to examine what they call the “four horsemen” of climate change. These are listed as famine and undernutrition, extreme weather events, conflict, and vector-borne diseases.
For instance, they explain that when a rise of more than 2°C (3.6°F) is considered, then the chances of significant decreases in maize production worldwide jump from 7 percent to 86 percent. The resulting “breadbasket failures” are likely to be exacerbated by what the authors call “warm wars”, as technologically enhanced superpowers squabble over dwindling carbon budgets and other climate impacts.
“Paths to disaster are not limited to the direct impacts of high temperatures, such as extreme weather events,” says Kemp. “Knock-on effects such as financial crises, conflict, and new disease outbreaks could trigger other calamities, and impede recovery from potential disasters such as nuclear war.”
To illustrate this point, the researchers reveal that current models suggest that within half a century, around 2 billion people could live in areas affected by “extreme temperatures”.
“By 2070, these temperatures and the social and political consequences will directly affect two nuclear powers, and seven maximum containment laboratories housing the most dangerous pathogens,” explained study author Chi Xu. “There is serious potential for disastrous knock-on effects.”
Summing up, the researchers state that “further research funding of catastrophic and worst-case climate change is critical,” and that “facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naïve risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst.”
“A special report on catastrophic climate change could help trigger further research,” they say, adding that such a project could “help bring into focus how much is at stake in a worst-case scenario.”