A new report argues that it’s time to start taking worst-case scenarios seriously and develop a solid plan of action for what will happen if – or, indeed, when – our current way of life ends collapsed.
“Climate change has played a role in every mass extinction event. They helped bring down empires and shaped history. Even the modern world seems adapted to a certain climatic niche,” says the report’s lead author, Luke Kemp, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge in the UK, writes Science Alert.
Pathways to disaster are not limited to the direct impact of high temperatures, such as extreme weather events. The knock-on effects, such as financial crises, conflicts and new disease outbreaks, could trigger other calamities and hinder recovery from potential disasters such as nuclear war.”
Climate change has played a role in every mass extinction event
The old apocalyptic cavalry of plague, war, and famine should include a new partner, according to the essay’s authors: extreme weather.
Recent history has already given mankind a preview of what pandemics, economic instability and global food shortages might look like when combined. Although the results are not pretty, the structures of global civilization remain relatively intact.
At some point, however, those structures that allow us to withstand such storms will collapse.
Successive pandemics as food shortages bring people into closer contact with reservoirs of disease, famines alongside wars that limit food distribution for years, then decades at a time, rampant inflation as economies struggling to cope with new ways of doing business in a hotter, more disaster-ravaged world.
How could we delay our extinction?
“Annual average temperatures of 29 degrees are currently affecting about 30 million people in the Sahara and the Gulf Coast,” says Chi Xu, a social complexity researcher at Nanjing University.
By 2070, these temperatures and the social and political consequences will directly affect two nuclear power plants and seven maximum containment laboratories that house the most dangerous pathogens. There is serious potential for disastrous chain effects.”
Good risk management involves not only predicting likely scenarios, but also protecting against those that would have the worst impact.
Optimistically, we could turn things around and delay this growth a bit. The perfect combination of behavior change, political action and innovation could even help stabilize temperature rise at levels that don’t bombard us with a new catastrophe every six months.
A one in five chance
If things continue as they are now – which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is very confident will happen – it is almost certain that we can expect an average temperature of 1.5 degrees higher between 2030 and 2052 compared to pre-industrial levels.
However, there is about a one in five chance that, in an atmosphere with about 560 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, temperatures would be several degrees warmer. In May of this year, we reached 420 ppm.
According to a study on IPCC assessments published by Kemp and colleagues earlier this year, the intergovernmental body is not focusing enough on such outliers.
Humanity could miss a “golden” opportunity
With previous research indicating that we are very poorly informed about what warming well above 2 degrees Celsius means, we could miss a golden opportunity to be better informed if more optimistic plans fail .
“Facing a future of accelerating climate change while turning a blind eye to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatal folly at worst,” Kemp says. .
The study was recently published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.