Christopher Bonasia climate crisis

Most Severe Outcomes of Global Climate Catastrophe ‘Dangerously Unexplored’

A group of researchers point to the risks of climate change that climate science has left out.
[Victoria Pickering / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

By Christopher Bonasia | The Energy Mix

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.

15 comments

  1. Regrettably, the science now indicates we are well past the time where we can actually halt catastrophic climate change and the total collapse of the the biosphere. Further, we are largely in denial of this reality, which is completely understandable given the circumstances. In order to have prevented this outcome the climate emergency would have had to have been addressed 30-40 years ago. Sadly, we are being delivered a constant platter of hopium by much of the media and politicians. Estimates are now that we are likely a mere 10 years out from total collapse of human civilization as we know it and possibly a mass extinction of humanity. This is evident in the almost total loss of sea ice which reflects solar light back into space. Every predictor by scientists about the speed of climate change has been largely too conservative as the rapidity of the change has exceeded even the most dire predictions. Michael Dowd gives some excellent material on what we can expect coming down the pipe: warming of all the earth’s bodies of water to the point where they will contain no life. Further, the warming of this water will lead to an inability to cool nuclear reactors around the globe leading to meltdowns of those reactors. This is just one scenario. The leaders and elites have for too long known this but put wealth and their own interests above that of the planet and its inhabitants. My apologies for the bleak assessment but this is reality and it must be faced as unpleasant as it is. Dowd suggests a path of service to one another and the planet as an act of preparation for whatever will replace human life on this planet.

  2. Again I will declare that humanity will be lucky if it makes it all the way to Global Climate Catastrophe.

  3. It will all be turned into “Entertainment,” even the increased likelihood of human extinction.

    1. Might as well be Entertainment, as nothing we can do. It is too late. So, party hard.

      Space aliens are laughing themselves silly watching humans fight each other while the greatest threat is climate changes like a frog slowly cooked to death by raising heat slightly higher, —- not noticeable.
      But, hopefully mother Nature will rescue the human species with lots and lots of volcanic activities that darken and cools the earth for decades…. Same as before in earth’s history.
      But, maybe only a few thousand people will survive, like the Toba super volcano. But then ‘go forth and multiple’ to billions again.

  4. This author’s wake up shout should be very scary to everyone on the planet.

    Just look at the bathtub rings on Lake Powell and Lake Mead. If the drinking water supply collapses for any largely populated portion of the earth the ensuing chaos will be unpredictable.

    We should all be afraid of global warming, very, very afraid.

  5. It all boils down to too many people on the planet. I’m 82 years old. When I was born there were 2.2 billion humans on Earth; today there are 7.9. One single unfinished lifetime. That says it all.

  6. When I studied climate change, the outcome looked like this:

    There is no dispute that the Arctic region is warming faster than the rest of the planet. There is no dispute that the Arctic sea ice is melting away. The once thick ice reflected heat from the sun. When the white ice is gone the dark blue sea beneath it will begin absorbing heat rather than reflecting it. This will warm the entire planet. The sun hardly sets in the Arctic region.

    There is no dispute that there is an enormous quantity of methane contained in the Arctic region permafrost. Way more than enough to make the planet way warmer than it is now. There will come a point where there is so much methane in the atmosphere that it will get so hot that the crops will wither and die in the fields. When you can’t grow grains enough to feed eight billion people civilization will collapse.

    When civilization collapses who will tend the 450-odd nuclear reactors now in use? When the reactors melt down the air will become poisonous. Everything dies. The big storms, hurricanes, fires, droughts, sea level rise are all the side show. Some can escape a fire or a storm; no one escapes poisonous air.

    Physicists tell us the universe is infinite. Given the meaning of the word infinite we must conclude that there are also infinite numbers of planets with life on them. Life on this planet will cease but will continue to thrive elsewhere. The universe is teeming with life.

    The Bhagavad-Gita says repeatedly that the human soul is eternal. We lose our bodies but not our lives.

    The only faint faint faint ray of hope I saw is found in the work of Australian soil scientist Walter Jehne, work he calls Regenerative Agriculture. (See also Allan Savory.) Videos of his lectures are on YouTube.

  7. There has been massive fires due to Climate Change in the US in 8 states or better totaling 11,500 square miles and worldwide— including the Amazon in Brazil and Ecuador, of some 40,000 square miles. Bigger than a nuclear worldwide holocaust..

    1. I remember talking to someone from California who had been involved in Forestry before his position was eliminated. He could not believe that the state’s “leaders” decided to go natural and do away with forestry management (“they sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind”). Of course it took years for the buckbush to grow and the eucalyptus to spread; so “The fires are not our fault!”
      There is a reason why much of the West remained unsettled until relatively recently. No water. But they have beautiful golf courses!
      It’s all a matter of priorities. Russia and China will do well for the next 50 years, building artic trade routes (and unlike the US they will likely share resources). Man is supposedly the most adaptive animal; it will take a lot of effort to adapt and for humanity to survive. But there were humans around during the last Ice Age, and the oceans have risen over 400 feet since then.

      1. Reminds me of Trump blaming California for not raking its Forrest’s as Finland does (it doesn’t) and missing again the irony of how well those socialist Scandinavians do so many things.

        I suspect Forrest management is as complicated as many human endeavors which to the uninformed might seem simple and I don’t know anything about California going “natural.”

        But 57% of California Forrest’s are under Federal control and 40% are under private ownership, leaving only 3% under State control.

        I don’t know if there is a connection between drought induced Forrest fires and water consumption by humans but I do believe that our greatest danger is collapse of our fresh water supplies.

        Hard to see how LA and Phoenix are sustainable without some technological miracle. Is desalination a feasible solution?

  8. reactionary climate change fear porn….not science but voodoo….monopoly capitalism and unquenched over production/waste cannot address homelessness in USA. consumerism the military industrial bloodthirstiness creates a distorted logic—production for exchange rather than use. since climate patterns are poorly modeled and predicted a better approach is preparation, water conservation, improved public transport, industrial policy, federal agricultural planning, regional energy planning….but nearly impossible when jurisdictions and corporations paralyze implementation of a general set of policies

  9. Perhaps we need a world-wide revival of stoicism. Our fate is determined, but we can each choose to act virtuously in communion with our fellow humans and other living creatures in the time we have left.

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