Chances of climate catastrophe being ignored, scientists say

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Experts are ignoring the worst possible catastrophic climate change scenarios, including the collapse of society or the possible extinction of humans, however unlikely, a group of top scientists claim.

Eleven scientists from around the world are calling on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the authoritative organization for climate science, to prepare a special scientific report on “catastrophic climate change” to “visualize how much is happening on the planet.” game is at a worst.” In their perspective piece in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they address the idea of ​​human extinction and global social collapse in the third sentence, calling it “a dangerously underexposed topic.”

The scientists said they are not saying the worst is going to happen. They say the problem is that no one knows how likely or unlikely a “climate endgame” is and that the world needs those calculations to combat global warming.

“I think it’s highly unlikely that in the next century you’ll even see anything even go extinct simply because humans are incredibly resilient,” lead researcher Luke Kemp of the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge said in a statement. England . “Even if we have a 1% chance of a global catastrophe that will die out in the next century, that 1%, that’s way too high.”

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Catastrophic climate scenarios “seem likely enough to warrant attention” and could lead to prevention and warning systems, Kemp said.

Good risk analyzes take into account both what is most likely and what is the worst that could happen, the study authors said. But because of the pushback of non-scientists rejecting climate change, mainstream climate science has focused on looking at what’s most likely and also disproportionately on low-temperature warming scenarios approaching international targets, said co-author. Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter in England.

There is, Lenton said, “not enough emphasis on how things, the risks, the big risks, could plausibly go wrong.”

It’s like a plane, Lenton said. It’s overwhelmingly likely that it will land safely, but that’s only because so much effort has gone into calculating the worst-case scenario and then figuring out how to avoid a crash. It only works if you investigate what can go wrong and that’s not being done enough with climate change, he said.

“There may be more at stake than we thought,” said University of Michigan environmental dean Jonathan Overpeck, who was not part of the study. He worries that the world “might stumble” over climate risks it doesn’t know about.

When global science organizations look at climate change, they tend to only look at what’s happening in the world: extreme weather, higher temperatures, melting ice caps, rising seas and the extinction of plants and animals. But they don’t take enough into account how these reverberate in human societies and deal with existing problems — such as war, hunger and disease — study authors say.

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“If we don’t look at the intersecting risks, we’ll be painfully surprised,” said Kristie Ebi, a professor of public health and climate at the University of Washington, a co-author who, like Lenton, was part of the United Nations’ global climate assessments.

It was a mistake health professionals made before COVID-19 when assessing potential pandemics, Ebi said. They talked about the spread of disease, but not about lockdowns, supply chain problems and spiraling economies.

The study’s authors said they are concerned about societal collapse — war, famine, economic crises — linked more to climate change than the physical changes to the Earth itself.

Outside climate scientists and risk experts have been both welcoming and wary of focusing on the worst of the worst, even as many dismiss talk of climate doom.

“I don’t believe civilization as we know it will survive this century,” University of Victoria climate scientist Andrew Weaver, a former British Columbia legislator for the Green Party, said in an email. “Resilient people will survive, but our societies that are urbanized and supported by rural agriculture will not.”

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Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of the tech company Stripe and Berkeley Earth has in the past criticized climate scientists for using future scenarios of soaring carbon pollution when the world is no longer on those paths to faster warming. Still, he said it makes sense to look at catastrophic scenarios “as long as we make sure we don’t confuse the worst case with the most likely outcome.”

Talking about the extinction of humans is not a “highly 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 doomsaying.”

What happens without extinction is bad enough, she said.

Co-author Tim Lenton said examining worst-case scenarios wouldn’t provide anything to worry about: “Maybe it’s that you can thoroughly rule out some of these bad scenarios. Well, that’s actually really worth spending your time on. Then we should all cheer up a bit.”

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Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears

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