Event summary by Luke Hatton
“Climate Emergency” was declared as the word of the year in 2019 by Oxford Dictionaries, as the phrase’s popularity soared from relative obscurity into one of the most prominent terms of the year. Scientists have known for decades that climate change poses a significant threat to the world and society, but 2019 seemed to represent a shift in awareness of the urgency of the situation in the mind of the wider world.
There’s no doubt about it—the situation is dire, and action must be taken swiftly if we are to limit climate change to the ‘safe’ level of 1.5 degrees Celsius. But does climate change really represent a ‘major threat to civilisation’, in the words of the 2020 Doomsday Clock Statement? Does it merit moving the minute hand of the Doomsday Clock (a measure of threats to humanity and the planet, founded in 1945 by scientists who helped develop the first atomic weapons) closer to the midnight apocalypse than ever?
We invited three expert panellists, David Wallace-Wells, Zeke Hausfather and Luke Kemp, to shed some light on whether climate change truly poses an existential risk to human life as we know it.
David is the Deputy Editor of New York magazine, where he writes frequently about climate change and the near future of technology. His cover story from July 2017, surveying the landscape of worst-case scenarios for global warming, became the most-read story the magazine has ever published, and his book on this topic, The Uninhabitable Earth, is a Sunday and New York Times Bestseller.
Primarily, David said he viewed the question of whether climate change poses an existential risk as more of a semantic question; it really does depend on what you mean by the word existential. Practically speaking, he doesn’t think that the threats some climate activists warn of, such as civilisational collapse over the course of the century, are likely.
In some regions, there will be—and indeed there already is—a literal threat to existence due to climate change, with many people dying from climate-related catastrophes. He warns that we have already reached a level of warming today—estimated at over 1℃ above pre industrial levels—where our lives and our society are being shaped by these forces, with increased risk of droughts, hurricanes and mass migration already being seen as a result of climate change. Practically speaking, a 2℃ rise from pre-industrial levels is the best possible outcome we can hope for, but even this could result in hundreds of millions of climate refugees, an additional 150m deaths from air pollution, and summer temperatures that cause heat death or stroke in some regions.
Political institutions will be challenged in ways that require us to renovate, reform or rebuild them to cope with this 2℃ world, David added, with the shape of life in a time of intense climate change depending not only on the physical warming, but the institutions we build and the protections we put in place to support human flourishing. To some degree, the nature of our existence will be preserved, but the lives of our children and grandchildren may well be unrecognizable.
We are very far from the curtains coming down and all life on Earth ending from climate change, but we are fooling ourselves by thinking about this in binary terms. We live in a world transformed by global warming and have the opportunity to shape the future of all human life on the planet by choosing to adapt and respond today. Our existence is already being shaped by the climate—the question we must act to answer is how far along that spectrum we will fall.
Zeke is a climate scientist and energy systems analyst whose research focuses on observational temperature records, climate models and mitigation technologies. He has spent 10 years working in the cleantech sector, and currently is the Director of Climate and Energy at the Breakthrough Institute and the US analyst for Carbon Brief.
Zeke began by suggesting that we can all agree that climate change isn’t going to cause the extinction of the human race. Humanity is a remarkably adaptable species, and has spread to the most extreme environments on the planet. However, climate change can and will have a huge impact on society, and could act as an existential risk multiplier, amplifying the impact of other shocks to society, he warned.
The work being done in the lead up to the next report from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is dividing the ability to adapt to climate change and the magnitude of climate change itself into separate scenarios so the two can be compared. As it turns out, Zeke explained, the worst case for climate change is not necessarily the one with the most warming. The worst case will be a world that is relatively poor and unequal, rife with nationalism, isolationism and conflict, coupled with a high degree of warming. This is a world where institutions and governments are weak, and where climate change could tip civilisations into collapse. Echoing David’s point, he explained that the strength of society and institutions will play a strong role in whether climate change can pose an existential risk.
However, Zeke warned of the risk of framing climate change in terms of extinction, as this can be reductive and lead to doom-ism with regard to climate action. Scientists now argue more with doom-ists than climate sceptics, and defeatism around climate change is dangerous.
From a scientific perspective, there is certainly a lot that is unknown about climate systems, but the best models do not tend to indicate a strong significance for tipping points (that is, the risk of reaching a level of warming that sets off a domino effect of positive feedback, significantly raising the warming past the initial level), at least on a global scale. Global warming is largely a function of cumulative emissions, a pretty linear relationship—certainly not containing a strong tipping point that could turn the climate crisis into a climate catastrophe.
Overall, the world certainly isn’t moving in the direction we need fast enough, Zeke said, but it has come far in the last two decades. 20 years ago it looked quite possible that emissions would double or even triple by the end of the century, while ten years ago China was building a coal-fired power station every two days. Ten years later, in 2013, global coal peaked, and has fallen ever since, while renewables are increasingly becoming the cheapest form of energy in many places. We’re moving towards a ‘muddling through’ world right now, where we’re avoiding 4-5℃ but are very far from the best case outcome of 1-2℃. This will be catastrophic for some human and natural systems but it is less likely to pose an existential threat to society than the unconstrained world we were on track for.
Luke is a Research Associate with the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, where he looks at past civilisation collapses to guide present policy. He is also an honorary lecturer in environmental policy at the Australian National University (ANU), holds a PhD in international relations and was previously a senior economist at Vivid Economics.
The blunt answer, Luke began, is that climate change does pose an existential threat. Above three degrees of warming we are running in the dark, and have to rely on geological records to work out what could happen. There is a lack of interest amongst scientists in looking at the outcomes for large temperature increases and worst case scenarios, as people tend to err on the side of the least drama. Unfortunately, there is not enough information to base conclusions on.
It's useful to define what an existential risk is when examining it with regard to climate change, Luke explained. Professor Nick Bostrom defines it as the annihilation of earth-originating intelligent life and/or permanent drastic curtailment of human potential. The easy way to think about this is to think of a global civilisation collapse, with the destruction of most critical systems, the failure of many states and drastic loss of social complexity. With a 2℃ rise, already most atoll and small islands nations are likely to become uninhabitable.
Luke set out four reasons why we can consider climate change as an existential risk;
Given the unknowns and uncertainties with regard to climate change - it would be bad risk management to not think about the worst case scenario, Luke concluded.
To hear a more in-depth examination of the question of whether climate change poses an existential risk, and to hear the answers to the questions posed by the audience, head to our YouTube channel, where a copy of the panel discussion has been uploaded: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ah1pLU10o_U.
By Laura Watson
Across the world, many stories are being told about climate change. Below are some you may or may not have heard. The complex interactions in these stories between people and the planet mean that they offer us learning opportunities: about the importance of a balance with nature, about the centrality of climate mitigation to human rights, and about the need for action now.
Stories of too little water
The Aral Sea was once the 4th largest lake in the world, but 60 years ago Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev decided to industrialise agriculture across central Asia with dramatic consequences for the lake. To achieve Khruschev’s lofty agricultural goals, the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, which are part of the Aral Sea drainage basin, were diverted into irrigation for cotton fields, and the lake slowly started to dry up. Over 25 years ago, an international fund for saving the Aral Sea was set up, but due to a lack of cooperation between the 5 Asian countries involved on key issues surrounding water, the fund has however had little success; the Aral Sea has now all but disappeared.
The disappearance of the inland sea is an issue in and of itself, but its implications go further. Silt from what used to be the lake-bed can now be subjected to wind erosion, with resulting dust storms in 2018 blotting out the sky, turning rain brackish and causing issues for crops. The industrial production of cotton, often using forced labour, in the surrounding region has led to the salinisation of the soil and serious accretion of persistent, toxic pesticide residues, leading to significant health problems. The loss of the moderating influence of this large body of water has made winters colder and summers hotter and drier.
It’s not just the people in the surrounding area who have been impacted by this disaster. As the lake became smaller and the salinity of the water increased, fewer and fewer fish species were able to survive. The lake ecosystem has now collapsed, contributing to the decimation of the once thriving fishing industry in the towns surrounding the lake, and the loss of a number of land animals whose life-cycles depended on the health of the lake.
Water issues are amplified by climate change, and the ecological crisis. The Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers, for example, are fed by glaciers in the distant Pamir mountains which are now rapidly shrinking. But what is even more important is to realise that it didn’t have to go this way. The lesson to learn from the Aral Sea is one which should be applied to the rest of the planet, especially as the climate changes and water becomes more of an issue. This story shows the need to find a balance between extracting water from nature and leaving it where it is, to support the complex ecosystem dynamics which depend on it.
The Aral Sea is a worst-case outcome, but one which could soon become true for the rest of the world, including for large rivers like the Colorado River, USA, in the face of both climate change and human exploitation. Water management issues are playing out across the world, and we could soon have conflict breaking out over access to water. For example, an Ethiopian hydro-electric dam project which will affect water levels downstream for countries such as Sudan who already experience water issues will soon begin construction. Some experts claim this could cause a war over water in as little as a few years. We must learn from the mistakes of the Aral Sea before it is too late.
Stories of snow
The upper reaches of Finnish Lapland are a largely pristine landscape of forests, marshes, deep clean lakes and scree-covered fells. They are also the homeland of the Sami (Saami, or Sámi) people, as well as lynxes, brown bears, wolves and golden eagles. This important region acts as a buffer against climate change: the peat-rich soils of the area trap significant amounts of carbon, acting as a massive carbon sink. Unfortunately, the area is under direct threat from climate change, as well as the proposed construction of a railroad across the region.
The Sami culture is highly adapted to their home in Finnish Lapland. They use hides for clothing, bones and reindeer antlers for tools and handicrafts. Around 1,000 words in the Sami language exist to describe the appearance and behaviour of reindeer, and 360 relating to snow.
But conditions for snow and the reindeer are now no longer predictable; the snow now arrives later, there is less of it, and its structure is different. These changes to snow conditions are threatening the Sami way of life, and in particular their herding practices. Some have now turned to modern technologies to ensure that their reindeer survive in longer snow-free periods. It is likely that as the Sami people lose what was unique to their way of life, the Sami culture and language may begin to disappear too.
Sadly, issues relating to snow are not limited to Finland. Across the world, retreating snowlines have “beached” places like ski resorts. Taking the example of the French mountains, climate change is a threat to the winter ski industry there, as they are receiving declining amounts of natural snow, and the snow they do get falls over shorter periods. The elevation where snow can reliably be expected to fall is predicted to rise, by up to 600m in the Pyrenees, and up to 300m across the Alps.
We can move and repurpose hotels, but the ecosystems that these places had as their foundation are changing and even disappearing. While the depopulation of mountain regions may be a feasible response strategy for humans, it is not necessarily one available to the animals and plants left behind. Further concerns for the non-human population arise in relation to potential conflict between humans and animals. Skiing activities will respond to the retreating snow line by moving further up mountain slopes. At the same time, suitable ranges for high elevation bird species may significantly contract (by up to 67% in the Alps). As bird habitats and skiing areas increasingly overlap, conflict between species may ensue, a pattern that may be seen for many animals and ecosystems as climate change progresses.
What can we learn from these stories?
By Emily Passmore
If all human activities were ranked by how much pollution they created per hour, flights would be very high on the list: it is between two and ten times worse for the climate to travel by plane than by any form of surface transport. About 6% of UK emissions come from the aviation industry (and between 2 and 5% globally); without intervention, this could grow to 25% by 2050. If we’re to tackle climate change, it’s obvious that we need to tackle air travel.
However, these headline figures can obscure an important complexity in the data; the distribution of flights across the population is incredibly unequal. In the UK in 2018, 20% of all flights abroad were taken by only 1% of the population, and over half were taken by just 10% of the population. Meanwhile, a full 48% of the population did not take a single flight abroad. Furthermore, a single flight from the UK to America produces more CO2 than the average citizen of over 56 countries produces from all their activities in an entire year.
In sectors like agriculture or energy, we all contribute to the total emissions output, so it’s justified to create solutions that either ask us all to change our behaviours or are developed through financial contributions from the whole population. The same cannot be said for the aviation industry. Flights are often a luxury, and many simply cannot afford them. Furthermore, even within the population who take flights, the emissions of a family taking an annual holiday abroad, and those of people who regularly fly for either leisure or work will be massively different.
These observations have two important ramifications. First, they shine a light on the relevance of the no-fly movement, which pushes for people to cut down on or entirely give up flying. Campaigns publicising the environmental damage done by flights are essential if people are to be convinced of the need to change their behaviour. However, for just under half the population, there isn’t any behaviour to change in the first place. Thus, there’s a danger that pushing these campaigns could alienate people from the climate movement, creating an impression that it’s simply not that relevant to their lives.
Furthermore, if the journey is long, alternatives to flights can often be incredibly time consuming and likely far more expensive – travelling to and from China by train takes about a month for example. This is simply not a valid alternative for many people, and it’s asking a lot for people to forsake all international travel, including visits to family. The tone of the no-fly movement is thus incredibly important; whilst shaming those who travel to Davos by private plane to discuss climate change is understandable, shaming everyone who flies is unfair and unjustified.
So, if eliminating all flights is effectively impossible in the short-term, how should we go about funding schemes to reduce aviation emissions? It seems fair that only those who fly should pay for such a scheme, rather than increasing everyone’s taxes in order to offset the environmental damage caused by a few. In fact, such a tax may well undermine the effort to convince people not to fly, creating the impression that they have already contributed to tackling the problem, so they don’t have to feel too guilty about worsening it.
Frequent flyer levies would be a far better solution. Under such a system, for every flight you take, you pay a slightly higher tax on the ticket. Thus, people are required to contribute to help fix the problem in proportion to how much they worsen it. This avoids placing an undue burden on those who don’t fly or have little choice but to fly: it’s a progressive levy, similar to the system of income tax, and it’s possible to set the levy on the first flight to zero.
Of course, this solution would risk building the cost of the environmental damage into the ticket, and thus reducing the moral incentive to avoid flying. One famous study found that where fines were introduced for late pick-ups at a day-care, late pick-ups increased after the fine was introduced; parents could essentially buy off their feelings of guilt for their tardiness. For those who can afford it, these levies may thus materially change nothing, whilst allowing them to feel ethically justified in continuing their polluting behaviour.
Yet something must be done. The number of miles travelled by air has increased by 300% since 1990, and it’s unlikely that technological developments or carbon offsetting can balance out all the associated emissions. Combining a strong and compassionate ethical argument for reducing flights—considering the different relationships of different classes to air travel—with a targeted monetary disincentive could well be the way forward.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.