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.
Event summary by Olivia Oldham
Flying has become a staple of the modern world, though mostly for the global North. The carbon emissions of aviation are hotly debated, but it is generally agreed that it is responsible for around 3% of global emissions. So why do we care so much about flying? First of all, it is significantly--around 100 times, in fact--more carbon intensive than car travel. It also creates transport inequality--while exact statistics are hard to come by, it is unlikely that more than a couple of percent of the world’s population actually flies each year; and for those who do fly regularly, flying is their highest carbon activity.
Aviation is one of the highest emission sectors, and it is also one of the fastest growing. Now, however, due to the pandemic, the aviation sector is in crisis. How can we continue to fly while also mitigating climate change? How will Covid-19 affect our attitude towards flying into the future? We invited two experts, Michael Gill and Adam Klauber, to come speak with us to find some answers to these questions.
Michael Gill, the Director, Aviation Environment of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), spoke first. In his work at IATA, Michael leads work on sustainable regulation and policy advocacy with governments, the UN, and business partners. He is also the Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group, leading their work to promote the aviation industry's sustainable growth. He has almost 20 years of experience in the aviation sector and he played a leadership role in the adoption of the international agreement on aviation and climate change (CORSIA) in 2016.
The long-term crisis of climate change means we need to take a long-term strategic approach to climate impact. In response to the acknowledgment in 2008 that the aviation industry was collectively responsible for a growing percentage of global emissions, airlines came together to decide a number of climate goals:
The overriding message Michael wanted to convey was that the aviation industry has recognised for over a decade that it has a significant impact on climate change and has a proactive and ambitious approach to addressing it by setting out targets that it will meet and having a very clear strategic plan involving collaboration across the sector--not just airlines but also manufacturers, airports and air traffic management. What is needed now is greater buy-in from governments through policy support, greater investment in alternative fuels, and a better understanding within the general and flying public of what the aviation industry is doing to address its impact.
Adam Klauber spoke next. He is the Principal, Sustainability and Energy at the Cadmus Group, an environmental consultancy firm. He also leads the sustainable aviation team for the Rocky Mountain institute (RMI), leading their global initiative to decarbonise aviation. He also writes for Forbes on aviation and the environment and was also the previous Head of Sustainable Aviation for ICF International. While at ICF Adam served as a representative to the UN's International Civil Aviation Organisation's Carbon Working Group
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is a global contributor to climate action. It was founded over 35 years ago and has focused on market-based solutions to climate change since its inception. One challenge it has focused on is how to unlock additional capital to support the sustainable aviation fuel price gap. Alternative fuels are very expensive, and airlines operate on low margins in a highly competitive environment, which makes it difficult for them to be able to spend funds on more expensive, more sustainable fuels. This creates a problem for investment, because investors are not usually willing to provide capital for a project unless they believe there will be market uptake.
To this end, RMI was involved in 2019 in the set-up of Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST): a group of leaders in the aviation industry and the ‘demand sector’ (which includes large corporate buyers of passenger and air-freight travel). Work conducted by this group has determined that it may be possible for alternative fuels to replace all the liquid fuels used by the aviation industry.
CST is also working with climate NGOs so that the corporations involved can be recognised as global leaders who are adopting best practices. Offsets are currently seen as a method of last resort--it is much more desirable to achieve carbon reduction goals from within the sector itself. Sustainable fuels can achieve this, whereas offsets can’t. As such, CST is seeking to achieve recognition of sustainable fuels as a viable option to meet emission reduction tools.
Currently, the most competitive alternative fuel is twice the price of kerosene (traditional airline fuel), even after government subsidies have been applied. However, CST and RMI are working on a Sustainable Aviation Fuel Credit scheme to help reduce this difference, which Adam was confident will be successful. Importantly, work on this scheme is still moving forward despite the economic challenges brought to the aviation industry by the pandemic.
If you want to learn more about this issue and hear the answers to some of the questions posed, then tune into the video, up on our YouTube channel now: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vBMbo0h1VXs
Event summary by Celine Barclay
“The least responsible are disproportionately affected by climate change”. It’s taken a while, but the phrase is finally taking a hold in our consciousness and our conversations. Fittingly, OCS’s flagship event tackled the issue of climate justice with two truly inspiring speakers; Mary Robinson and Dr Vandana Shiva. They illuminated the various forms of injustice that have made the climate crisis a legacy of colonial and patriarchal structures. Crucially, the two speakers highlighted the need for a paradigmatic shift in our conception of “development” in order to confront the climate crisis fairly and effectively.
The first speaker, Mary Robinson, served as the first female president of Ireland. She went on to become the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, before setting up her own foundation ‘Climate Justice’ and publishing a book of the same name.
Dr Vandana Shiva is a leading human rights activist who founded Navdanya International (an organisation helping farmers protect seeds from the genetic patents of large corporations) and is the leader of the International Forum on Globalisation. She has authored over 20 books in which she defends traditional practices, helping to shift our idea of development in favour of acknowledging the value of small-scale farmers.
Mary Robinson took a structured approach by identifying 5 layers of climate injustice:
1) Responsibility: the first layer related to the phrase at the beginning of this post, that climate change disproportionately affects those least responsible for creating the problem, such as indigenous people and the inhabitants of small island states;
2) Gender: women are particularly vulnerable to climate change because of their different social roles, and because they often don’t have access to land rights or insurance. As with all intersecting levels of inequality, women in poorer countries are doubly vulnerable where these factors are concerned;
3) Intergenerational injustice: the injustice that future generations will suffer the consequences of inaction by the generation currently in leadership positions;
4) Pathways to development: industrialised countries historically built their wealth on fossil fuels. Poorer nations are currently attempting to follow the same path of development while also under pressure to transition to renewable energy. Richer countries have failed to provide the financial support for such a transition, leaving industrialising countries caught between fighting poverty on a national scale and fighting climate change on a global scale;
5) Nature: As a firm advocate for the nature-based approach, Mary signalled the injustice against nature that climate change has wrought, threatening as it does the survival of millions of species. It is interesting to note that she personified nature as a female, not only emphasising that the earth is living, as Dr Vadana would do, but also identifying the injustice to the earth in association with the gender dimension she mentioned above. She stressed the need to conserve at least 30% of land and oceans under the Convention on Biodiversity.
Mary then gave her assessment of the current state of global action on climate change. She managed to find hope in response to the current Covid-19 crisis, which she credits with teaching us various lessons that can be carried forward in our future approach. Compliance with the lock-down has shown us the collective power of simultaneous changes in our behaviour. Just as we have stayed at home to protect the most vulnerable to the virus, we must shift our behaviour to protect those most vulnerable to climate change. It has also demonstrated the importance of good government, science and compassion.
Mary finished by expressing hope that we will take the opportunity to create a new beginning. Covid-19 has taught us to learn what we can do without and to make radical changes to our lifestyle, two lessons that are essential if we are to throw away our ‘throw away culture’ and embrace nature-based solutions.
Yes, this will require large scale investment, borrowing from future generations, but only in order to safeguard their future. So Mary is less worried now than she was at the beginning of the year: “Covid has broken the system that wasn’t working anyway”.
The unanimity between the two speakers was clear the moment Dr Vadana took her turn to speak. Chuckling warmly, she noted that she had also identified 5 layers of injustice:
1) Picking up where Mary left off, she raised the injustice against nature as part of a history of colonialism and exploitation. The glorification of conquest in colonial times is a model for our relationship with the earth as dead matter to be possessed and exploited. She passionately insisted that we must revoke this mentality and recognise not only that the earth is alive, but that it regulates its own systems.
Her speech was incredibly powerful, drawing an analogy between the fossil age and the fossilisation of our minds and hearts that has resulted from extracting fossil fuels. Dr Vadana sees a comparison between mechanisation and industrialisation and the development of a mechanical mind, closed off to human empathy and capable of wreaking such destruction on human communities. Yet we have erroneously believed developing the technologies for extraction demonstrated our intellectual superiority;
2) This led Dr Vandana to speak of the injustice against those who lead ecological ways of living. Vandana grew up in India and related how India was called barbaric in colonial times within a discourse of ‘development that propped up the colonial regime. In the 80s she observed that behind every ecological disaster there seemed to be a loan from the World Bank financing some project in the name of “development”’. When she investigated the loans, she found that ‘under-development’ meant not using plastic or pesticides, and adhering to the hydrological cycle. But it is the promotion of these rationalised “developed” techniques of agriculture which have caused the ecological destruction we see today;
3) This damaging approach to agriculture is itself linked to a third layer of injustice: that the most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. Vandana said drought “is the single biggest crisis” and a result of a false definition of development that, for instance, promotes the use of fertilisers and neglects to replenish organic matter in the soil;
4) Her fourth injustice was the injustice of false solutions. She denounced the ‘voluntary’ approach to emissions reduction commitments characteristic of the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement.
She identified 3 unjust false solutions: geo-engineering, genetic engineering, and the “disease” of offsetting. Geo-engineering falls short because it fails to take into account how the earth functions as a system. Genetic engineering fails to recognise that resilient traits are in the plants and not in the gene that is extracted.
Vandana then railed against offsetting which she compared to the Roman Catholic sales of indulgences. Like unrepentant sinners who bribe the church to keep on sinning, rich countries can continue emitting by “offsetting”, a solution that in no way tackles the root of the problem. In fact, after the Kyoto protocol, emissions increased by 15% and the economic inequality between countries increased.
Vandana concluded by emphasising that the injustices framing the climate crisis can only be resolved by removing the colonisation paradigm and the concomitant definitions of “productivity” “efficiency” and “development”. Her research shows that when we work with nature and biodiversity, we can produce more food by healing broken carbon and nitrogen cycles. Doing so will end the injustice of labelling ecological ways of living as primitive and be part of a shift from an economy that measures GDP to one that measures happiness. Returning to the repeated theme of earth and life cycles, Vandana identified this as a “shift from the circulation of money to circulation of life.”
This was truly a highlight of the term card; it was inspiring to hear from such passionate and experienced speakers. Their long history of collaboration was testament to the central theme of the discussion: the intersectionality of the injustices within the climate crisis which must be addressed.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.