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 Olivia Oldham
Climate change and environmental degradation are not just environmental issues. Yes, we are pumping ever-more poisonous gasses into our atmosphere, fouling our rivers with deluges of chemicals, and dumping so much plastic into our oceans that soon, there will be more plastic than fish. And yes, the future of our climate at more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures looks more than a little dicey, but the fact is that we are not all equally at risk. Climate change is a social justice issue, and it requires climate justice.
Spatial distribution of impacts
The spatial distribution of the negative effects of climate change--such as droughts, floods and extreme temperatures--will be uneven. In general, parts of the world which are already more vulnerable to shocks, due to factors such as poverty and relative disadvantage, are likely to be most severely affected. According to the IPCC, it is highly likely that the Arctic, global drylands, small island developing states and ‘Least Developed Countries’ in general will be at highest risk as the planet continues to heat.
Impacts in place
Beyond the regional variations and associated injustices related to the spatial distribution of the impacts of climate change, there is also variation and injustice in the way these changes and resulting weather events impact different people living in the same place. For example, Hurricane Katrina--the type of event which will become more frequent and more extreme as our planet heats up (regardless of whether the 2005 disaster itself was made more likely by climate change)--resulted in dramatically uneven and unjust outcomes for residents of New Orleans and the surrounding area.
The hurricane affected everyone--of course; storms ‘don’t discriminate’. But people do. Centuries of racially-motivated discriminatory land policies across the affected region have resulted in severely geographically segregated communities. In New Orleans itself, at the time of the disaster, African American communities disproportionately occupied low-lying land in areas prone to swamp-related flooding. This meant that communities of colour were more heavily impacted by the direct effects of the levee breaches.
After the storm, African American communities were left stranded in the ruined city for longer than other communities; majority-black neighbourhoods had poor access to transportation, due to decades of discriminatory city planning. Four days after the storm, 200 mainly African-American residents tried to walk out of the city along the highway, they were met by police and were driven back with guns and a police helicopter. Regardless of the immediate motivation for this act, it is clear that the natural disaster that was Katrina affected certain people far more severely than others. Not only that, but this disproportionate and unfair distribution of effects was systematic and calculable, based on intertwined questions of race and class. In many ways, then, it can be argued that the disastrous element of the hurricane was not at all natural, but rather socially constructed in that the negative impacts were largely the result of social policies and discrimination.
The litany of discriminatory impacts of Hurricane Katrina are too lengthy to be fully listed here, and the list of environmental disasters which have disproportionately affected people of colour and the socioeconomically vulnerable could fill an entire library. If you’re interested in learning more, check out this free online course on environmental justice.
It’s not just climate change itself
Beyond the uneven impacts of climate-related disasters, the industries and activities which are causing climate change are also causing significant racial and class-based injustice. For example, you might have heard about the ‘No DAPL’ movement that took place in North Dakota in 2016 and 2017, protesting a section of an oil pipeline leading from the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota to Patoka, Illinois. The point where the pipeline was to cross the river was moved from its original location, after it was decided by planners and engineers that a spill could have negative impacts on drinking water in the Missouri capital, Jefferson City. So, the crossing was moved to land stolen from the Standing Rock Sioux in 1958, within a kilometre from the present-day boundary of the Standing Rock Reservation. In this new location, the impacts of a spill would be the same as in the previous one--only here, they would only affect Indigenous people, rather than the majority white Jefferson City.
The peaceful protests of the water protectors--both local Standing Rock inhabitants and supporters from across the country and indeed around the world--were met with violent repression using counter-terrorism tactics. The pipeline eventually went ahead, leaking oil even before it became fully operational.
Again, this is not the only example of injustice perpetuated by those seeking to profit from the degradation of the environment and the continued emission of fossil fuels into the atmosphere. For example, back in April, Celine Barclay wrote a piece for the OCS blog on environmental ‘martyrs’--environmental activists, usually from and in the global South, frequently Indigenous, who have been murdered for resisting activities such as illegal logging, or the violation of land rights.
The fact is, climate change and other environmental damage do not affect us all equally: some people are disproportionately affected, usually based on their race and their class. We can trace these inequalities back to the era of colonisation and slavery, and the continuing practices of discrimination which exist to this day across the globe, as well as the exploitative nature of modern capitalism. Together, these legacies continue to enable the erasure of the suffering of the many so that a few might profit as the world crumbles.
We need to recognise that the climate crisis is also a crisis of justice, so that when we fight to change the world, the world we end up with is better for everyone, not just those of us privileged enough to sit at home writing about it on our laptops.
By Laura Watson
Coronavirus is on all our minds right now – but what does our changing climate mean for the future of outbreaks?
Disease incidence and climate change
We have known that climatic conditions affect disease spread throughout human history. Civilisations as early as the Romans knew to retreat to hillsides during the warmer summer months, as malaria was endemic to the lowland areas during the warmer season. Climate change is likely to change the pattern of transmission for all kinds of diseases. For example, some pathogens may no longer be able to survive in certain locations, while they may become more prevalent in others. The Wildlife Conservation Society has identified 12 diseases which are likely to spread and get worse with climate change, including cholera, Ebola, plague and tuberculosis.
Disease spreading vectors like mosquitoes have optimal climatic conditions at which they survive and reproduce. This means that climate change might expand their range to include a much larger geographic area. Amplified seasonal patterns could also put areas at risk for longer portions of the year.
Human exposure to waterborne diseases could also rise as climate change amplifies the contamination of water supplies, as extreme weather events such as hurricanes increase, and sea levels rise. There are also links between increasing prevalence of diseases and ocean warming (such as red tide disease, caused by toxic algal blooms) and increased precipitation in certain regions (such as rift valley fever, and Hantavirus pulmonary syndrome).
People could also become more vulnerable to disease as the climate changes, as the health impacts of increased temperatures (such as increased stress) take hold.
The following two case studies illustrate the effects of already occurring climatic changes.
The West Nile Virus
West Nile Virus is a vector-borne disease originating in the West Nile region, transmitted by mosquitoes. It was first reported in around 1937, with human outbreaks reported intermittently since then. Transmission of the disease is impacted by weather conditions, and climatic conditions (temperature, precipitation, humidity and wind) are driving the expansion of the range of the disease’s mosquito vector, and therefore the geographic area affected by the disease.
Recent trends in increased rainfall and ambient temperature, as well as changing migration patterns of bird species have meant that the disease has migrated further north to the USA, Southern Europe and further south to Australia. The first case in the USA occurred in 1999, in New York City. Since then, it has spread across the country, with a reported 39,557 cases of the disease in the USA as of 2013, and only 4 states not reporting a case in 2018.
Climate change has been a key factor here for two reasons. First, increased temperatures correlate with increased viral replication rates, population growth, and transmission. Secondly, increased precipitation and flooding correlates with increased mosquito abundance, due to the use by the insect of stagnant water as a breeding ground. These trends are likely to continue, and the range of the vector and disease will continue to increase, meaning that monitoring of this (and other vector borne diseases like malaria and Zika) is crucial.
Cholera is a waterborne bacterial disease which is likely to worsen with climate change. Its spread will be greatly affected by climate change as temperatures warm and precipitation levels rise, because cholera outbreaks, while sporadic, tend to occur in regions associated with higher temperatures and rainfall. In these conditions, water borne diseases can spread inland and thus into more densely populated areas. While there is as yet no clear understanding of the nature of the link between cholera and climate change, it is clear that with more weather extremes, cholera spread and incidence will be affected.
As well as the contamination of water supplies, the abundance and distribution of cholera is affected by sea surface temperatures, ocean currents and weather changes. It has recently been demonstrated that warming seas, a key impact of climate change, are linked to an increase in the presence of cholera bacteria in Europe and the USA. Overall it is clear there is a link between cholera and climate change – and like West Nile Virus, this could affect all of us.
What does this mean for the future?
While some diseases show clear links to climate change, the recent Covid-19 pandemic so far has not. This shows that not all diseases will necessarily become more prevalent as the climate changes. However, it is clear that monitoring, especially of vector borne diseases, remains crucial to understanding what the future will look like. Covid-19 has shown us that there are many diseases in the natural world which are currently unknown to humans. We must act urgently on climate change to lower the pressure on natural systems and to prevent dangerous future outbreaks.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.