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
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.
OCS Media Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.