We all worry about climate change to some extent, but it still is frequently presented as something that will at best inconvenience and at worst disrupt our way of life. However, the risks might be significantly greater than we thought with even human extinction on the table, according to a group of researchers’ from the University of Cambridge.
Individually, the high heat might be manageable, but the group warns there is “serious potential for disastrous knock-on effects”. Arguing that the long-term risks have been “dangerously unexplored”, the researchers’ warn us about what they call “the four horsemen” of climate endgame: famine and malnutrition, extreme weather, and conflict and vector- borne disease.
Dr Luke Kemp from Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER) said: “There are plenty of reasons to believe climate change could become catastrophic, even at modest levels of warming.” As crisis situations that could be solved individually start stacking, our capacity to respond to them will diminish. “Knock-on effects such as financial crises, conflict and new disease outbreaks could trigger other calamities, and impede recovery from potential disasters such as nuclear war. The catastrophic risk is there, but we need a more detailed picture.”
Hotter and more extreme weather would create perfect conditions for new disease outbreaks.
To facilitate future research and public awareness of these grim but possible futures, the international team of researchers’ calls on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to dedicate an entire report to catastrophic climate change.
Furthermore, the CSER claim that the risks of increasing global warming (3°C or more) are under- examined. Dr Kemp emphasises the role of spreading awareness is to drive action: “Understanding nuclear winter performed a similar function for debates over nuclear disarmament.” These scenarios range from a loss of 10% of the human population – the ‘best case scenario’ – to eventual human extinction. In these scenarios, famine and malnutrition would be driven by the threat posed by the warming climate to the global food supply, with a growing probability of ‘breadbasket failures’. Currently, the globalized economy and international aid ensure that even if a few agriculturally important areas struggle due to extreme weather, this is compensated for by production in others, but collective meltdowns would result in unprecedented global famine.
Facing a future of accelerating climate change while remaining blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk-management at best and fatally foolish at worst.
–Dr Luke Kemp, Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk
Hotter and more extreme weather would create perfect conditions for new disease outbreaks. For example, migration driven by climate change in both humans and wildlife can result in new waves of epidemics and pandemics. The CSER argues the climate breakdown could exacerbate “interacting threats” from rising inequality to increased misinformation and democratic collapse, which would in turn give rise to “warm wars” as superpowers fight over dwindling resources.
The research team’s modelling shows that extreme heat (annual overages over 29°C) could cover two billion people by 2070, including densely populated and politically fragile areas. Two nuclear powers and seven maximum containment laboratories housing the world’s most dangerous pathogens would also be affected.
As the IPCC’s attention shifts towards exploring lower temperature rises due to them being more likely, Dr Kemp is arguing extreme scenarios are “underexplored relative to their likelihood”. Dr. Kemp concludes that: “facing a future of accelerating climate change while remaining blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk-management at best and fatally foolish at worst.”