Risks of climate change disasters require more research, researchers warn

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Political leaders and climate activists often say that human-induced climate change poses an existential threat to humanity, or could lead to global catastrophe, but this is rarely defined.

Send the news: A group of top climate scientists have come forward to argue that more rigorous research is urgently needed on such worst-case scenarios, which they call a “climate endgame.”

  • In a new perspective piece in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences11 researchers from around the world proposed a research agenda into the impacts of global warming reaching the upper limit of plausible scenarios by the end of the century, i.e. 3°C (5.4°F) or higher.

Why it matters: According to the paper, worst-case scenarios have been understudied by organizations such as the UN’s IPCC due to the focus on the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals, as well as the inherent caution of climate scientists whose culture eschews alarmism.

Zoom in: The piece, which is not a study but rather a detailed research proposal, states: “There are ample reasons to suspect that climate change could lead to a global catastrophe.”

  • The authors, including Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a physicist who advised German Chancellor Angela Merkel on climate science, and prominent researcher Johan Rockström, see such research as the potential to motivate society to act with greater urgency to limit warming to the goals of Paris.
  • The paper notes that if all countries fulfill their non-binding long-term emission reduction commitments, it could limit warming to 2.1°C (3.78°F) above pre-industrial levels by 2100.
  • The authors warn that even this optimistic scenario would make the planet warmer than any other point for more than 2.6 million years.
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Threat level: The paper notes how the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the risks of rare, sweeping global events that have a knock-on effect on the entire global economy.

  • The uncertainties associated with catastrophic risks could have policy-specific implications, the researchers argue, including by increasing the social cost of carbon, the price given to the impacts of each additional tonne of carbon dioxide emissions added to the atmosphere. .
  • This calculation is used when evaluating many government regulations and is heavily controversial.
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The newspaper offers a tour of plausible ways in which climate change could push society into more precarious, if not catastrophic, consequences, from destabilizing the most vulnerable countries to triggering physical and political ‘risk cascades’ that could ripple across the globe.

  • The authors propose a rigorous academic research agenda for conducting an “integrated catastrophe assessment” due to climate change, and recommend a special report from the IPCC on this prospect.

  • They define such warming as a temperature rise of 3°C or above pre-industrial levels, which is well within current possibilities.

Of interest: The authors cite the “rapid spread of misinformation and misinformation,” which has plagued public health officials in responding to COVID-19, as a risk factor that makes the world more vulnerable to the effects of an extreme climate change scenario.

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What they say: “We’re not saying we’re all doomed,” lead author Luke Kemp of the University of Cambridge told UKTN via email.

  • “This isn’t about disaster voyeurism; it’s about understanding plausible catastrophic risks so we can prevent them,” he said.
  • “The greater the understanding of potential catastrophic risks, the better the potential for developing effective risk reduction strategies,” study co-author Kristie Ebi, a professor at the University of Washington, told UKTN via email.

The Intrigue: Gernot Wagner, a climate economist at Columbia Business School who was not part of the author’s team, said he agrees more research is needed on these issues.

  • “Even linear changes in underlying climate conditions can lead to socio-economic tipping points,” he said, citing the example of the 2007-2010 drought in Syria that sparked civil war there, sparking a refugee crisis that in turn led to a shift to the right in European politics.
  • “Cascading risks deserve quite a bit more attention,” he said.

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