Organization Breakthrough has published a new report that has been getting quite a bit of attention in mainstream media. It argues for an urgent risk reframing of climate research and the IPCC reports, because they don’t deal adequately with lower-probability, but higher-impact events.
Human-induced climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation: an adverse outcome that will either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential, unless carbon emissions are rapidly reduced.
Special precautions that go well beyond conventional risk management practice are required if the increased likelihood of very large climate impacts — known as “fat tails” — are to be adequately dealt with. The potential consequences of these lower-probability, but higher-impact, events would be devastating for human societies.
The bulk of climate research has tended to underplay these risks, and exhibited a preference for conservative projections and scholarly reticence, although increasing numbers of scientists have spoken out in recent years on the dangers of such an approach.
Climate policymaking and the public narrative are significantly informed by the important work of the IPCC. However, IPCC reports also tend toward reticence and caution, erring on the side of “least drama”, and downplaying the more extreme and more damaging outcomes.
Whilst this has been understandable historically, given the pressure exerted upon the IPCC by political and vested interests, it is now becoming dangerously misleading with the acceleration of climate impacts globally. What were lower- probability, higher-impact events are now becoming more likely.
This is a particular concern with potential climatic tipping points — passing critical thresholds which result in step changes in the climate system — such as the polar ice sheets (and hence sea levels), and permafrost and other carbon stores, where the impacts of global warming are non-linear and difficult to model with current scientific knowledge.
However the extreme risks to humanity, which these tipping points represent, justify strong precautionary management. Under-reporting on these issues is irresponsible, contributing to the failure of imagination that is occurring today in our understanding of, and response to, climate change.
If climate policymaking is to be soundly based, a reframing of scientific research within an existential risk-management framework is now urgently required. This must be taken up not just in the work of the IPCC, but also in the UNFCCC negotiations if we are to address the real climate challenge.
Current processes will not deliver either the speed or the scale of change required.