New Report Claiming Understatement of Existential Climate Risk

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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.