Here is a new report on the extreme risks of climate change.
A theme of the report is that a “failure of imagination” has prevented us from acknowledging and acting on the climate threat.
What the authors are actually discussing, without being aware of it, is inherited denial of reality.
If you substitute “inherited denial of reality” for “failure of imagination” the report makes much more sense.
The authors conclude the report by calling for an emergency initiative to decarbonize the economy, without demonstrating that they understand the implications of such an initiative, which demonstrates that the authors are as deeply in denial as the governments they criticize.
Climate change is an existential risk that could abruptly end human civilisation because of a catastrophic “failure of imagination” by global leaders to understand and act on the science and evidence before them.
At the London School of Economics in 2008, Queen Elizabeth questioned: “Why did no one foresee the timing, extent and severity of the Global Financial Crisis?” The British Academy answered a year later: “A psychology of denial gripped the financial and corporate world… [it was] the failure of the collective imagination of many bright people… to understand the risks to the system as a whole” (Stewart 2009).
A “failure of imagination” has also been identified as one of the reasons for the breakdown in US intelligence around the 9/11 attacks in 2001.
A similar failure is occurring with climate change today.
The problem is widespread at the senior levels of government and global corporations. A 2016 report, Thinking the Unthinkable , based on interviews with top leaders around the world, found that: “A proliferation of ‘unthinkable’ events… has revealed a new fragility at the highest levels of corporate and public service leaderships. Their ability to spot, identify and handle unexpected, non-normative events is… perilously inadequate at critical moments… Remarkably, there remains a deep reluctance, or what might be called ‘executive myopia’, to see and contemplate even the possibility that ‘unthinkables’ might happen, let alone how to handle them.” (Gowing and Langdon 2016)
Such failures are manifested in two ways in climate policy. At the political, bureaucratic and business level in underplaying the high-end risks and in failing to recognise that the existential risk of climate change is totally different from other risk categories. And at the research level in underestimating the rate of climate change impact and costs, along with an under-emphasis on, and poor communication of, those high-end risks.
Existential risks are not amenable to the reactive (learn from failure) approach of conventional risk management, and we cannot necessarily rely on the institutions, moral norms, or social attitudes developed from our experience with managing other sorts of risks. Because the consequences are so severe – perhaps the end of human global civilisation as we know it – “even for an honest, truth-seeking, and well-intentioned investigator it is difficult to think and act rationally in regard to… existential risks” (Bostrom and Cirkovic 2008).
Yet the evidence is clear that climate change already poses an existential risk to global stability and to human civilisation that requires an emergency response. Temperature rises that are now in prospect could reduce the global human population by 80% or 90%. But this conversation is taboo, and the few who speak out are admonished as being overly alarmist.
Prof. Kevin Anderson considers that “a 4°C future [relative to pre-industrial levels] is incompatible with an organized global community, is likely to be beyond ‘adaptation’, is devastating to the majority of ecosystems, and has a high probability of not being stable” (Anderson 2011). He says: “If you have got a population of nine billion by 2050 and you hit 4°C, 5°C or 6°C, you might have half a billion people surviving” (Fyall 2009).
Asked at a 2011 conference in Melbourne about the difference between a 2°C world and a 4°C world, Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber replied in two words: “Human civilisation”. The World Bank reports: “There is no certainty that adaptation to a 4°C world is possible” (World Bank 2012). Amongst other impacts, a 4°C warming would trigger the loss of both polar ice caps, eventually resulting, at equilibrium, in a 70-metre rise in sea level.
The present path of greenhouse gas emissions commits us to a 4–5°C temperature increase relative to pre-industrial levels. Even at 3°C of warming we could face “outright chaos” and “nuclear war is possible”, according to the 2007 Age of
Consequences report by two US think tanks (see page 10).
Yet this is the world we are now entering. The Paris climate agreement voluntary emission reduction commitments, if implemented, would result in the planet warming by 3°C, with a 50% chance of exceeding that amount.
This does not take into account “longer-term” carbon-cycle feedbacks – such as permafrost thaw and declining efficiency of ocean and terrestrial carbon sinks, which are now becoming relevant. If these are considered, the Paris emissions
path has more than a 50% chance of exceeding 4°C warming. (Technically, accounting for these feedbacks means using a higher figure for the system’s “climate sensitivity” – which is a measure of the temperature increase resulting from a doubling of the level of greenhouse gases – to calculate the warming.
A median figure often used for climate sensitivity is ~3°C, but research from MIT shows that with a higher climate sensitivity figure of 4.5°C, which would account for feedbacks, the Paris path would lead to around 5°C of warming (Reilly et al. 2015).)
So we are looking at a greater than one-in-two chance of either annihilating intelligent life, or permanently and drastically curtailing its potential development. Clearly these end-of-civilisation scenarios are not being considered even by risk-conscious leaders in politics and business, which is an epic failure of imagination.
The world hopes to do a great deal better than Paris, but it may do far worse. A recent survey of 656 participants involved in international climate policy-making showed only half considered the Paris climate negotiations were useful, and 70% did not expect that the majority of countries would fulfil their promises (Dannenberg et al. 2017).
Human civilisation faces unacceptably high chances of being brought undone by climate change’s existential risks yet, extraordinarily, this conversation is rarely heard. The Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) says that despite scientific evidence that risks associated with tipping points “increase disproportionately as temperature increases from 1°C to 2°C, and become high above 3°C”, political negotiations have consistently disregarded the high-end scenarios that could lead to abrupt or irreversible climate change. In its Global Catastrophic Risks 2017 report, it concludes that “the world is currently completely unprepared to envisage, and even less deal with, the consequences of catastrophic climate change”. (GCF 2017)
In 2007, The Age of Consequences reported:
“Our group found that, generally speaking, most scientific predictions in the overall arena of climate change over the last two decades, when compared with ultimate outcomes, have been consistently below what has actually transpired. There are perhaps many reasons for this tendency—an innate scientific caution, an incomplete data set, a tendency for scientists to steer away from controversy, persistent efforts by some to discredit climate “alarmists,” to name but a few…”(Campbell et al. 2007)
For many critical components of the climate system, we can identify just how fast our understanding is changing. Successive IPCC reports have been reticent on key climate system issues:
• Antarctica: In 2001, the IPCC projected no significant ice mass loss by 2100 and, in the 2014 report, said the contribution to sea level rise would “not exceed several tenths of a meter” by 2100. In reality, the Amundsen Sea sector of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been destabilised and ice retreat is unstoppable for the current climate state. It is likely that no further acceleration in climate change is necessary to trigger the collapse of the rest of the ice sheet, with suggestions of a 3–5 metre sea-level rise within two centuries from West Antarctic melting. (Spratt 2017)
• Sea levels: In the 2007 IPCC report, sea levels were projected to rise up to 0.59 metre by 2100. The figure was widely derided by researchers, including the head of NASA’s climate research (Hansen 2007) as being far too conservative. By 2014, the IPCC’s figure was in the range 0.55 to 0.82 metre, but they included the caveat that “levels above the likely range cannot be reliably evaluated.” In reality, most scientists project a metre or more. The US Department of Defence uses scenarios of 1 and 2 metres for risk assessments, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides an “extreme” scenario of 2.5 metres sea level rise by 2100 (NOAA 2017).
• Arctic sea ice: In 2007, the IPCC reported that summer sea-ice was “projected to disappear almost completely towards the end of the 21st century”, even as it was collapsing that year. In 2014, the IPCC had ice-free projections to 2100 for only the highest of four emissions scenarios. In reality, Arctic sea ice has already lost 70% of summer volume compared to just thirty years ago, and expectations are of sea-ice-free summer within a decade or two.
• Coral reefs: Just a decade or two ago, the general view in the literature was that the survival of coral systems would be threatened by 2°C warming. In 2009, research was published suggesting that preserving more than 10% of coral reefs worldwide would require limiting warming to below 1.5°C (Frieler et al. 2009). The coral bleaching events of the last two years at just 1–1.2°C of warming indicate that coral reefs are now sliding into global-warming-driven terminal decline. Three-quarters of the Great Barrier Reef has been lost in the last three decades, with climate change a significant cause.
Climate change is now a wicked problem. Very rapid cuts in emissions are required, but are considered unachievable within the prevailing economic orthodoxy.
The 2015 Paris climate conference declared its aim was “to hold the increase in global average temperature to well below 2°C, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C”, yet it agreed upon measures that would instead result in warming of 3–5°C (see page 5).
Warming of 2°C is now widely considered a boundary between “dangerous” and “very dangerous” climate change. Former NASA climate science director, James Hansen, says it is “well understood by the scientific community” that goals to limit human-made warming to 2°C are “prescriptions for disaster”, because “we know that the prior interglacial period about 120,000 years ago was less than 2°C warmer than pre-industrial conditions” and sea level was at least five to nine metres higher (Hansen et al. 2015; ABC 2015).
The scale of the challenge is reflected in a recent “carbon law” articulated by a group of leading scientists (Rockström et al. 2017). They demonstrated that for a 66% chance of holding warming to 2°C and a 50% chance of holding warming to 1.5°C (with overshoot), their “carbon law” requires:
• Halving of global emissions every decade from 2020 to 2050;
• Reducing carbon dioxide emissions from land use to zero by 2050; and
• Establishing carbon drawdown capacity of 5 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050.
Lead author Johan Rockström says: ”It’s way more than adding solar or wind… It’s rapid decarbonization, plus a revolution in food production, plus a sustainability revolution, plus a massive engineering scale-up [for carbon removal].” In other words, an emergency-scale effort.
As noted on page 21, the world has passed some disturbing climate milestones at the current level of 1°C of warming, so the goal must be the restoration of a safe climate well under that figure, if multi-metre sea-level rises are not to occur. The “carbon law” does not describe a safe-climate path. Such a path would include:
• A large scale transition to a safe-climate economy that delivers zero emissions and large-scale carbon drawdown as fast as humanly possible;
• All known safe solutions implemented at maximum scale now; and
• Critical research and development of solutions to close the gap between what is needed for effective protection and what is currently possible.