Experts ignore the worst possible climate change catastrophic scenarios, including societal collapse or the potential extinction of humans, unlikely as they are, according to a group of top scientists.

Eleven scientists from around the world call on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s authoritative climate science organization, to make a special scientific report on “catastrophic climate change” to “highlight the magnitude of the stakes in a worst-case scenario”. In their perspective article in Monday’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences they raise the idea of ​​human extinction and the collapse of global society in the third sentence, calling it “a dangerously underexplored topic”.

The scientists said they weren’t saying the worst was about to happen. They say the problem is that no one knows how likely or unlikely a “climate endgame” is and that the world needs those calculations to fight global warming.

“I think it’s very unlikely that you’ll see anything close to extinction in the next century, just because humans are incredibly resilient,” said study lead author Luke. Kemp, from the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge in England. . “Even if we have a 1% chance of having a global catastrophe, of disappearing over the next century, that 1% is way too high.”

Catastrophic climate scenarios “seem likely enough to warrant attention” and can lead to prevention and warning systems, Kemp said.

Good risk analyzes consider both what is most likely and the worst that could happen, the study authors said. But because of the pushback from non-scientists who dismiss climate change, mainstream climate science has focused on what is most likely and also disproportionately so. on low-temperature warming scenarios that come close to international goals, said co-author Tim Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter in England.

There is, Lenton said, “not enough emphasis on how things, the risks, the big risks, could plausibly go wrong.”

It’s like an airplane, says Lenton. It’s extremely likely that it will land safely, but that’s only because so much attention has been paid to calculating the worst-case scenario and then how to avoid an accident. It only works if you research what could go wrong and isn’t being done enough with climate change, he said.

“The stakes may be higher than we thought,” said University of Michigan environmental dean Jonathan Overpeck, who was not part of the study. He fears that the world “falls” on climate risks of which he is unaware.

When global scientific organizations look at climate change, they tend to just look at what’s happening in the world: extreme weather conditions, higher temperatures, melting ice caps, rising seas and extinctions of plants and animals. But they don’t take enough account of how these ripple through human societies and interact with existing problems — like war, hunger and disease — the study authors said.

“If we don’t look at the cross-risks, we’ll be painfully surprised,” said Kristie Ebi, a professor of public health and climate at the University of Washington, a co-author who, like Lenton, has been involved in global climate assessments. United Nations.

It was a mistake medical professionals made before COVID-19 when assessing possible pandemics, Ebi said. They talked about the spread of disease, but not about lockdowns, supply chain issues and spiraling economies.

The study authors said they were more worried about societal collapse – war, famine, economic crises – linked to climate change than physical changes to the Earth itself.

Outside climate scientists and risk experts were both welcoming and reluctant to focus on the worst of the worst, even if many reject the catastrophic discourse on the climate.

“I don’t believe that civilization as we know it will come out of this century,” University of Victoria climatologist Andrew Weaver, a former BC Green Party legislator, said in an email. “Resilient humans will survive, but our societies that have become urbanized and supported by rural agriculture will not.”

Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather of tech firm Stripe and Berkeley Earth has in the past criticized climate scientists for using future scenarios of huge increases in carbon pollution as the world is no longer on a warming path. faster. Still, he said it made sense to look at doomsday scenarios “as long as we’re careful not to confuse the worst-case scenario with the most likely outcome.”

Talking about human extinction isn’t “a very effective way to communicate,” said Brown University climatologist Kim Cobb. “People tend to immediately say, well, it’s just, you know, an arm wave or doomsday propaganda.”

What happens before extinction is bad enough, she said.

Co-author Tim Lenton said the search for worst-case scenarios could find no reason to worry: “It’s maybe you can completely rule out a number of these bad scenarios. Well, it is definitely worth spending your time doing it. Then we should all cheer up a bit.


The Associated Press’s climate and environmental coverage receives support from several private foundations. Learn more about AP’s climate initiative here. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Seth Borenstein, Associated Press

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