“Climate Endgame”: New Peer-Reviewed Paper Explores Catastrophic Climate Change Scenarios

“Climate Endgame”: New Peer-Reviewed Paper Explores Catastrophic Climate Change Scenarios

Editor’s Note: Global warming is a serious threat to our planet, and, along with mass extinction, wildlife population collapse, habitat destruction, desertification, aquifer drawdown, oceanic dead zones, pollution, and other ecological issues, is one of the primary symptoms of overshoot and industrial civilization.

This paper, published last month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explores the prospect of catastrophic global warming, noting that “There is ample evidence that climate change could become catastrophic… at even modest levels of warming.”

With outcomes such as runaway global warming, oceanic hypoxia, and mass mortality becoming more certain with each passing day, the justifications for Deep Green Resistance are only becoming stronger.


By Luke Kemp, Chi Xu, Joanna Depledge, Kristie L. Ebi, Goodwin Gibbins, Timothy A. Kohler, JohanRockström, Marten Scheffer, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, Will Steffen, and Timothy M. Lenton. Edited by Kerry Emanuel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; received May 20, 2021; accepted March 25, 2022

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (USA). 2022 Aug 23;119(34):e2108146119.
doi: 10.1073/pnas.2108146119.

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Prudent risk management requires consideration of bad-to-worst-case scenarios. Yet, for climate change, such potential futures are poorly understood. Could anthropogenic climate change result in worldwide societal collapse or even eventual human extinction? At present, this is a dangerously underexplored topic. Yet there are ample reasons to suspect that climate change could result in a global catastrophe. Analyzing the mechanisms for these extreme consequences could help galvanize action, improve resilience, and inform policy, including emergency responses. We outline current knowledge about the likelihood of extreme climate change, discuss why understanding bad-to-worst cases is vital, articulate reasons for concern about catastrophic outcomes, define key terms, and put forward a research agenda. The proposed agenda covers four main questions: 1) What is the potential for climate change to drive mass extinction events? 2) What are the mechanisms that could result in human mass mortality and morbidity? 3) What are human societies’ vulnerabilities to climate-triggered risk cascades, such as from conflict, political instability, and systemic financial risk? 4) How can these multiple strands of evidence—together with other global dangers—be usefully synthesized into an “integrated catastrophe assessment”? It is time for the scientific community to grapple with the challenge of better understanding catastrophic climate change.

How bad could climate change get? As early as 1988, the landmark Toronto Conference declaration described the ultimate consequences of climate change as potentially “second only to a global nuclear war.” Despite such proclamations decades ago, climate catastrophe is relatively under-studied and poorly understood.

The potential for catastrophic impacts depends on the magnitude and rate of climate change, the damage inflicted on Earth and human systems, and the vulnerability and response of those affected systems. The extremes of these areas, such as high temperature rise and cascading impacts, are underexamined. As noted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there have been few quantitative estimates of global aggregate impacts from warming of 3 °C or above (1). Text mining of IPCC reports similarly found that coverage of temperature rises of 3 °C or higher is underrepresented relative to their likelihood (2). Text-mining analysis also suggests that over time the coverage of IPCC reports has shifted towards temperature rise of 2 °C and below https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2022EF002876. Research has focused on the impacts of 1.5 °C and 2 °C, and studies of how climate impacts could cascade or trigger larger crises are sparse.

A thorough risk assessment would need to consider how risks spread, interact, amplify, and are aggravated by human responses (3), but even simpler “compound hazard” analyses of interacting climate hazards and drivers are underused. Yet this is how risk unfolds in the real world. For example, a cyclone destroys electrical infrastructure, leaving a population vulnerable to an ensuing deadly heat wave (4). Recently, we have seen compound hazards emerge between climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic (5). As the IPCC notes, climate risks are becoming more complex and difficult to manage, and are cascading across regions and sectors (6).

Why the focus on lower-end warming and simple risk analyses? One reason is the benchmark of the international targets: the Paris Agreement goal of limiting warming to well below 2 °C, with an aspiration of 1.5 °C. Another reason is the culture of climate science to “err on the side of least drama” (7), to not to be alarmists, which can be compounded by the consensus processes of the IPCC (8). Complex risk assessments, while more realistic, are also more difficult to do.

This caution is understandable, yet it is mismatched to the risks and potential damages posed by climate change. We know that temperature rise has “fat tails”: low-probability, high-impact extreme outcomes (9). Climate damages are likely to be nonlinear and result in an even larger tail (10). Too much is at stake to refrain from examining high-impact low-likelihood scenarios. The COVID-19 pandemic has underlined the need to consider and prepare for infrequent, high-impact global risks, and the systemic dangers they can spark. Prudent risk management demands that we thoroughly assess worst-case scenarios.

Our proposed “Climate Endgame” research agenda aims to direct exploration of the worst risks associated with anthropogenic climate change. To introduce it, we summarize existing evidence on the likelihood of extreme climate change, outline why exploring bad-to-worst cases is vital, suggest reasons for catastrophic concern, define key terms, and then explain the four key aspects of the research agenda.

Worst-Case Climate Change

Despite 30 y of efforts and some progress under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions continue to increase. Even without considering worst-case climate responses, the current trajectory puts the world on track for a temperature rise between 2.1 °C and 3.9 °C by 2100 (11). If all 2030 nationally determined contributions are fully implemented, warming of 2.4 °C (1.9 °C to 3.0 °C) is expected by 2100. Meeting all long-term pledges and targets could reduce this to 2.1 °C (1.7 °C to 2.6 °C) (12). Even these optimistic assumptions lead to dangerous Earth system trajectories. Temperatures of more than 2 °C above preindustrial values have not been sustained on Earth’s surface since before the Pleistocene Epoch (or more than 2.6 million years ago) (13).

Even if anthropogenic GHG emissions start to decline soon, this does not rule out high future GHG concentrations or extreme climate change, particularly beyond 2100. There are feedbacks in the carbon cycle and potential tipping points that could generate high GHG concentrations (14) that are often missing from models. Examples include Arctic permafrost thawing that releases methane and CO2 (15), carbon loss due to intense droughts and fires in the Amazon (16), and the apparent slowing of dampening feedbacks such as natural carbon sink capacity (17, 18). These are likely to not be proportional to warming, as is sometimes assumed. Instead, abrupt and/or irreversible changes may be triggered at a temperature threshold. Such changes are evident in Earth’s geological record, and their impacts cascaded across the coupled climate–ecological–social system (19). Particularly worrying is a “tipping cascade” in which multiple tipping elements interact in such a way that tipping one threshold increases the likelihood of tipping another (20). Temperature rise is crucially dependent on the overall dynamics of the Earth system, not just the anthropogenic emissions trajectory.

The potential for tipping points and higher concentrations despite lower anthropogenic emissions is evident in existing models. Variability among the latest Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 6 (CMIP6) climate models results in overlap in different scenarios. For example, the top (75th) quartile outcome of the “middle-of-the-road” scenario (Shared Socioeconomic Pathway 3-7.0, or SSP3-7.0) is substantially hotter than the bottom (25th) quartile of the highest emissions (SSP5-8.5) scenario. Regional temperature differences between models can exceed 5 °C to 6 °C, particularly in polar areas where various tipping points can occur (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2108146119#supplementary-materials).

There are even more uncertain feedbacks, which, in a very worst case, might amplify to an irreversible transition into a “Hothouse Earth” state (21) (although there may be negative feedbacks that help buffer the Earth system). In particular, poorly understood cloud feedbacks might trigger sudden and irreversible global warming (22). Such effects remain underexplored and largely speculative “unknown unknowns” that are still being discovered. For instance, recent simulations suggest that stratocumulus cloud decks might abruptly be lost at CO2 concentrations that could be approached by the end of the century, causing an additional ∼8 °C global warming (23). Large uncertainties about dangerous surprises are reasons to prioritize rather than neglect them.

Recent findings on equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) (14, 24) underline that the magnitude of climate change is uncertain even if we knew future GHG concentrations. According to the IPCC, our best estimate for ECS is a 3 °C temperature rise per doubling of CO2, with a “likely” range of (66 to 100% likelihood) of 2.5 °C to 4 °C. While an ECS below 1.5 °C was essentially ruled out, there remains an 18% probability that ECS could be greater than 4.5 °C (14). The distribution of ECS is “heavy tailed,” with a higher probability of very high values of ECS than of very low values.

There is significant uncertainty over future anthropogenic GHG emissions as well. Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 (RCP8.5, now SSP5-8.5), the highest emissions pathway used in IPCC scenarios, most closely matches cumulative emissions to date (25). This may not be the case going forward, because of falling prices of renewable energy and policy responses (26). Yet, there remain reasons for caution. For instance, there is significant uncertainty over key variables such as energy demand and economic growth. Plausibly higher economic growth rates could make RCP8.5 35% more likely (27).

Why Explore Climate Catastrophe?

Why do we need to know about the plausible worst cases? First, risk management and robust decision-making under uncertainty requires knowledge of extremes. For example, the minimax criterion ranks policies by their worst outcomes (28). Such an approach is particularly appropriate for areas characterized by high uncertainties and tail risks. Emissions trajectories, future concentrations, future warming, and future impacts are all characterized by uncertainty. That is, we can’t objectively prescribe probabilities to different outcomes (29). Climate damages lie within the realm of “deep uncertainty”: We don’t know the probabilities attached to different outcomes, the exact chain of cause and effect that will lead to outcomes, or even the range, timing, or desirability of outcomes (, 30). Uncertainty, deep or not, should motivate precaution and vigilance, not complacency.

Catastrophic impacts, even if unlikely, have major implications for economic analysis, modeling, and society’s responses (31, 32). For example, extreme warming and the consequent damages can significantly increase the projected social cost of carbon (31). Understanding the vulnerability and responses of human societies can inform policy making and decision-making to prevent systemic crises. Indicators of key variables can provide early warning signals (33).

Knowing the worst cases can compel action, as the idea of “nuclear winter” in 1983 galvanized public concern and nuclear disarmament efforts. Exploring severe risks and higher-temperature scenarios could cement a recommitment to the 1.5 °C to 2 °C guardrail as the “least unattractive” option (34).

Understanding catastrophic climate scenarios can also inform policy interventions, including last-resort emergency measures like solar radiation management (SRM), the injection of aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect sunlight (35).

Whether to resort to such measures depends on the risk profiles of both climate change and SRM scenarios. One recent analysis of the potential catastrophic risk of stratospheric aerosol injection (SAI) found that the direct and systemic impacts are under-studied (36). The largest danger appears to come from “termination shock”: abrupt and rapid warming if the SAI system is disrupted. Hence, SAI shifts the risk distribution: The median outcome may be better than the climate change it is offsetting, but the tail risk could be worse than warming (36).

There are other interventions that a better understanding of catastrophic climate change could facilitate. For example, at the international level, there is the potential for a “tail risk treaty”: an agreement or protocol that activates stronger commitments and mechanisms when early-warning indicators of potential abrupt change are triggered.

The Potential for Climate Catastrophe

There are four key reasons to be concerned over the potential of a global climate catastrophe. First, there are warnings from history. Climate change (either regional or global) has played a role in the collapse or transformation of numerous previous societies (37) and in each of the five mass extinction events in Phanerozoic Earth history (38). The current carbon pulse is occurring at an unprecedented geological speed and, by the end of the century, may surpass thresholds that triggered previous mass extinctions (39, 40). The worst-case scenarios in the IPCC report project temperatures by the 22nd century that last prevailed in the Early Eocene, reversing 50 million years of cooler climates in the space of two centuries (41).

This is particularly alarming, as human societies are locally adapted to a specific climatic niche. The rise of large-scale, urbanized agrarian societies [editors note: civilization] began with the shift to the stable climate of the Holocene ∼12,000 y ago (42). Since then, human population density peaked within a narrow climatic envelope with a mean annual average temperature of ∼13 °C. Even today, the most economically productive centers of human activity are concentrated in those areas (43). The cumulative impacts of warming may overwhelm societal adaptive capacity.

Second, climate change could directly trigger other catastrophic risks, such as international conflict, or exacerbate infectious disease spread, and spillover risk. These could be potent extreme threat multipliers.

Third, climate change could exacerbate vulnerabilities and cause multiple, indirect stresses (such as economic damage, loss of land, and water and food insecurity) that coalesce into system-wide synchronous failures. This is the path of systemic risk. Global crises tend to occur through such reinforcing “synchronous failures” that spread across countries and systems, as with the 2007–2008 global financial crisis (44). It is plausible that a sudden shift in climate could trigger systems failures that unravel societies across the globe.

The potential of systemic climate risk is marked: The most vulnerable states and communities will continue to be the hardest hit in a warming world, exacerbating inequities. Fig. 1 shows how projected population density intersects with extreme >29 °C mean annual temperature (MAT) (such temperatures are currently restricted to only 0.8% of Earth’s land surface area). Using the medium-high scenario of emissions and population growth (SSP3-7.0 emissions, and SSP3 population growth), by 2070, around 2 billion people are expected to live in these extremely hot areas. Currently, only 30 million people live in hot places, primarily in the Sahara Desert and Gulf Coast (43).


Fig. 1.

Overlap between future population distribution and extreme heat. CMIP6 model data [from nine GCM models available from the WorldClim database (45)] were used to calculate MAT under SSP3-7.0 during around 2070 (2060–2080) alongside Shared SSP3 demographic projections to ∼2070 (46). The shaded areas depict regions where MAT exceeds 29 °C, while the colored topography details the spread of population density.

Extreme temperatures combined with high humidity can negatively affect outdoor worker productivity and yields of major cereal crops. These deadly heat conditions could significantly affect populated areas in South and southwest Asia (47).

Fig. 2 takes a political lens on extreme heat, overlapping SSP3-7.0 or SSP5-8.5 projections of >29 °C MAT circa 2070, with the Fragile States Index (a measurement of the instability of states). There is a striking overlap between currently vulnerable states and future areas of extreme warming. If current political fragility does not improve significantly in the coming decades, then a belt of instability with potentially serious ramifications could occur.


Fig. 2.

Fragile heat: the overlap between state fragility, extreme heat, and nuclear and biological catastrophic hazards. GCM model data [from the WorldClim database (45)] was used to calculate mean annual warming rates under SSP3-7.0 and SSP5-8.5. This results in a temperature rise of 2.8 °C in ∼2070 (48) for SSP3-7.0, and 3.2 °C for SSP5-8.5. The shaded areas depict regions where MAT exceeds 29 °C. These projections are overlapped with the 2021 Fragile State Index (FSI) (49). This is a necessarily rough proxy because FSI only estimates current fragility levels. While such measurements of fragility and stability are contested and have limitations, the FSI provides one of the more robust indices. This Figure also identifies the capitals of states with nuclear weapons, and the location of maximum containment Biosafety Level 4 (BS4) laboratories which handle the most dangerous pathogens in the world. These are provided as one rough proxy for nuclear and biological catastrophc hazards.

Finally, climate change could irrevocably undermine humanity’s ability to recover from another cataclysm, such as nuclear war. That is, it could create significant latent risks (Table 1): Impacts that may be manageable during times of stability become dire when responding to and recovering from catastrophe. These different causes for catastrophic concern are interrelated and must be examined together.


Table 1. Defining key terms in the Climate Endgame agenda

Term Definition
Latent risk Risk that is dormant under one set of conditions but becomes active under another set of conditions.
Risk cascade Chains of risk occurring when an adverse impact triggers a set of linked risks (3).
Systemic risk The potential for individual disruptions or failures to cascade into a system-wide failure.
Extreme climate change Mean global surface temperature rise of 3 °C or more above preindustrial levels by 2100.
Extinction risk The probability of human extinction within a given timeframe.
Extinction threat A plausible and significant contributor to total extinction risk.
Societal fragility The potential for smaller damages to spiral into global catastrophic or extinction risk due to societal vulnerabilities, risk cascades, and maladaptive responses.
Societal collapse Significant sociopolitical fragmentation and/or state failure along with the relatively rapid, enduring, and significant loss capital, and systems identity; this can lead to large-scale increases in mortality and morbidity.
Global catastrophic risk The probability of a loss of 25% of the global population and the severe disruption of global critical systems (such as food) within a given timeframe (years or decades).
Global catastrophic threat A plausible and significant contributor to global catastrophic risk; the potential for climate change to be a global catastrophic threat can be referred to as “catastrophic climate change”.
Global decimation risk The probability of a loss of 10% (or more) of global population and the severe disruption of global critical systems (such as food) within a given timeframe (years or decades).
Global decimation threat A plausible and significant contributor to global decimation risk.
Endgame territory Levels of global warming and societal fragility that are judged sufficiently probable to constitute climate change as an extinction threat.
Worst-case warming The highest empirically and theoretically plausible level of global warming.

Defining the Key Terms

Although bad-to-worst case scenarios remain underexplored in the scientific literature, statements labeling climate change as catastrophic are not uncommon. UN Secretary-General António Guterres called climate change an “existential threat.” Academic studies have warned that warming above 5 °C is likely to be “beyond catastrophic” (50), and above 6 °C constitutes “an indisputable global catastrophe” (9).Current discussions over climate catastrophe are undermined by unclear terminology. The term “catastrophic climate change” has not been conclusively defined. An existential risk is usually defined as a risk that cause an enduring and significant loss of long-term human potential (51, 52). This existing definition is deeply ambiguous and requires societal discussion and specification of long-term human values (52). While a democratic exploration of values is welcome, it is not required to understand pathways to human catastrophe or extinction (52). For now, the existing definition is not a solid foundation for a scientific inquiry.We offer clarified working definitions of such terms in Table 1. This is an initial step toward creating a lexicon for global calamity. Some of the terms, such as what constitutes a “plausible” risk or a “significant contributor,” are necessarily ambiguous. Others, such as thresholding at 10% or 25% of global population, are partly arbitrary (10% is intended as a marker for a precedented loss, and 25% is intended as an unprecedented decrease; see SI Appendix for further discussion). Further research is needed to sharpen these definitions. The thresholds for global catastrophic and decimation risks are intended as general heuristics and not concrete numerical boundaries. Other factors such as morbidity, and cultural and economic loss, need to be considered.

We define risk as the probability that exposure to climate change impacts and responses will result in adverse consequences for human or ecological systems. For the Climate Endgame agenda, we are particularly interested in catastrophic consequences. Any risk is composed of four determinants: hazard, exposure, vulnerability, and response (3).

We have set global warming of 3 °C or more by the end of the century as a marker for extreme climate change. This threshold is chosen for four reasons: Such a temperature rise well exceeds internationally agreed targets, all the IPCC “reasons for concern” in climate impacts are either “high” or “very high” risk between 2 °C and 3 °C, there are substantially heightened risks of self-amplifying changes that would make it impossible to limit warming to 3 °C, and these levels relate to far greater uncertainty in impacts.

Key Research Thus Far

The closest attempts to directly study or comprehensively address how climate change could lead to human extinction or global catastrophe have come through popular science books such as The Uninhabitable Earth (53) and Our Final Warning (10). The latter, a review of climate impacts at different degrees, concludes that a global temperature rise of 6 °C “imperils even the survival of humans as a species” (10).

We know that health risks worsen with rising temperatures (54). For example, there is already an increasing probability of multiple “breadbasket failures” (causing a food price shock) with higher temperatures (55). For the top four maize-producing regions (accounting for 87% of maize production), the likelihood of production losses greater than 10% jumps from 7% annually under a 2 °C temperature rise to 86% under 4 °C (56). The IPCC notes, in its Sixth Assessment Report, that 50 to 75% of the global population could be exposed to life-threatening climatic conditions by the end of the century due to extreme heat and humidity (6). SI Appendix provides further details on several key studies of extreme climate change.

The IPCC reports synthesize peer-reviewed literature regarding climate change, impacts and vulnerabilities, and mitigation. Despite identifying 15 tipping elements in biosphere, oceans, and cryosphere in the Working Group 1 contribution to the Sixth Assessment Report, many with irreversible thresholds, there were very few publications on catastrophic scenarios that could be assessed. The most notable coverage is the Working Group II “reasons for concern” syntheses that have been reported since 2001. These syntheses were designed to inform determination of what is “dangerous anthropogenic interference” with the climate system, that the UNFCCC aims to prevent. The five concerns are unique and threatened ecosystems, frequency and severity of extreme weather events, global distribution and balance of impacts, total economic and ecological impact, and irreversible, large-scale, abrupt transitions. Each IPCC assessment found greater risks occurring at lower increases in global mean temperatures. In the Sixth Assessment Report, all five concerns were listed as very high for temperatures of 1.2 °C to 4.5 °C. In contrast, only two were rated as very high at this temperature interval in the previous Assessment Report (6). All five concerns are now at “high” or “very high” for 2 °C to 3 °C of warming (57).

A Sample Research Agenda: Extreme Earth System States, Mass Mortality, Societal Fragility, and Integrated Climate Catastrophe Assessments

We suggest a research agenda for catastrophic climate change that focuses on four key strands:

  • Understanding extreme climate change dynamics and impacts in the long term
  • Exploring climate-triggered pathways to mass morbidity and mortality
  • Investigating social fragility: vulnerabilities, risk cascades, and risk responses
  • Synthesizing the research findings into “integrated catastrophe assessments”

Our proposed agenda learns from and builds on integrated assessment models that are being adapted to better assess large-scale harms. A range of tipping points have been assessed (58–60), with effects varying from a 10% chance of doubling the social cost of carbon (61) up to an eightfold increase in the optimal carbon price (60). This echoes earlier findings that welfare estimates depend on fat tail risks (31). Model assumptions such as discount rates, exogenous growth rates, risk preferences, and damage functions also strongly influence outcomes.

There are large, important aspects missing from these models that are highlighted in the research agenda: longer-term impacts under extreme climate change, pathways toward mass morbidity and mortality, and the risk cascades and systemic risks that extreme climate impacts could trigger. Progress in these areas would allow for more realistic models and damage functions and help provide direct estimates of casualties (62), a necessary moral noneconomic measure of climate risk. We urge the research community to develop integrated conceptual and semiquantitative models of climate catastrophes.

Finally, we invite other scholars to revise and improve upon this proposed agenda.

Extreme Earth System States.

We need to understand potential long-term states of the Earth system under extreme climate change. This means mapping different “Hothouse Earth” scenarios (21) or other extreme scenarios, such as alternative circulation regimes or large, irreversible changes in ice cover and sea level. This research will require consideration of long-term climate dynamics and their impacts on other planetary-level processes. Research suggests that previous mass extinction events occurred due to threshold effects in the carbon cycle that we could cross this century (40, 63). Key impacts in previous mass extinctions, such as ocean hypoxia and anoxia, could also escalate in the longer term (40, 64).

Studying potential tipping points and irreversible “committed” changes of ecological and climate systems is essential. For instance, modeling of the Antarctic ice sheet suggests there are several tipping points that exhibit hysteresis (65). Irreversible loss of the West Antarctic ice sheet was found to be triggered at ∼2 °C global warming, and the current ice sheet configuration cannot be regained even if temperatures return to present-day levels. At a 6 °C to 9 °C rise in global temperature, slow, irreversible loss of the East Antarctic ice sheet and over 40 m of sea level rise equivalent could be triggered (65). Similar studies of areas such as the Greenland ice sheet, permafrost, and terrestrial vegetation would be helpful. Identifying all the potential Earth system tipping elements is crucial. This should include a consideration of wider planetary boundaries, such as biodiversity, that will influence tipping points (66), feedbacks beyond the climate system, and how tipping elements could cascade together (67).

Mass Morbidity and Mortality.

There are many potential contributors to climate-induced morbidity and mortality, but the “four horsemen” of the climate change end game are likely to be famine and undernutrition, extreme weather events, conflict, and vector-borne diseases. These will be worsened by additional risks and impacts such as mortality from air pollution and sea level rise.

These pathways require further study. Empirical estimates of even direct fatalities from heat stress thus far in the United States are systematically underestimated (68). A review of the health and climate change literature from 1985 to 2013 (with a proxy review up to 2017) found that, of 2,143 papers, only 189 (9%) included a dedicated discussion of more-extreme health impacts or systemic risk (relating to migration, famine, or conflict) (69). Models also rarely include adaptive responses. Thus, the overall mortality estimates are uncertain.

How can potential mass morbidity and mortality be better accounted for? 1) Track compound hazards through bottom-up modeling of systems and vulnerabilities (70) and rigorously stress test preparedness (71). 2) Apply models to higher-temperature scenarios and longer timelines. 3) Integrate risk cascades and systemic risks (see the following section) into health risk assessments, such as by incorporating morbidity and mortality resulting from a climate-triggered food price shock.

Societal Fragility: Vulnerabilities, Risk Cascades, and Risk Responses.

More-complex risk assessments are generally more realistic. The determinants of risk are not just hazards, vulnerabilities, and exposures, but also responses (3, 72). A complete risk assessment needs to consider climate impacts, differential exposure, systemic vulnerabilities, responses of societies and actors, and the knock-on effects across borders and sectors (73), potentially resulting in systemic crises. In the worst case(s), a domino effect or spiral could continuously worsen the initial risk.

Societal risk cascades could involve conflict, disease, political change, and economic crises. Climate change has a complicated relationship with conflict, including, possibly, as a risk factor (74) especially in areas with preexisting ethnic conflict (75). Climate change could affect the spread and transmission of infectious diseases, as well as the expansion and severity of different zoonotic infections (76), creating conditions for novel outbreaks and infections (6,77). Epidemics can, in turn, trigger cascading impacts, as in the case of COVID-19. Exposure to ecological stress and natural disasters are key determinants for the cultural “tightness” (strictness of rules, adherence to tradition, and severity of punishment) of societies (78). The literature on the median economic damages of climate change is profuse, but there is far less on financial tail risks, such as the possibility of global financial crises.

Past studies could be drawn upon to investigate societal risk. Relatively small, regional climate changes are linked to the transformation and even collapse of previous societies (79, 80). This could be due to declining resilience and the passing of tipping points in these societies. There is some evidence for critical slowing down in societies prior to their collapse (81, 82). However, care is needed in drawing lessons from premodern case studies. Prehistory and history should be studied to determine not just how past societies were affected by specific climate hazards but how those effects differ as societies change with respect to, for example, population density, wealth inequality, and governance regime. Such framing will allow past and current societies to be brought under a single system of analysis (37).

The characteristics and vulnerabilities of a modern globalized world where food and transport distribution systems can buffer against traumas will need to feature in work on societal sensitivity. Such large, interconnected systems bring their own sources of fragility, particularly if networks are relatively homogeneous, with a few dominant nodes highly connected to everyone else (83). Other important modern-day vulnerabilities include the rapid spread of misinformation and disinformation. These epistemic risks are serious concerns for public health crises (84) and have already hindered climate action. A high-level and simplified depiction of how risk cascades could unfold is provided in Fig. 3.

Fig. 3.

Cascading global climate failure. This is a causal loop diagram, in which a complete line represents a positive polarity (e.g., amplifying feedback; not necessarily positive in a normative sense) and a dotted line denotes a negative polarity (meaning a dampening feedback). See SI Appendix for further information.

Integrated Catastrophic Assessments.

Climate change will unfold in a world of changing ecosystems, geopolitics, and technology. Could we even see “warm wars”—technologically enhanced great power conflicts over dwindling carbon budgets, climate impacts, or SRM experiments? Such developments and scenarios need to be considered to build a full picture of climate dangers. Climate change could reinforce other interacting threats, including rising inequality, demographic stresses, misinformation, new destructive weapons, and the overshoot of other planetary boundaries (85). There are also natural shocks, such as solar flares and high-impact volcanic eruptions, that present possible deadly synchronicities (86). Exploring these is vital, and a range of “standardized catastrophic scenarios” would facilitate assessment.

Expert elicitation, systems mapping, and participatory scenarios provide promising ways of understanding such cascades (73). There are also existing research agendas for some of these areas that could be funded (87).

Integration can be approached in several ways. Metareviews and syntheses of research results can provide useful data for mapping the interactions between risks. This could be done through causal mapping, expert elicitation, and agent-based or systems dynamics modeling approaches. One recent study mapped the evidence base for relationships between climate change, food insecurity, and contributors to societal collapse (mortality, conflict, and emigration) based on 41 studies (88).

A particularly promising avenue is to repurpose existing complex models to study cascading risks. The resulting network could be “stress tested” with standardized catastrophic scenarios. This could help estimate which areas may incur critical shortages or disruptions, or drastic responses (such as food export bans). Complex models have been developed to help understand past large-scale systemic disasters, such as the 2007–2008 global financial crisis (89). Some of these could be repurposed for exploring the potential nature of a future global climate crisis.

Systems failure is unlikely to be globally simultaneous; it is more likely to begin regionally and then cascade up. Although the goal is to investigate catastrophic climate risk globally, incorporating knowledge of regional losses is indispensable.

The potentially catastrophic risks of climate change are difficult to quantify, even within models. Any of the above-mentioned modeling approaches should provide a greater understanding of the pathways of systemic risk, and rough probabilistic guides. Yet the results could provide the foundation for argumentation-based tools to assess the potential for catastrophic outcomes under different levels of temperature rise (90). These should be fed into open deliberative democratic methods that provide a fair, inclusive, and effective approach to decision-making (91). Such approaches could draw on decision-making tools under uncertainty, such as the minimax principle or ranking decisions by the weighted sum of their best and worst outcomes, as suggested in the Dasgupta review of biodiversity (92).

An IPCC Special Report on Catastrophic Climate Change

The IPCC has yet to give focused attention to catastrophic climate change. Fourteen special reports have been published. None covered extreme or catastrophic climate change. A special report on “tipping points” was proposed for the seventh IPCC assessment cycle, and we suggest this could be broadened to consider all key aspects of catastrophic climate change. This appears warranted, following the IPCC’s decision framework (93). Such a report could investigate how Earth system feedbacks could alter temperature trajectories, and whether these are irreversible.

A special report on catastrophic climate change could help trigger further research, just as the “Global warming of 1.5 °C” special report (94) did. That report also galvanized a groundswell of public concern about the severity of impacts at lower temperature ranges. The impact of a report on catastrophic climate change could be even more marked. It could help bring into focus how much is at stake in a worst-case scenario. Further research funding of catastrophic and worst-case climate change is critical.

Effective communication of research results will be key. While there is concern that fear-invoking messages may be unhelpful and induce paralysis (95), the evidence on hopeful vs. fearful messaging is mixed, even across metaanalyses (96, 97). The role of emotions is complex, and it is strategic to adjust messages for specific audiences (98). One recent review of the climate debate highlighted the importance of avoiding political bundling, selecting trusted messengers, and choosing effective frames (99). These kinds of considerations will be crucial in ensuring a useful and accurate civic discussion.

Conclusions

There is ample evidence that climate change could become catastrophic. We could enter such “endgames” at even modest levels of warming. Understanding extreme risks is important for robust decision-making, from preparation to consideration of emergency responses. This requires exploring not just higher temperature scenarios but also the potential for climate change impacts to contribute to systemic risk and other cascades. We suggest that it is time to seriously scrutinize the best way to expand our research horizons to cover this field. The proposed “Climate Endgame” research agenda provides one way to navigate this under-studied area. Facing a future of accelerating climate change while blind to worst-case scenarios is naive risk management at best and fatally foolish at worst.


This open-access scientific paper was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives (CC BY-NC-ND) or a Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY) license.

Appendix and references available here: https://www.pnas.org/doi/abs/10.1073/pnas.2108146119

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash.

Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights

Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights

Editor’s note: This article has been published in The International Journal of Human Rights. Unfortunaltly we don’t have the rights to publish the whole article which is behind a paywall, but we are publishing the extract and some quotes.

Featured image: The surface mine storage place, mining minerals and brown coal in different colours. View from above. Photo by Curioso Photography on Unsplash

ABSTRACT
This article describes the connections between resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, and climate change. Although resource extraction and prostitution have been viewed as separate phenomena, this article suggests that they are related harms that result in multiple violations of women’s human rights. The businesses of resource extraction and prostitution adversely impact women’s lives, especially those who are poor, ethnically or racially marginalised, and young. The article clarifies associations between prostitution and climate change on the one hand, and poverty, choicelessness, and the appearance of consent on the other. We discuss human rights conventions that are relevant to mitigation of the harms caused by extreme poverty, homelessness, resource extraction, climate change, and prostitution. These include anti-slavery conventions and women’s sex-based rights conventions.

Farley writes: “In this article we offer some conceptual and empirical connections between prostitution, resource extraction, poverty, and climate change.1 These associations are clarified by Seiya Morita’s visual diagram, in Figure 1.2 In the short term, resource extraction leads to a sudden increase in the sex trade, as shown by the arrow on the left side of the diagram. In the long term, resource extraction causes climate change as indicated by the right arrow. Climate change then leads to crises in peoples’ ability to survive extreme events such as drought, floods, or agricultural collapse. These climate change catastrophes result in poverty which then mediates and channels women into the sex trade. The arrow on the bottom of Figure 1 illustrates this process.

The initial phase of resource extraction launches and expands prostitution
“At first, colonists and their descendants subordinate indigenous people who live on lands rich in natural resources. Historically, extraction industries have exploited young, poor men who are paid well to perform jobs that no one else wants because the jobs are unplea- sant and dangerous. This initial phase of resource extraction temporarily results in a boom economy with cash-rich but lonely working-class men. In order to pacify the workers and enrich the pimps, women and girls who are under pimp control are delivered to workers in these boom/sacrifice zones such as the Bakken oil fields in USA and Canada, gold mines in South Africa, coltan mining regions in Colombia, and logging regions in Brazil.3 This movement of trafficked women increases prostitution both in the boom town and in neigh- bouring communities. Following is an example of this process.

“The Bakken oil fields of Montana/North Dakota/Saskatchewan/Manitoba are located in lands where the Dakota Access Pipeline causes physical, psychological, and cultural damage to the community, and ecocidal harm to the land and the water.4 In 2008, large numbers of pipeline workers moved into the Bakken region’s barracks-style housing which were named man camps. Sexual assaults, domestic violence, and sex trafficking tripled in communities adjacent to the oilfield sacrifice zones,5 with especially high rates of sexual violence toward Native women.6 Adverse consequences of living near extractive projects include increased rates of sexually transmitted infections and still- births; general deterioration in health; ecological degradation and climate change; threats to food security; and political corruption – all of which severely impact women.7 When resource extraction is terminated, for example when coltan mining was halted in Congo because of environmental protests, the newly expanding sex trade remains in operation, an enduring legacy of colonisation. Belgium’s domination of Congo gradually shifted from state to corporate colonisation.8 The Belgian colonists’ commodification of the nation diminished the people’s social and political power, leaving them poorer, with fewer resources, and often desperate for a means of survival even before the later phase of climate change occurred. This sequence happens wherever resources are commodified. Initially, a boom economy based on resource extraction creates short-term job opportunities and wealth previously unknown. Prostitution is established both to pacify the workers and to generate money for pimps and traffickers. When the boom economy goes bust, men’s continued demand for paid sexual access, combined with women’s need for survival – drive the institution of prostitution, which remains even after the extraction industry has ended.”

Melissa Farley (2021): Making the connections: resource extraction, prostitution, poverty, climate change, and human rights, The International Journal of Human Rights, DOI: 10.1080/13642987.2021.1997999

The whole article is accessible here: https://doi.org/10.1080/13642987.2021.1997999

Melissa Farley
Melissa Farley is a research and clinical psychologist who has authored many articles and 2 books on the topic of prostitution, pimping/trafficking, and pornography. She is the executive director of Prostitution Research & Education, a nonprofit research institute that conducts original research on the sex trade and provides a library of information for survivors, advocates, policymakers, and the public. Access to the free library is at www.prostitutionresearch.com.

What climate change activists can learn from First Nations campaigns against the fossil fuel industry

What climate change activists can learn from First Nations campaigns against the fossil fuel industry

This story first appeared in The Conversation.

As the Glasgow climate conference begins, and the time we have to avert a climate crisis narrows, it is time to revisit successful First Nations campaigns against the fossil fuel industry.

Like the current fight to avert a climate catastrophe, these battles are good, old-fashioned, come-from-behind, David-versus-Goliath examples we can all learn from. The Jabiluka campaign is a good example.

In the late 1990s, a mining company, Energy Resources of Australia, was planning to expand its Kakadu uranium mine into Jabiluka, land belonging to Mirarr Traditional Owners in the Northern Territory. The adjacent Ranger Uranium mine had been operating for 20 years without Traditional Owners’ consent and against their wishes, causing long-term cultural and environmental destruction.

But the expansion of the mine ultimately failed, thanks to an extraordinary campaign by the Traditional Owners, led by Yvonne Margarula and a relative, the lead author of this article, Jacqui Katona (a Djok woman).

In recognition of our work, we shared the 1999 Goldman Environmental Prize, one of the most prestigious international grassroots environmental awards.

Two people sit smiling. The photo is in black and white.
Yvonne Margarula and Jacqui Katona after accepting the Goldman Environmental Prize for grassroots activism, Island Nations 1998. Provided by author. 

The campaign included a huge on-site protest camp, shareholder action and significant overseas support (including from the European Parliament, US Congress and an expert committee to UNESCO). It also included a blockade of the mine site – one of the biggest blockades Australia had ever seen.

These are valuable lessons for those wanting to take decisive action against the fossil fuel industry. Here are six ways to learn from our experience:

1. Put pressure on the financial sector

Continuous pressure on companies in the financial sector (such as banks), which are complicit in the success of fossil fuel companies, can have an impact. This can be done by exposing their involvement with fossil fuels and pressuring them to be held accountable for these partnerships.

One of the most successful actions of the Jabiluka campaign was the coordination of protests at Westpac, which financed the mine’s owner, Energy Resources of Australia. Not only did protesters raise awareness about Westpac’s investment at local branches, they created bureaucratic chaos by opening and closing bank accounts.

This resulted in a corporate shift in Westpac towards better accountability on issues affecting First Nations people. Coordinated protests like this are an effective way to empower people to participate in positive action for change.

Similar protests, strategic litigation and investor campaigns have also effectively disrupted the Adani mining project in Queensland, including making financing and insurance for the project very difficult.

2. Join a strong organisation or alliance

First Nations campaigns against mining and other fossil fuel companies show the single most important factor in successful protests is leadership by politically powerful organisations or alliances.

In the Jabiluka campaign, Katona and Margarula were successful in large part because of their insistence on a Mirrar-led campaign forming strong alliances with powerful unions, environmental groups and other national and international organisations.

3. Hit them where it hurts: the hip pocket

The Mirarr’s successful campaign was one of the first to use shareholder activism, and it worked. The campaigners engaged in two years of activism against Energy Resources of Australia, including forming a group of shareholders who lobbied within the project for protesters’ demands.

In that time, the share price of Energy Resources of Australia fell from more than A$6 to less than A$2. This forced the company to hold an extraordinary shareholders’ meeting where representatives of the lobbying group were present.

Shareholders were then able to have some influence over corporate responsibility and accountability, including the appointment of a sustainable development manager. While the government ultimately amended the Corporations Act to make such actions more difficult, this nevertheless shows that creative direct action can be successful in holding corporations accountable.

4. Win over the right people

When Rio Tinto detonated 46,000-year-old rock shelters at Juukan Gorge on the traditional land of the Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura peoples last year, it was not only public outcry that led to the resignation of three senior executives, including the chief executive.

Pressure also came from investor groups, including major Australian super funds, and the media over the perceived lack of accountability.

5. There’s never a perfect time to act

Katona led the Jabiluka campaign while a mother to two small children, juggling local work with international activism. She was jailed for trespassing on Aboriginal land. She was hospitalised with complications from lupus, which required a long recovery.

Be strategic about your participation in high-energy campaigns and find ways to support the efforts of key activists. But also know the fight against the fossil fuel industry takes more effort than just changing your social media profile picture.

There is no perfect time, or single solution, to campaigning for a better future. The power of people is a resource which often delivers inspiration to disrupt and needs to be nurtured.

6. Believe you can win

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities have faced hundreds of years of colonisation, industrial desecration of their sacred lands, and destruction of their Country. However in many cases, they have won battles against the odds.

The Mirrar faced a discriminatory system which sidelined their interests in Kakadu for more than 20 years. But they continued their fight to protect Country, and ultimately succeeded in preventing Jabiluka’s expansion.

So take heart and don’t give up. This is a fight that can be won.

Climate change is muting fall colors, but it’s just the latest way that humans have altered US forests

Climate change is muting fall colors, but it’s just the latest way that humans have altered US forests

This story first appeared in The Conversation.

By Marc Abrams

Fall foliage season is a calendar highlight in states from Maine south to Georgia and west to the Rocky Mountains. It’s especially important in the Northeast, where fall colors attract an estimated US$8 billion in tourism revenues to New England every year.

As a forestry scientist, I’m often asked how climate change is affecting fall foliage displays. What’s clearest so far is that color changes are occurring later in the season. And the persistence of very warm, wet weather in 2021 is reducing color displays in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic. But climate change isn’t the only factor at work, and in some areas, human decisions about forest management are the biggest influences.

Longer growing seasons

Climate change is clearly making the Northeast warmer and wetter. Since 1980, average temperatures in the Northeast have increased by 0.66 degrees Fahrenheit (0.37 Celsius), and average annual precipitation has increased by 3.4 inches (8.6 centimeters) – about 8%. This increase in precipitation fuels tree growth and tends to offset stress on the trees from rising temperatures. In the West, which is becoming both warmer and drier, climate change is having greater physiological effects on trees.

My research in tree physiology and dendrochronology – dating and interpreting past events based on trees’ growth rings – shows that in general, trees in the eastern U.S. have fared quite well in a changing climate. That’s not surprising given the subtle variations in climate across much of the eastern U.S. Temperature often limits trees’ growth in cool and cold regions, so the trees usually benefit from slight warming.

In addition, carbon dioxide – the dominant greenhouse gas warming Earth’s climate – is also the molecule that fuels photosynthesis in plants. As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere increase, plants carry out more photosynthesis and grow more.

More carbon dioxide is not automatically good for the planet – an idea often referred to as “global greening.” There are natural limits to how much photosynthesis plants can carry out. Plants need water and nutrients to grow, and supplies of these inputs are limited. And as carbon dioxide concentrations rise, plants’ ability to use it decreases – an effect known as carbon dioxide saturation.

For now, however, climate change has extended the growing season for trees in the Northeast by about 10-14 days. In my tree ring research, we routinely see trees putting on much more diameter growth now than in the past.

This effect is particularly evident in young trees, but we see it in old trees as well. That’s remarkable because old trees’ growth should be slowing down, not speeding up. Scientists in western states have even noted this acceleration in bristlecone pines that are over 4,000 years old – the oldest trees in the world.

Fall colors emerge when the growing season ends and trees stop photosynthesizing. The trees stop producing chlorophyll, the green pigment in their leaves, which absorbs energy from sunlight. This allows carotenoid (orange) and xanthophyll (yellow) pigments in the leaves to emerge. The leaves also produce a third pigment, anthocyanin, which creates red colors. A longer growing season may mean that fall colors emerge later – and it can also make those colors duller.

A changing mix of trees

Climate isn’t the only thing that affects fall colors. The types of tree species in a forest are an even bigger factor, and forest composition in the eastern U.S. has changed dramatically over the past century.

Notably, eastern forests today have more species such as red maple, black birch, tulip poplar and blackgum than they did in the early 20th century. These trees are shade-tolerant and typically grow in conditions that are neither extremely wet nor extremely dry. They also produce intense red and yellow displays in the fall.

This shift began in the 1930s, when federal agencies adopted policies that called for suppressing all wildfires quickly rather than letting some burn. At that time, much of the eastern U.S. was dominated by fire-adapted oak, pine and hickory. Without fires recurring once or twice a decade, these species fail to regenerate and ultimately decline, allowing more shade-tolerant, fire-sensitive trees like red maple to invade.

There is evidence that some tree species in the eastern U.S. are migrating to the north and west because of warming, increasing precipitation and fire suppression. This trend could affect fall colors as regions gain or lose particular species. In particular, studies indicate that the range of sugar maples – one of the best color-producing trees – is shifting northward into Canada.

Intensive logging and forest clearance across the eastern U.S. through the mid-1800s altered forests’ mix of tree species.

Forests under pressure

So far it’s clear that warming has caused a delay in peak colors for much of the East, ranging from a few days in Pennsylvania to as much as two weeks in New England. It’s not yet known whether this delay is making fall colors less intense or shorter-lasting.

But I’ve observed over the past 35 years that when very warm and wet weather extends into mid- and late October, leaves typically go from green to either dull colors or directly to brown, particularly if there is a sudden frost. This year there are few intense red leaves, which suggests that warmth has interfered with anthocyanin production. Some classic red producers, such as red maple and scarlet oak, are producing yellow leaves.

Other factors could also stress eastern forests. Climate scientists project that global warming will make tropical storms and hurricanes more intense and destructive, with higher rainfall rates. These storms could knock down trees, blow leaves off those left standing and reduce fall coloration.

Green leaves with brown-black spots.
Maple leaves infected with a fungal pathogen that can lead to premature leaf loss. UMass AmherstCC BY-ND

 

Scientists also expect climate change to expand the ranges of insects that prey on trees, such as the emerald ash borer. And this year’s very wet fall has also increased problems with leaf-spotting fungi, which are hitting sugar maples particularly hard.

Forests shade the earth and absorb carbon dioxide. I am proud to see an increasing number of foresters getting involved in ecological forestry, an approach that focuses on ecosystem services that forests provide, such as storing carbon, filtering water and sheltering wildlife.

Foresters can help to slow climate change by revegetating open land, increasing forests’ biodiversity and using highly adaptable tree species that are long-lived, produce many seeds and migrate over time. Shaping eastern forests to thrive in a changing climate can help preserve their benefits – including fall color displays – well into the future.

The Only Long-Range Solution to Climate Change

The Only Long-Range Solution to Climate Change

This article originally appeared in Resilience. It is adapted from the book POWER: Limits and Prospects for Human Survival (New Society Publishers, September 2021) by Richard Heinberg

Editor’s note: Under the current system, Economies of Scale create Jevons Paradox. “This is crucial: Increased energy efficiency not only doesn’t generally reduce demand, but instead increases it. This is called the “rebound effect,” and we see it all the time.”
Bright Green Lies p. 213
Our power over nature is only an illusion. Nature has no mercy.


By Richard Heinberg

Climate change is often incorrectly described as an isolated pollution issue. In this flawed framing, humanity has simply made a mistake in its choice of energy sources; the solution entails switching sources and building enough carbon-sucking machines to clear the atmosphere of polluting CO2. Only the political power of the fossil fuel companies prevents us from adopting this solution and ending our existential environmental crisis.

But techno-fixes (that is, technological solutions that circumvent the need for personal or cultural change) aren’t working so far, and likely won’t work in the future. That’s because fossil fuels will be difficult to replace, and energy usage is central to our collective economic power.

In other words, power is the key to solving climate change—but not necessarily in the way that many pundits claim. Solutions will not come just from defeating fossil fuel interests and empowering green entrepreneurs; real climate progress will require the willingness of large swathes of the populace, especially in wealthy countries, to forgo forms of power they currently enjoy: comfort and convenience, the ability to travel far and fast, and the option to easily obtain a wide range of consumer products whose manufacture entails large inputs of energy and natural resources.

This is not a feel-good message, but the longer we postpone grappling with power in this larger sense, the less successful we’re likely to be in coming to terms with the climate threat.

The Big Picture: Power and Consequences

Why can there be no climate techno-fix? There are two routes to this conclusion. The first one meanders through the history of humans on Earth, revealing how each new technological or social innovation empowered some people over others, while often imposing a long-term environmental cost. The adoption of agriculture was a milestone on this path: it enabled more people to subsist in any given area, and it led to cities, kings, and slavery; further, in many places, plowing tended to deplete or ruin topsoil, and city-dwellers cut down nearby forests, leading to eventual societal collapse.

But the real show-stopper came much more recently. The adoption of fossil fuels gave humans the biggest jolt of empowerment ever: in just the last two centuries, our global population has grown eight-fold, and so has per capita energy consumption. Our modern way of life—with cars, planes, supermarkets, tractors, trucks, electricity grids, and internet shopping—is the result.

Climate change is the shadow of this recent cavalcade of industriousness, since it results from the burning of fossil fuels, the main enablers of modern civilization. Nevertheless, rapidly increasing population and consumption levels are inherently unsustainable and are bringing about catastrophic environmental impacts on their own, even if we disregard the effects of carbon emissions. The accelerating depletion of resources, increasing loads of chemical pollution, and the hastening loss of wild nature are trends leading us toward ecological collapse, with economic and social collapse no doubt trailing close behind. Ditching fossil fuels will turn these trends around only if we also deal with the issues of population and consumption.

That’s the big picture. However, the quest for a climate techno-fix also fails on its own terms—that is, as a painless means of averting climate change while maintaining our current industrial economy and way of life. The rest of this essay deals with this second trail of evidence and logic, which requires a more detailed presentation. So: buckle up. Here we go.

Why Solar Panels Won’t Save Consumerism

Most energy analysts regard solar and wind as the best candidates to substitute for fossil fuels in electrical power generation (since nuclear is too expensive and too risky, and would require too much time for build-out; and hydro is capacity constrained). But these “renewables” are not without challenges. While sunlight and wind are themselves renewable, the technologies we use to capture them aren’t: they’re constructed of non-renewable materials like steel, silicon, concrete, and rare earth minerals, all of which require energy for mining, transport, and transformation. These materials are also depleting, and many will be difficult or impossible to recycle.

Sunlight and wind are intermittent: we cannot control when the sun will shine or the wind will blow. Therefore, to ensure constant availability of power, these sources require some combination of four strategies:

  • Energy storage (e.g., with batteries) is useful to balance out day-to-day intermittency, but nearly useless when it comes to seasonal intermittency; also, storing energy costs energy and money.
  • Source redundancy (building far more generation capacity than will actually be needed on “good” days, and then connecting far-flung solar and wind farms by way of massive super-grids), is a better solution for seasonal intermittency, but requires substantial infrastructure investment.
  • Excess electricity generated at times of peak production can be used to make synthetic fuels (such as hydrogen, ammonia, or methanol), perhaps using carbon captured from the atmosphere, as a way of storing energy; however, making large amounts of such fuels will again require substantial infrastructure investment, and the process is inherently inefficient.
  • Demand management (using electricity when it’s available, and curtailing usage when it isn’t) is the cheapest way of dealing with intermittency, but it often implies behavioral change or economic sacrifice.

Today the world uses only about 20 percent of its final energy in the form of electricity. The other 80 percent of energy is used in the forms of solid, liquid, and gaseous fuels. A transition away from fossil fuels will entail the electrification of much of that other 80 percent of energy usage, which includes most transportation and key industrial processes. However, many uses of energy, such as aviation and the making of cement for concrete, will be difficult or especially costly to electrify. In principle, the electrification conundrum could be overcome by powering aviation and high-heat industrial processes with synfuels. However, doing this at scale would require a massive infrastructure of pipelines, storage tanks, carbon capture devices, and chemical synthesis plants that would essentially replicate much of our current natural gas and oil supply system.

Machine-based carbon removal and sequestration methods work in the laboratory, but would need staggering levels of investment in order to be deployed at a meaningful scale, and it’s unclear who would pay for them. These methods also use a lot of energy, and, when full lifecycle emissions are calculated, it appears that more emissions are often generated than are captured.[1] The best carbon capture-and-sequestration responses appear instead to consist of various methods of ecosystem restoration and soil regeneration. These strategies would also reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions. But they would require a near-complete rethinking of food systems and land management.

Not long ago I collaborated with a colleague, David Fridley, of the Energy Analysis Program at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, to look closely at what a full transition to a solar-wind economy would mean (our efforts resulted in the book Our Renewable Future).[2] We concluded that it will constitute an enormous job, requiring tens of trillions of dollars in investment. In fact, the task may be next to impossible—if we attempt to keep the overall level of societal energy use the same, or expand it to fuel further economic growth.[3] David and I concluded:

We citizens of industrialized nations will have to change our consumption patterns. We will have to use less overall and adapt our use of energy to times and processes that take advantage of intermittent abundance. Mobility will suffer, so we will have to localize aspects of production and consumption. And we may ultimately forgo some things altogether. If some new processes (e.g., solar or hydrogen-sourced chemical plants) are too expensive, they simply won’t happen. Our growth-based, globalized, consumption-oriented economy will require significant overhaul.[4]

The essence of the problem with a climate techno-fix is this: nearly everything we need to do to solve global warming (including building new low-emissions electrical generation capacity, and electrifying energy usage) requires energy and money. But society is already using all the energy and money it can muster in order to do the things that society wants and needs to do (extract resources, manufacture products, transport people and materials, provide health care and education, and so on). If we take energy and money away from those activities in order to fund a rapid energy transition on an unprecedented scale, then the economy will contract, people will be thrown out of work, and many folks will be miserable. On the other hand, if we keep doing all those things at the current scale while also rapidly building a massive alternative infrastructure of solar panels, wind turbines, battery banks, super grids, electric cars and trucks, electrified industrial equipment, and synthetic fuel factories, the result will be a big pulse of energy usage that will significantly increase carbon emissions over the short term (10 to 20 years), since the great majority of the energy currently available for the project must be derived from fossil fuels.

It takes energy to make solar panels, wind turbines, electric cars, and new generations of industrial equipment of all kinds. For a car with an internal combustion engine (ICE), 10 percent of lifetime energy usage occurs in the manufacturing stage. For an electric car, roughly 40 percent of energy usage occurs in manufacturing, and emissions during this stage are 15 percent greater than for an ICE car (over the entire lifetime of the e-car, emissions are about half those of the gasoline guzzler). With solar panels and wind turbines, energy inputs and carbon emissions are similarly front-loaded to the manufacturing phase; energy output and emissions reduction (from offsetting other electricity generation) come later. Replacing a very high percentage of our industrial infrastructure and equipment quickly would therefore entail a historically large burst of energy usage and carbon emissions. By undertaking a rapid energy transition, while also maintaining or even expanding current levels of energy usage for the “normal” purpose of economic growth, we would be defeating our goal of reducing emissions now—even though we would be working toward the goal of reducing emissions later.

Many folks nurture the happy illusion that we can do it all—continue to grow the economy while also funding the energy transition—by assuming that the problem is only money (if we find a way to pay for it, then the transition can be undertaken with no sacrifice). This illusion can be maintained only by refusing to acknowledge the stubborn fact that all activity, including building alternative energy generators and carbon capture machinery, requires energy.

The only way out of the dilemma arising from the energy and emissions cost of the transition is to reduce substantially the amount of energy we are using for “normal” economic purposes—for resource extraction, manufacturing, transportation, heating, cooling, and industrial processes—both so that we can use that energy for the transition (building solar panels and electric vehicles), and so that we won’t have to build as much new infrastructure. Increased energy efficiency can help reduce energy usage without giving up energy services, but many machines (LED lights, electric motors) and industrial processes are already highly efficient, and further large efficiency gains in those areas are unlikely. We would achieve an efficiency boost by substituting direct electricity generators (solar and wind) for inherently inefficient heat-to-electricity generators (natural gas and coal power plants); but we would also be introducing new inefficiencies into the system via battery-based electricity storage and hydrogen or synfuels production. In the end, the conclusion is inescapable: actual reductions in energy services would be required in order to transition away from fossil fuels without creating a significant short-term burst of emissions. Some energy and climate analysts other than David Fridley and myself—such as Kevin Anderson, Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the University of Manchester—have reached this same conclusion independently.[5]

Energy is inextricably related to power. Thus, if society voluntarily reduces its energy usage by a significant amount in order to minimize climate impacts, large numbers of people will likely experience this as giving up power in some form—whether physical, social, or economic.

It can’t be emphasized too much: energy is essential to all economic activity. An economy can grow continuously only by employing more energy (unless energy efficiency can be increased substantially, and further gains in efficiency can continue to be realized in each succeeding year—a near-impossibility over the long run, since investments in making processes more efficient typically see diminishing returns over time). World leaders demand more economic growth in order to fend off unemployment and other social ills. Thus, in effect, everyone is counting on having more energy in the future, not less.

A few well-meaning analysts and pundits try to avoid the climate-energy-economy dilemma by creating scenarios in which renewable energy saves the day simply by becoming dramatically cheaper than energy from fossil fuels; or by ignoring the real costs of dealing with energy intermittency in solar and wind power generation. Some argue that we have to fight climate change by becoming even more powerful than we already are—by geoengineering the atmosphere and oceans and thus taking full control of the planet, thereby acting like gods.[6] And some business and political leaders simply deny that climate change is a problem; therefore, no action is required. I would argue that all of these people are deluding themselves and others.

Do the Right Thing—Even if It’s Hard

Problems ignored usually don’t go away. And not all problems can be solved without sacrifice. If minimizing climate change really does require substantially reducing world energy usage, then policy makers should be discussing how to do this fairly and with as little negative impact as possible. The longer we delay that discussion, the fewer palatable options will be left.

The stakes could hardly be higher. If emissions continue, the result will be the failure of ecosystems, massive impacts on economies, widespread human misery and migration, and unpredictable disruptions to political systems. The return of famine as a familiar feature of human existence is a very real likelihood.[7]

It’s easy to see why people would wish to avoid giving up social, political, economic, and physical power to the degree that’s necessary in order to deal with climate change. Fighting entrenched power is a contentious activity, often a dangerous one. People with power don’t like threats to it, and they often fight back.

That’s why environmentalists like to choose their battles. The fossil fuel industry is wealthy and formidable, but at least it’s an enemy that’s easy to identify, and a lot of people already feel critical of the oil and gas companies for a variety of reasons (gasoline is too expensive, oil pipelines cause pollution, and so on).

But not all roadblocks to climate solutions are attributable to the oil companies. The rest of us are also implicated, though to greatly varying degrees depending on where we live and how much we consume. Our whole modern consumerist way of life, the essence of our economic system, is at fault. Unless we’re willing to give up some of our power over nature—our power to extract and transform resources and deliver the goods that we have come to rely on—then we’re destined to careen from one disaster to the next until our worst fears are realized.

It’s understandable why most environmentalists frame global warming the way they do. It makes solutions seem easier to achieve. But if we’re just soothing ourselves while failing to actually stave off disaster, or even to understand our problems properly, what’s the point?

The only real long-range solution to climate change centers on reining in human physical, social, and economic power dramatically, but in ways that preserve human dignity, autonomy, and solidarity. That’s more daunting than any techno-fix. But this route has the singular advantage that, if we follow it intelligently and persistently, we will address a gamut of social and environmental problems at once. In the end, it’s the only path to a better, safer future.

[1] June Sekera and Andreas Lichtenberger, “Assessing Carbon Capture: Public Policy, Science, and Societal Need.” Biophysical Economics and Sustainability volume 5, Article number: 14 (2020); https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s41247-020-00080-5

[2] Richard Heinberg and David Fridley, Our Renewable Future: Laying the Path for 100 Percent Clean Energy. Washington D.C.: Island Press, 2016. Full text available at www.ourrenewablefuture.org. Accessed September 2, 2020.

[3] Other researchers have come to similar conclusions. For example, Tim Morgan (former head of research at Tullett Prebon) argues that it is surplus energy—the energy left over once energy required for energy-producing activities—that has driven economic expansion, and that a transition to renewables will necessarily result in declining surplus energy (see Tim Morgan, Surplus Energy Economics website https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/ Accessed September 2, 2020.) In a recent paper, Carey King of the Energy Institute at the University of Texas, Austin, shows the inadequacy of current growth-based economic modeling of the renewable energy transition and proposes a new model that incorporates data-derived relationships between energy use, resource extraction, and economic growth. His conclusion is that the renewable energy transition will entail trade-offs with consumption, population, and wages; these trade-offs will depend on the path taken (whether high or low rate of investment). Carey King, “An Integrated Biophysical and Economic Modeling Framework for Long-Term Sustainability Analysis: The HARMONY Model.” Ecological Economics, Vol. 169, March 2020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.106464 Accessed September 2, 2020.

[4] Heinberg and Fridley, Our Renewable Future, p. 140

[5] Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin, “Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change Demands De-Growth Strategies from Wealthier Nations.” KevinAnderson.Info, November 2013. https://kevinanderson.info/blog/avoiding-dangerous-climate-change-demands-de-growth-strategies-from-wealthier-nations/. Accessed September 2, 2020. See also Patrick Moriarty and Damon Honnery, “Can Renewable Energy Power the Future?” Energy Policy Vol. 93, June 2016, pp. 3-7.  www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S030142151630088X. Accessed September 2, 2020.

[6] Rachel Kaufman, “The Risks, Rewards and Possible Ramifications of Geoengineering Earth’s Climate.” Smithsonian, March 11, 2019. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/risks-rewards-possible-ramifications-geoengineering-earths-climate-180971666/. Accessed September 3, 2020.

[7] Christopher Flavelle, “Climate Change Threatens the World’s Food Supply, United Nations Warns.” New York Times, August 8, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/08/climate/climate-change-food-supply.html Accessed September 3, 2020.