Climate Change and the Worst-Case Scenario

20 December 2017

An article in the IPPR Progressive Review, a journal of the Institute for Public Policy Research - the UK's leading progressive think tank.

"How much should we care about something that is 'probably not going to happen'?

After a year of unprecedented meteorological extremes, the impacts of climate-induced catastrophes are finally getting some attention. The number of catastrophic meteorological events has already tripled over the past 30 years and 2017 had, by early October, equaled previous record years for major weather disasters in the USA. However, this is a trend that has only just started. In truth, a few hurricanes and wildfires, even ones that cause hundreds of billions of dollars' worth of damage, are far from the worst things climate change is likely to cause.

According to one prominent risk assessment by the atmospheric scientist Veerabhadran Ramanathan, climate change could be 'beyond catastrophic'. In the worst-case scenario, where global temperatures rise by 5 degrees or more, climate change could end human civilization once and for all, taking most of the Earth's species with us.

At present, however, countries around the world have committed to holding global warming to "well below" 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels, which, as one analysis in Nature Geoscience recently put it, is "not yet a geophysical impossibility". This would imply that human beings end up producing ‘only’ around twice as much atmospheric warming as we have already experienced since pre-industrial times. However, even if all countries honour these commitments, that may not be enough to stave off climate catastrophe."

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