Climate change is a catastrophe. But is it an ‘existential threat’?

04 March 2020
by Shannon Osaka, Kate Yoder

Simon Beard was interviewed by Grist.

With the Doomsday Clock ticking closer to midnight, “existential” is becoming the word of our times, encompassing a wide variety of apocalyptic anxieties. Especially those surrounding climate change.

During last week’s Democratic debate in South Carolina, climate change barely got a hearing, but Bernie Sanders did manage to call it an “existential threat.” It’s been a near constant when the subject of our overheating planet pops up. Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden, and the now-departed Pete Buttigieg have also dangled the phrase in front of the Democratic electorate, pledging that their plans will help avert catastrophe.

It’s not only presidential hopefuls invoking such alarming terms — so are mass media outlets, Nancy Pelosi, and the United Nations secretary-general, Antonio Guterres. So why is everybody suddenly sounding like chain-smoking French philosophers from the last century? What exactly is an existential threat, anyway? And should climate change be considered one?

For researchers and futurists who spend their time thinking about global pandemics (like the increasingly scary coronavirus), the rise of super-powerful artificial intelligence, and nuclear fallout, an existential threat is something that does more than just end life as we know it. It ends human life.

“The archetype of an existential risk is human extinction,” said Simon Beard, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at the University of Cambridge. “So literally all the humans dying.”

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