Urgent IPCC warnings underscore importance of climate change mitigation in defending against catastrophic risk

07 April 2022

On Monday, 4 April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report on progress to mitigate climate change. Reading this third report from the IPCC 6th Assessment alongside the others from August 2021 (with a CSER response here) and February this year, the challenge is stark. Science is unequivocal that climate change is a major threat to human well-being and planetary health. We are not prepared for the climate risks we face. Any further delay in global action will miss the brief window we have to secure a sustainable future for all. 

However, against the backdrop of pandemic disease and heightened nuclear war risk, the alarming conclusions of the IPCC reports might fail to be heeded. Speaking at the launch of Monday’s report, the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, called out a pervasive gap between rhetoric and action: “some governments and business leaders are saying one thing but doing another. Simply put - they are lying.” This is well illustrated with a graph showing the significant gap between national 2030 emissions targets and the lower emissions required for less than 2 degrees of warming. (Relatedly, a CSER researcher worked on a recent study of the 'production gap' between national plans for fossil fuel production and the lower levels of production required to stay below 2 degrees, and the role of 'NDCs').

Guterres’ warned that humanity cannot afford for a pandemic or a war to exacerbate this inaction; there is no excuse for the “litany of broken climate promises”. A crisis should reinforce rather that distract from underlying stressors – whether climate change or ageing institutes of global governance – that could lead to more and more catastrophes. Svitlana Krakovska, head of the delegation of Ukrainian scientists working on the February IPCC report, argued that the immediate crisis in her country is, in fact, a reason to double down on moves away from the fossil fuels that have become so entangled in the conflict itself. In the context of public health emergencies, long term thinking has improved short term responses by informing more future-proof actions.

We would like to reiterate that we recognise the serious and imminent nature of the cross-cutting risks of climate change. It is not only a severe threat, but it is likely to exacerbate other global catastrophic risks. Many of the risks we study — from biodiversity loss to nuclear war— are either worsened by climate change, more difficult to address in the context of climate change, or both.

It is critical that the IPCC report be heeded: climate change is particularly urgent, given there is less than a decade remaining to avert its most catastrophic impacts. There is an emerging consensus that delay is the largest determinant of the likelihood and cost of meeting existing global goals.

We commit to prioritising climate change as an important focus area of our work at CSER and exploring ways to expand our climate-related work. We look forward to working with Cambridge’s climate partners, as well as growing our global networks, to identify questions where CSER’s expertise can provide a unique contribution.

CSER colleagues previously created a framework for how climate change can contribute to catastrophic risk, which focused on how ecological and social collapse can reinforce each other. Building on this, we think that one potentially fruitful approach will be to analyse the impact of climate change across a range of global threats, and the associated possibility of cascading systemic failures. For example, we could look at how climate change contributes to the risk of a large-scale failure in food production. This would build on recent papers on the causal relationship between climate, food insecurity and societal collapse and on risk-resilient urban food production and the risks of automated global analytics on diverse agricultural practices. Or we could look at ways that climate change could radically change the nature of disease risk, particularly related to CSER’s existing expertise on zoonotic diseases (that spread between animals and humans).

We saw what was possible as individuals and organisations all over the world focused their attention on the COVID-19 pandemic; we believe a similar focus is now needed to take urgent action on climate mitigation and adaptation, to reduce the magnitude of this pressing risk.

Do you have a suggestion for where we can add the most value at the intersection of catastrophic risk and climate change mitigation? Please contact us.

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