by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop
The following is the introduction to a new discussion paper, The third degree: Supporting evidence & Implications for Australia of existential climate-related security risk, released today by Breakthrough.
Since the Paris climate conference in 2015, much time has been devoted to scenarios for 1.5°C to 2°C of climate warming. That’s not surprising, because limiting warming to the range of 1.5–2°C was the Paris goal, and there has since been the 2018 special IPCC report on 1.5°C.
What hasn’t been spelt out clearly is that 1.5°C is not a good outcome: it would mean coral systems reduced to fragments, a multi-metre sea-level rise on the way, Pacific nations drowned, more lethal extreme weather, and glaciers in Antarctica passed their tipping points, just for starters.
But there is another problem about the recent discussion: there has been relatively little focus on where the climate system is actually heading, given the lack of political commitment to climate action on a global scale. And that is warming of 3°C, and possibly much more.
Understanding what 3°C of warming really means should be a great motivator for climate emergency action. But much of the political apparatus, the business sector and the community don’t have a good understanding of the third degree.
In May 2019, Breakthrough published a policy paper Existential Climate-related Security Risk: A scenario approach, which received a large amount of media coverage. This included the major US network sites, plus CNN and Al Jazeera, magazines such as New Scientist and GQ, newspapers including The Guardian and The Independent, sites such as Vox, many radio interviews, and significant coverage in Europe, especially in Germany and Scandinavia.
It was far more engagement that we possibly imagined when the paper was released, because we thought that there wasn’t all that much new in the story of a 3°C-warmer world. As far back as 2007, The Age of Consequences report from US national security experts had painted a grim picture of that future. Yet it seems the story was little understood.
The Breakthrough paper argued that analysis of climate-related security threats depends significantly on understanding the strengths and limitations of climate science projections, but much scientific knowledge produced for climate policy-making is conservative and reticent, as discussed in the 2018 Breakthrough report, What Lies Beneath.
When properly considered, climate change now represents a near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilisation. However, this is not inevitable. A new approach to climate-related security risk management is required, giving particular attention to the high-end and difficult-to-quantify “fat-tail” possibilities, in order to avoid such an outcome.
This may be most effectively explored by scenario analysis. In the policy paper, a brief outline of a 2050 scenario of 3°C of warming and a 0.5 metre sea level rise is explored in order to illustrate the high-end risks, in which accelerating climate-change impacts pose large negative consequences to humanity which might not be undone for centuries.
To reduce or avoid such risks and to sustain human civilisation, it is essential to build a zero-emissions industrial system very quickly. This requires the global mobilisation of resources on an emergency basis, akin to a wartime level of response.
This followup discussion paper provides detailed background to that scenario by reproducing it, now annotated with footnotes to explain the basis and sources for the analysis.
As well, we reproduce here the 3°C scenario from The Age of Consequences analysis. This adds new perspectives to the brief Breakthrough scenario.
There should be clarity about the term “existential threat” used in the Breakthrough policy paper. Despite some over-the-top media coverage when it was released, the paper does not talk about human extinction in any shape or form, nor is it implied. In fact the scenario discusses the high numbers of people (billions) who will be affected one way or another, hardly circumstances consistent with a human species extinction event.
As discussed in the paper, the term “existential” threat or risk is applied to human civilisation, not humans as a species, consistent with the definition of the term as including events which would “permanently and drastically curtailing its potential”, in this case human civilisation/culture. This is consistent with Prof. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber’s statement that if we continue down the present path “there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years” (emphasis added).
There were also claims that the paper is exaggerated and alarmist. Any scenario is, by its nature, somewhat speculative. Interestingly, that same criticism did not apply when the UN Secretary General António Guterres recently said: “So we are losing the race, climate change is running faster than we are, and we need to sound the alarm, this is an emergency, this is a climate crisis and we need to act now. Unfortunately in politics, there is always a huge trend to keep the status quo. The problem is that the status quo is a suicide” (emphasis added). UNFCCC Head, Patricia Espinoza, re-iterated the call for emergency action at the recent Bonn climate discussions.
Published research suggests that life in Australia would be turned upside down due to severe climate impacts if the world were to warm by 3°C, including more deaths from extreme heat waves, the need to retreat from low-lying coastal areas, severe impacts on food production, including in the Murray-Darling Basin, the loss of the Great Barrier Reef, the drying of much of the sub-tropical zone, and much more.
The impacts will be even more severe in Australia’s neighbourhood, the Indo-Pacific region, where the economic capacity to adapt is lower. Significant areas will be inundated as sea levels rise and some smaller countries will drown, hundreds of millions of people are likely to be displaced for one reason or another, and there will be severe water crises in some of the most populous countries — including China, India and Pakistan. States will fail.
Yet that is precisely the path we are on now, even taking the Paris Agreement commitments into account. In fact, warming could be a good bit higher that 3°C. This suggests that as a matter of priority comprehensive scenarios should be developed for Australia and its near region so that Australian policy-makers are well-informed about the fateful choices they are now making.