Climate science and collapse lost warnings Jem Bendell June 2020
Climate science and collapse – warnings lost in the wind
Over the past year more scientists have spoken candidly about the implications for humanity of recent climate observations and research. They have begun to warn more clearly of the potential and even likelihood of societal collapse due to the direct and indirect impacts of dangerous climate change. These warnings are being lost in the winds of news cycles and drowned out by scientists who prefer assessments that are less challenging to humanity and our elites. Therefore, in one place, here are some of the latest interpretations of the science from scientists who do not hold back.
In November 2019 seven leading climate scientists, including Professor Timothy Lenton of the University of Exeter and Professor Katherine Richardson of the University of Copenhagen published a review in the journal Nature which said: “If damaging tipping cascades can occur and a global tipping point cannot be ruled out, then this is an existential threat to civilization.” In their article they said that a collapse of society may be inevitable because 9 of the 15 known global climate tipping points that regulate the state of the planet have already been activated. Therefore, as 2019 came to a close, Professor Aled Jones, of Anglia Ruskin University, and Australian National University emeritus Professor Will Steffen, detailed the evidence for why “it’s time to talk about near-term collapse.”
In 2020 these expressions of concern have spread. In February 2020, two hundred scientists, from organisations such as the University of Massachusetts, warned of “global systemic collapse” becoming likely due to the way different climate and environmental stressors can interact and amplify each other. It explained that the true situation is not being understood or communicated well enough because “many scientists and policymakers are embedded in institutions that are used to thinking and acting on isolated risks, one at a time.”
Then in May 2020, twelve climate scientists, working with institutions such as the University of California and University of Exeter, wrote the following in a public letter to the Guardian:
“It is game over for preventing dangerous climate change now that governments are planning the cheapest and quickest return to consumption [which is…] incompatible with keeping the average global temperature rise below 2C, let alone 1.5C… It is time to acknowledge our collective failure to respond to climate change, identify its consequences and accept the massive personal, local, national and global adaptation that awaits us all.”
A significant moment arrived when in June 2020 a journalist for Voice of Action, contacted many of these scientists to hear more. Professor Steffen told Asher Moses that “Collapse is the most likely outcome of the present trajectory.” That is because “We are already deep into the trajectory towards collapse … The intervention time we have left has, in many cases, shrunk to levels that are shorter than the time it would take to transition to a more sustainable system.” He said collapse will appear as an “overall deterioration in many features of life, with regional collapses occurring here and there.” Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a former lead author with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) told Voice of Action “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.”
Dr. Graham Turner was formerly a senior scientist with an Australian federal government agency responsible for scientific research (CSIRO). He told Asher that: “There’s an extremely strong case that we may be in the early stages of a collapse right at the moment. Vested interests and corrupt politicians combined with a population happy to deny problems overwhelm those that are trying to promulgate truth and facts.” Dr. Anitra Nelson, a principal fellow at the University of Melbourne concurred: “I do actually think we’re already into the collapse and it’s just likely to get worse and more quickly worse as we go.”
Some scientists use twitter to express their unvarnished views on the latest science. Dr. Lisa Schipper is a research fellow at the University of Oxford and co-editor of the academic journal Climate and Development. Responding to the article warning that “collapse of civilisation is the most likely outcome,” Dr. Schipper tweeted “Sadly, I think this is closer to the truth than I would like to say out loud.” Those inner and outer factors and filters that make it particularly awkward for some scientists to speak their truth is something I explored in 2018 and are important for more scientists to reflect upon as they consider their future work.
Perhaps restrained by their concepts of identity and change, many scientists don’t offer as stark conclusions of the implications of their research, yet as readers we can deduce the implication. For instance, British climatologist Professor Kevin Anderson recently calculated that the total permissible future emissions from the UK are “between seven and nine years of current emissions (based on 2018 data)… [which] points to immediate [carbon reductions of] 10 percent per year starting January 2020.” The efforts to restart economic activity after the lockdowns from covid-19 indicate it is not going to happen in one country, let alone comparable reductions in all other nations on Earth. Discussing his research on twitter, he writes “It’s key we are honest about what we judge is possible as this feeds into what we do in terms of adaptation. If we pretend 1.5°C is our objective, we risk mal-adapting to the changes we face & future generations will then suffer the consequences of inappropriate infrastructure etc.”
Given the range of scientists who are now indicating that climate change is dangerous and will disrupt societies around the world, it is not helpful for climate ‘fact checkers’ to use Facebook to demote such views and those people who share them.
Being a specialist in one field of science does not mean someone is well trained to be an inter-disciplinary research analyst, who can identify and connect the salient information from various sources to make credible assessments. Typically, research analysts are found working in the financial sector. So, to finish this summary of some of the latest opinions on the situation faced by humanity, we can turn to an internal report by analysts from the largest bank in the United States, JP Morgan. They assessed that:
“to meet the Paris 2C objective on the global temperature… would require the immediate elimination of 34% of the global coal-fired production capacity. The cost would involve not only the premature scrapping of these coal-fired power stations but also the increased investment in renewables. The end result could be energy shortages and higher electricity prices for consumers. It isn’t going to happen.”
They go on to conclude that: “We cannot rule out catastrophic outcomes where human life as we know it is threatened… the Earth is on an unsustainable trajectory. Something will have to change at some point if the human race is going to survive.”
Not only does the truth of the climate predicament need to be discussed, but also the failure of efforts over 40 years to have an impact on atmospheric carbon and consequent heating. How did we get into this situation? In late 2019, an opinion from 5 scientists on our climate situation was published in the Biosciences journal and signed onto by over 11,000 scientists worldwide, as a warning to humanity. The scientists Dr. William Ripple, Dr. Christopher Wolf, Dr. Thomas Newsome, Dr. Phoebe Barnard, and Dr. William Moomaw wrote:
“Despite 40 years of global climate negotiations, with few exceptions, we have generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament. The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected (IPCC 2018). It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity (IPCC 2019).”
Might these scientists be over doing it? Might it be better to await summaries of consensus positions from IPCC?
No. For three reasons. First, these scientists are professionals in the mainstream, with many having inputted into the IPCC over the years. For instance, Professor Schellnhuber was a lead author with IPCC, as is Dr Lisa Schipper currently. Second, there is detailed evidence that the IPCC process has downplayed the dangers due to their process of research analysis and consensus. Third, both the most recent observational data and the latest models provide evidence that these scientists are being cautious in their assessments of the situation for humanity. To illustrate, new models are predicting much greater climate change than past models did, while current temperature measurements show unpredicted levels of warming (e.g. globally the last 12 months was 1.3 degrees warmer than pre-industrial times, with a 10 degree warming anomaly over Siberia for May 2020, with terrifying implications for methane release), and sea ice loss in the Arctic threatening a blue ocean event well within this decade.
Why is this information not coming through clearly to the general public? One reason is the establishment media tend to water down the message. For instance, writing about the November 2019 paper on tipping points, the distinguished environmental journalist Fred Pearce summarised that “the world may be almost out of time to prevent what they call an ‘existential threat to civilization.’” However, the scientists did not say ‘almost’. They said that we may already be out of time, not almost out of time, to save this civilisation. The word “almost,” like “nearly” and other such concepts, is a device regularly inserted by journalists, activists, consultants and politicians in order to maintain a framing of possibility for this system and the reader’s current way of life. It is fascinating, and damning, that the only mainstream media to cover the views of scientists in the Voice of Action story has been the right-wing UK tabloid the Daily Express. Yet we urgently need ‘progressives’ to engage in conversations about the implications of what is happening, by starting with an unvarnished truth and exploring how to respond with compassion and solidarity across borders. As my latest Q&A guest told me, our response to climate change must tackle the oppression from which it arises.
Therefore, if you hear some scientists dismissing views like those of scientists that I have listed in this blog, you could conclude that they may not yet be completely honest with themselves. For instance, you might hear: “People who say that it’s too late to keep warming below 2 degrees and avoid dangerous climate change disrupting our societies are unscientific and counter-productive doomers.” I think that statement could be translated as follows: “I feel that I need to believe that we can save this society and my existing identity, so anyone who says otherwise triggers my emotional distress, so I label them, create reasons to try to silence them and then even blame them.” (If you are interested in the evidence for the impact of collapse-acceptance on people’s perceptions and actions, you can see some research on that here). At other times you might hear: “Deep Adaptation is not scientific.” That could be translated as follows: “I will use my status as a scientist to dismiss scholarship that draws on a wider range of science than I do, to offer conclusions that threaten my stories of purpose and identity, so I do not need to engage with it and so avoid the pain it threatens.”
We can understand and forgive such reactions. Because it is not easy to read the opinions of these scientists or the latest data on climate change. If you feel upset, then that is normal. I also do. Fortunately, there is wisdom to draw from. Joanna Macy has said “the depth of your grief is the measure of your love.” Stephen Jenkinson has written that if you pay full attention to our ecological state then it “mitigates against your happiness, contentment, and your sense of well-being. Having a conscience now is a grief-soaked proposition. … If you awaken in our time, you awaken with a sob.” If you feel now is the time for you to explore what this situation means for you and humanity, then I invite you to engage with the emerging international community pursuing “deep adaptation” to our predicament. An introduction to the network is here.
For information on the criticisms of the original Deep Adaptation paper and the minor corrections I have made a result, see here.
For a discussion of why climatologists have been so reticent to describe worst case scenarios as likely outcomes, see here.
To engage with others in researching the implications for humanity of our new era of increasingly dangerous climate change, see here.
For emotional support on these issues, see here.
If you would like to suggest to the editors at climatefeedback.org that they consider whether they might be suppressing from social media some credible views on our climate predicament, by publishing ‘verdicts’ such as this one, then you could use this contact form to alert them to this response from climatologist Dr Wolfgang Knorr.