Climate change could cause civilization-ending impacts by 2050, according to a new report from Australia-based think-tank Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration.
The report argues that the United Nations’ assessments on climate change, which call for a rapid transformation of society, do not go far enough in conveying the risk that humanity faces. By focusing on the “threat multipliers of climate change,” how it can worsen existing geopolitical conflicts and stresses, the researchers argue that it could set in motion devastating chain reactions in the near future.
"The types of things they sketch out are consistent with what our own military is thinking," John Reilly, an energy, environmental, and agricultural economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told Global Citizen. "Which is that climate change is a threat multiplier. That's the idea that there are these unstable parts of the world, and then you throw in a bad crop year, people are hungry, they riot, they become refugees, countries react negatively to those refugees coming into their country, that country elects a leader who tries to shut the door, it worsens the problem and maybe you end up with more broad conflicts."
"Given where we are, that’s not so hard to imagine happening," Reilly, who wasn't involved in the research, said.
The researchers describe what the world might look like in 2050 if greenhouse gas emissions continue on their projected trajectory.
By 2050, global warming could go well beyond the limit recommended by the Paris climate agreement, even reaching 3 degrees Celsius higher than pre-industrial levels because of accelerating feedback loops. A major feedback loop is happening the Arctic. As ice melts from warmer temperatures, darker water appears, which absorbs more sunlight, causing more warming, and more ice melt. Another one is happening in the region’s permafrost, which is releasing methane as it melts.
Cycles like these are dramatically accelerating human-caused climate change.
If the world warms by 3 degrees Celsius, then 55% of the global population could face lethal heat waves 20 days each year. Worsening heat waves are already devastating countries as diverse as Pakistan and Japan. Air conditioners, from refrigerators to the window boxes that cool down rooms, are the biggest single driver of climate change.
Nearly 30% of the world’s land would become arid under these conditions, and food production in agricultural zones would plummet as precipitation patterns shift. Water availability would become scarce for 2 billion people. Extreme storms, including monsoons and hurricanes, will become more common, the report continues.
Critical global ecosystems including the Amazon rainforest, coral reefs, and the Arctic would collapse at this point, the researchers argue. Poor countries that lack the resources to cope with these changes would become “unviable,” and global migration patterns would reach catastrophic levels.
The report points to calamities that have been partly attributed to climate change including the Syrian civil war and the European Union migration crisis as signs of what's to come.
"This is how the military thinks through wars," Reilly said. "What are the possible things that could happen, how might they evolve, and how can we prepare for them. It's a normal way of thinking for different defense threats and using the same method for climate risks is appropriate."
None of the report's predictions are new — the researchers are merely emphasizing the worst-case scenarios of existing climate models, with the understanding that we’re currently living in the worst-case scenario of earlier climate models.
As a result, the report is an exercise in framing.
“There’s no question that the impacts from climate change will be very severe — they're already being felt,” said David Doniger, the senior strategic director of the Natural Resource Defense Council’s climate and clean energy program. Doniger wasn’t involved in the report, and spoke to Global Citizen about the overall risk of climate change without commenting directly on the report.
“It’s a major threat to the stability of our civilization and our way of life and our economies and the future of our children and grandchildren,” he added. “It doesn’t have to be the total ‘end of human civilization,’ but it’s a super serious threat.”
Ruth DeFries, professor of ecology and sustainable development at Columbia University, agreed with Doniger.
“From a brief glance [at the report], I will say that climate change is an enormous threat with far-reaching impacts on food, water, cities, health, and nearly every aspect of life,” she said. “But the end of human civilization is far from inevitable if leaders throughout the world address the problem with the seriousness it deserves.”
The authors of the report say that countries need to pursue net-zero emissions as rapidly as possible. The Paris climate agreement calls on countries to avoid warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius, which would require greenhouse gas emissions to stop accumulating in the atmosphere by 2030.
No country in the world is remotely close to achieving this target — electricity grids and vehicles are currently dependent on fossil fuels. As a result, the researchers argue that an emergency mobilization of resources “akin to World War II” is needed to transform human society.
“We’re going to need to invest in rebuilding our forests, building technologies that suck carbon dioxide out of the air, we have too much already, let alone the increases that are coming year by year," Doniger said.
In recent years, countries have taken decisive steps to combat climate change, including adopting the Paris agreement and the Kigali amendment, but Doniger said that the United States has potentially jeopardized this momentum by rolling back key climate regulations and attacking global coalitions.
“There’s something clarifying when you have such regressive political leadership in the US,” he said. “It puts the question much higher up in people’s minds, and clarifies what are you for and what are you against. [Climate change] is now showing up as a concern in all the polling the US, across all age groups, regions, people of all parties.
“The coming home to roost of extreme weather, and these blockbuster climate assessments, these are things that push climate change up in the consciousness of most Americans,” he added.