It seems every week there's a scary new report about how man-made climate change is going to cause the collapse of the world's ice sheets, result in the extinction of up to 1 million animal species and — if that wasn't bad enough — make our beer very, very expensive. This week, a new policy paper from an Australian think tank claims that those other reports are slightly off; the risks of climate change are actually much, much worse than anyone can imagine.
According to the paper, climate change poses a "near- to mid-term existential threat to human civilization," and there's a good chance society could collapse as soon as 2050 if serious mitigation actions aren't taken in the next decade.
Published by the Breakthrough National Centre for Climate Restoration in Melbourne (an independent think tank focused on climate policy) and authored by a climate researcher and a former fossil fuel executive, the paper's central thesis is that climate scientists are too restrained in their predictions of how climate change will affect the planet in the near future. [Top 9 Ways the World Could End]
The current climate crisis, they say, is larger and more complex than any humans have ever dealt with before. General climate models — like the one that the United Nations' Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) used in 2018 to predict that a global temperature increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius) could put hundreds of millions of people at risk — fail to account for the sheer complexity of Earth's many interlinked geological processes; as such, they fail to adequately predict the scale of the potential consequences. The truth, the authors wrote, is probably far worse than any models can fathom.
How the world ends
What might an accurate worst-case picture of the planet's climate-addled future actually look like, then? The authors provide one particularly grim scenario that begins with world governments "politely ignoring" the advice of scientists and the will of the public to decarbonize the economy (finding alternative energy sources), resulting in a global temperature increase 5.4 F (3 C) by the year 2050. At this point, the world's ice sheets vanish; brutal droughts kill many of the trees in the Amazon rainforest (removing one of the world's largest carbon offsets); and the planet plunges into a feedback loop of ever-hotter, ever-deadlier conditions.
"Thirty-five percent of the global land area, and 55 percent of the global population, are subject to more than 20 days a year of lethal heat conditions, beyond the threshold of human survivability," the authors hypothesized.
Meanwhile, droughts, floods and wildfires regularly ravage the land. Nearly one-third of the world's land surface turns to desert. Entire ecosystems collapse, beginning with the planet's coral reefs, the rainforest and the Arctic ice sheets. The world's tropics are hit hardest by these new climate extremes, destroying the region's agriculture and turning more than 1 billion people into refugees.
This mass movement of refugees — coupled with shrinking coastlines and severe drops in food and water availability — begin to stress the fabric of the world's largest nations, including the United States. Armed conflicts over resources, perhaps culminating in nuclear war, are likely.
The result, according to the new paper, is "outright chaos" and perhaps "the end of human global civilization as we know it."
How can this catastrophic vision of the future be prevented? Only with the people of the world accepting climate change for the emergency it is and getting to work — immediately. According to the paper's authors, the human race has about one decade left to mount a global movement to transition the world economy to a zero-carbon-emissions system. (Achieving zero-carbon emissions requires either not emitting carbon or balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal.) The effort required to do so "would be akin in scale to the World War II emergency mobilization," the authors wrote.
The new policy paper was endorsed with a foreword by Adm. Chris Barrie, a retired Australian defense chief and senior royal navy commander who has testified before the Australian Senate about the devastating possibilities climate change poses to national security and overall human well-being.
"I told the [Senate] Inquiry that, after nuclear war, human-induced global warming is the greatest threat to human life on the planet," Barrie wrote in the new paper. "Human life on Earth may be on the way to extinction, in the most horrible way."
- The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted
- Images of Melt: Earth's Vanishing Ice
- 50 Amazing Facts About Earth
Originally published on Live Science.
Sign up for the Live Science daily newsletter now
Get the world’s most fascinating discoveries delivered straight to your inbox.
Brandon is the space/physics editor at Live Science. His writing has appeared in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest, CBS.com, the Richard Dawkins Foundation website and other outlets. He holds a bachelor's degree in creative writing from the University of Arizona, with minors in journalism and media arts. He enjoys writing most about space, geoscience and the mysteries of the universe.