Near-term collapse

| 11th December 2019
'The new story of our planetary emergency must highlight our vulnerability to near-term climate shocks.'


Leading experts are calling for a major shift in the way climate change is discussed because the science of global warming has failed spectacularly to emotionally connect with much of society.

Instead of only talking about long-term threats, such as rising sea levels, Professor Aled Jones of Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), and Will Steffen, Senior Research Fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, believe significant change will only occur if the world focuses on more immediate threats to society.  

They explain how extreme weather events that are already happening could lead to catastrophic collapses in human-made systems, such as financial systems or global supply chains.

Vital changes

With the COP25 UN Climate Change Conference currently taking place in Madrid, they believe that vital changes to safeguard society both in the short and long-term will only occur if the voices of food security, migration and logistics experts are heard just as loudly as those of climate change scientists.

Professor Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), is a world expert in risks and opportunities derived from food, energy and water resource trends.

Writing in The Conversation, Professor Jones and Professor Steffen say: “While climate scientists, policymakers and environmental campaigners have been engaged in a decades-long conversation about the future of the planet, most people on planet Earth see no climate emergency.

“This failure to connect the dots means humanity has rapidly entered uncharted territory, pumping out carbon 10 times faster than at any point since the extinction of the dinosaurs.

"So while climate scientists must continue to improve their understanding of a rapidly changing Earth system, what we really need now is to hear from experts who understand the human systems contained within, and how intertwined with the climate their fate is.

"The new story of our planetary emergency must highlight our vulnerability to near-term climate shocks, and offer a corresponding vision of a more urgent global response."

Tipping points

Jones and Steffen continue: “Cascading tipping points in the Earth system – such as melting ice sheets and forest collapse – may be existential long-term threats. But we’re already causing increasingly extreme weather events that may soon become severe and frequent enough to cause what’s called ‘synchronous failure’.

“This is where multiple stresses across human-made systems lead to catastrophic collapses in their functioning. These collapses, given how interconnected our global system is, can affect one country directly but lead to the failure of our finance systems or global supply chains in many others.

“Above all, much more prominence must be given to experts in systems, food security, migration, energy transitions, supply chains and security, to develop our understanding of short-term responses within society.

"In particular, we need a better handle on how trigger events such as food price spikes, droughts or forest fires, overlay onto the most vulnerable and politically unstable countries.

“In the future, food shocks are likely to get much worse. The risk of multi-breadbasket failure is increasing, and rises much faster beyond 1.5c of global heating – a threshold we could hit as early as 2030 should emissions continue unchecked.

"Such shocks pose grave threats – rocketing food prices, civil unrest, major financial losses, starvation and death.”

This Article 

This article is based on a press release from Anglia Ruskin University. 

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