Intelligent life at risk, scientists warn

Staff Writer | Jun 11, 2019
Dysfunctional public debate has meant the world is failing to grasp the gravity of climate change, a new report warns.

Human-induced climate change is an ‘existential risk to human civilisation’ that will ‘either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential’ in the absence of rapid reductions in carbon emissions.

This warning is contained in the report, What Lies Beneath, co-authored by Ian Dunlop, a former chair of the Australian Coal Association, and David Spratt, a long-time climate researcher.

In the introduction to the document, advisor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber states that ‘climate change is now reaching the endgame, where very soon humanity must choose between taking unprecedented action, or accepting that it has been left too late and bear the consequences’.

The authors of the report call the debate on climate change dysfunctional to an Orwellian extent, with ‘double-think’ disabling people’s grasp of the gravity of climate change.

They offer as an example the thresholds established by policies such as the Paris Agreement, which, despite arguments that the global warming temperature increase be capped at 1.5-2°C, aims to cap the increase at 3-5°C, and to permit voluntary national commitments to reducing emissions. This, researchers say, would lead to higher emissions in 2030 than in 2015.

The report warns that a 3°C increase would mean most coastal cities would be submerged, leading to massive destruction and an unprecedented refugee crisis.

Beyond the humanitarian crises, irreparable environmental damage would be caused, too. The report mentions the ‘ice-albedo feedback loop’ where the melting of polar ice caps means the sun’s rays would be absorbed rather than reflected, releasing methane gas from arctic permafrost, thereby further increasing global temperatures. A further temperature rise would jeopardize up to 90% of the global population by 2050 if no action was taken.

Harvard University Professor Max Bazerman suggests there are five key explanations for why societies fail to implement wise strategies to prevent ‘predictable surprises’: positive illusions which fuel the belief that the problem is non-existent or not serious enough to act on; interpreting events egocentrically; discounting the future; a need to maintain the status quo; and a reluctance to prevent a problem that is not personally perceptible.

The report urges that climate policy making needs to be reframed.

‘Current processes will not deliver either the speed or the scale of change required,’ it says.


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