How urgent are extreme climate change risks?

post by nonzerosum · 2019-08-01T01:32:23.400Z · EA · GW · 10 comments

This is a question post.

How urgent are the risks from extreme climate change?

Are they serious to the point that it makes sense to create an organization dedicated to recruiting more researchers, engineers, policymakers and lobbyists to working on the problem?

I'm asking because of the various headlines I see that basically seem to say we're all screwed, it's too late, etc. Where does the truth lie?


answer by Larks · 2019-08-01T12:27:21.179Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

You might enjoy Vox arguing that it is not an existential risk.

Also I would note that there are already many organisations, researchers, engineers, policymakers and lobbyists working on the issue.

comment by Pawntoe4 · 2019-08-07T13:17:20.701Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I do not disagree that the Vice piece and the think tank research are likely alarmist and unrepresentative, but unfortunately in my opinion John Halstead's analysis and the underlying IPCC reports are entirely too optimistic on the flipside. I think this leaves a lot of room for further serious evaluation of the potential existential risks on climate change.

Firstly, John Halstead's review of existing literature. I was privileged enough to go to his talk EA Global London 2018 which was a summary of this work. It is a very large and understudied field and partially as a result of this his work has focused on direct and existential risks.

Indirect risks seem to include a huge host of pressures on society, infrastructure, and other trappings of civilisation where the impulse of these pressures could be very significant in causing widespread collapse. I don't think he specifically states here but he goes with the more clear, academic definition of existential risk of the extinction of the human species.

These two put the frame for the whole analysis as entirely too narrow for what most people are asking, and why the Vox piece is misrepresenting his work by saying it likely isn't an existential threat. In my opinion the responses of multiple competing nations to a world with increasingly shrinking and variable resources is a critical factor and while it is nearly impossible to forecast likely interactions, I don't think they're going to be pretty. Nuclear war is a separate X-risk and its probability is likely to be vastly increased with severe climate effects to start with, but there are several other indirect and interdependent mechanisms that could exacerbate the rate of collapse.

The definition of existential risk as more widely accepted in the EA community is a lot more general than that seemingly assumed by John Halstead or stated in the Vox piece - the permanent or sufficiently long-term curbing of the progress rate of the human species is included, generally to sustained existence at pre-industrial levels. While he does state when talking for the Vox article that he doesn't see even +10C being a threat to this broader definition, I at least don't see any substantiation of that in his research document, and throughout the Vox piece (and in his analysis) this seems to be a throw-away comment rather than the overriding definition that is being used is either strict extinction or is confused and assumed.

Interestingly as an aside, in Halstead's reasoning he seems to have updated from his previous dismissal of ecological collapse where he now sees it as a more complex and uncertain issue. There were some pre-Eocene extinctions related to carbon release events (the counterfactual being a large part of his justification for the theory's dismissal), as well as the paleontological record not accounting for unique Anthropocene pressures on populations including "speed, magnitude, and spatial scale" (from the IPCC). I see these as critical factors for the determination of adequate adaptation response in ecosystems / specific species at the high-impulse end where we seem to be operating. At longer timescales of thousands of years (still very high impulse climate change for paleontology) this does allow for some Darwinian selection and migration, whereas we are operating on a scale of approx. 200 years (and we are already living through a mass extinction - whether this leads to ecological collapse is another matter).

Aside from the framing of the research with narrow definitions (and leaving out a significant chunk of relevant mechanisms that could contribute to climate change being an X-risk by confining it to direct effects only), for me there is a real problem with Halstead's analysis in that he bases it largely on the IPCC reports, which are (in my opinion) egregiously optimistic. The simplest reason for this is the case of incentive. IPCC stands for "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change" and while it does take into account the consensus of climate scientists it is also an intergovernmental report that has specifically political objectives and the language of which is curbed and adjusted in various ways to further various agendas. This includes a Summary for Policymakers (SPM) which includes a "final round of written comments on the SPM, before governments meet in plenary session to approve the SPM line by line and accept the underlying report." This is the final stage but also governments have individual and serious involvement in the assessments made and to assess how palatable the conclusions are in order to try to foster (or impede) positive progress on these issues in their home countries. [It has been speculated that one of the reasons why the IPCC reports are so illegible for laypeople - excessive stating of confidence intervals and complex justifications - is to allow policymakers to more easily ignore it as they are, largely, laypeople themselves, and this is by design and for plausible deniability]. There is also widespread consensus that (for reasons above and others) the IPCC reports also aim to be conservative and non-alarmist in order to prompt change by making it appear more feasible.

Additional glaring problems with a lot of climate models is that many don't account for feedback loops, and there are plenty of reports about gross underestimations of releases and warming effects, and we don't have very good data on runaway effects and how much they could accelerate warming, in addition to how fragile the Earth's global ecosystem is. It is only relatively recently that it was calculated by NASA that 27.7 million tons of phosphorous-rich sand is being carried by cross-Atlantic winds from the Sahara to the Amazon (where soils are notoriously poor, and as such this transfer is important for the flourishing of the Amazon). Since the Amazon is about the size of the Indian sub-continent, a change in wind patterns that stopped this nutrient transfer could prove highly damaging to this rainforest. As far as I know transfer mechanisms such as this are also not considered in many climate change models.

As a brief summary: I don't think that alarmism such as "high confidence of extinction" is helpful or accurate, but there is a significant chance that climate change could be an X-risk which isn't being studied in anywhere enough detail, especially since climate change is an immediate threat where we could be "locking in" permanent changes (and possibly runaway destabilisation effects, such as clathrate melting / Arctic sea ice melting / permafrost thaw) for hundreds of years inside the next 30 or 40 years, even by conservative and heavily adulterated IPCC estimates. It would be good to know if those changes we're locking in will soon lead to the extinction of the species or (in my opinion far more likely) the regression of humanity to pre-industrial levels, potentially for millennia.

comment by gavintaylor · 2019-08-02T12:25:24.429Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

From the Vox article:

I also talked to some researchers who study existential risks, like John Halstead, who studies climate change mitigation at the philanthropic advising group Founders Pledge, and who has a detailed online analysis of all the (strikingly few) climate change papers that address existential risk (his analysis has not been peer-reviewed yet).
Further, “the carbon effects don’t seem to pose an existential risk,” he told me. “People use 10 degrees as an illustrative example” — of a nightmare scenario where climate change goes much, much worse than expected in every respect — “and looking at it, even 10 degrees would not really cause the collapse of industrial civilization,” though the effects would still be pretty horrifying.

From Halstead's report (which Vox seems to represent as a reliable meta-analysis - my apologies for butchering the formatting):

The big takeaway from looking at the literature on the impact of extreme warming is that the impact of >4 degrees is dramatically understudied. King et al characterise this as “knowing the most about what matters least”
-Is extreme warming an ex risk?
*6 degrees
On the models: For the impacts I have looked at, 6 degrees isn’t plausibly an ex risk, though it would be very bad. 6 degrees would drastically change the face of the globe, with multi-metre sea level rises, massive coastal flooding, and the uninhabitability of the tropics.
*10 degrees
On the models: It’s hard to come up with ways that this could directly be an ex risk, though it would be extremely bad.
-Model uncertainty
The impacts of extreme warming are chronically understudied suggesting some model uncertainty.
There might be some unforeseen process which makes human civilisation difficult to sustain.
-Indirect risks
None of this considers the indirect risks, like mass migration and political conflict. These could be a pretty substantial risk over the next 150 years.

It sounds like study on the effects and consequences of extreme warming, particularly indirect/secondary risks, are quite neglected and could benefit from some more work (although I'm not sure how tractable work on this is at this point).

Note that the Vox article also doesn't discuss existential risks arising from indirect effects.

answer by Patrick · 2019-09-08T02:54:31.717Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

The Future of Life Institute Podcast has some episodes on the risks of climate change. The most relevant one is The Climate Crisis as an Existential Threat. There's also an ongoing series about global warming called Not Cool that has some episodes not yet listed on the FLI Web site.


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comment by spanrucker · 2019-08-04T09:28:51.592Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

When climate change risks are discussed on this forum I mostly see it framed in terms of whether or not it is an existential risk. Considering a large part if EA is focused on reducing global poverty and the suffering of all living creatures I’m surprised not to see the potential impact of climate change in these areas discussed more often.

Is it possible that the potential of climate change to increase global poverty and suffering (of both humans and animals) is large enough to warrant more preventative attention within EA?

It’s all very well that the likelihood of existential risks are small but if a huge amount more living beings will suffer or die as a result of climate change that seems like a future worth even more coordinated effort to avoid.

As an example: at the moment charity evaluators like Give Well and The Life You Can Save recommend charities like Against Malaria Foundation as an effective way to deal with a disease like malaria. But climate change could massively increase insect born diseases which means the scale of the problem will get loads worse. Isn’t it worth putting more effort into preventing a problem from developing than treating a symptom when it’s too late?

Or would the argument that “enough other people are working on this” still outweigh these potential risks in terms of where EA energy is directed?

N.B These are actual questions, not necessarily arguments. I don’t feel like I know enough about the subject and I’d like to know more!

Replies from: Kit
comment by Kit · 2019-08-08T19:24:11.404Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Open Phil (then GiveWell Labs) explored climate change pretty early on in their history, including the nearer-term humanitarian effects. Giving What We Can also compared climate change efforts to health interventions. (Each page is a summary page which links to other pages going into more detail.)

Replies from: spanrucker
comment by spanrucker · 2019-08-09T11:30:09.769Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks Kit! I look forward to reading them.

comment by Linch · 2019-08-02T09:46:39.001Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you're interested, I just wrote a draft of an article on this, happy to share and solicit feedback! :)

Replies from: nonzerosum
comment by nonzerosum · 2019-08-03T01:45:01.165Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Please do link it!

Replies from: Linch
comment by Linch · 2019-08-03T02:05:34.345Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Messaged. Will share more widely if/when it's ready for prime time. :)