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‘It’s time to focus on near-term collapses’, says Cambridge climate expert

Hoping for more of a response? Red Rebel at the Silent Rebellion in the Grafton. Picture: Jeremy Peters
Hoping for more of a response? Red Rebel at the Silent Rebellion in the Grafton. Picture: Jeremy Peters

As the UN Climate Change Conference continues in Madrid until Friday (13 December), a Cambridge expert is calling for a major shift in how climate change is discussed - by stressing the immediate dangers rather than projecting ahead to 2050 or even 2100.

Professor Aled Jones, director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU) in Cambridge, says the only way to generate an urgent response to our planetary emergency is to highlight our vulnerability to near-term climate shocks – caused by extreme weather we’re already experiencing – and explain how it could lead to “rocketing food prices, civil unrest, major financial losses, starvation and death”.

Co-authors Prof Jones and Professor Will Steffen, a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, believe significant change will only occur if the world focuses on near-term - and indeed current - collapses.

The central objective of the Paris Climate Agreement is its long-term temperature goal to hold global average temperature increase to “well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels”. But we're way off course: the level of urgency, the changes in behaviour, and the systemic changes required to make that goal a reality are all falling short.

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.

As the COP25 UN Climate Change Conference agenda unfolds in Madrid, the authors suggest 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. At the same time, four out of ten people in the US don’t “believe” in climate change, and some of that - see video below - is because politicians always frame it as a problem way off in the future.

Prof Jones is a world expert in risks and opportunities derived from food, energy and water resource trends and the Global Sustainability Institute has developed tools including the global chaos map project.

Writing in The Conversation, Prof Jones and Prof Steffen say: “While climate scientists, policy makers 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.

“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.”

A culture with blood on its hands? Extinction Rebellion action at the Guildhall. Picture: Jeremy Peters
A culture with blood on its hands? Extinction Rebellion action at the Guildhall. Picture: Jeremy Peters

So why are people still okay with the notion that climate breakdown is happening despite the evidence that is massing up all around us? I put the matter to Extinction Rebellion Cambridge Group on Facebook (a private group) and within two hours got some great comments. Here’s some of them:

“Until people feel strongly connected to something and are regularly engaged with it, they will not fight for it,” said water rights activist Suzanne Morris in the thread.

Extinction Rebellion and other initiatives have completely changed the landscape,” says rewilding campaigner James Murray-White of the movement which in 2019 has made itself felt on the streets of capitals and cities cross the world.

“A part of it is because we - even the scientists - are trained to think of science as objective and unemotional,” posted Bianc De Sanctis to the Cambridge XR community on Facebook. “But a bigger reason is the politicisation of climate change, and all of the propaganda and pushback against the science that might make it seem ‘undecided’ or ‘debatable ’. It’s also related to cognitive dissonance - it is such a huge problem and a normal coping mechanism is avoidance, especially when your peers are avoiding it also.”

“Needs to be locally relevant, not helped when weather reports say ‘lovely and mild out there today’ in mid-December,” said Greg Hayling.

“We are all accustomed to ‘the weather’,” responded Mary Enna Wilkie.

“A close relative of mine, who has lived in the US for years, accepts climate change,” wrote Nicholas Condie. “He does not accept his own need to change because of ‘China’. So long as some people can blame others they perceive as worse, they will not do anything. They are not happy that their comfortable consumption should be disrupted.”

A Youth Strike 4 Climate Change protest march makes its way through Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham
A Youth Strike 4 Climate Change protest march makes its way through Cambridge. Picture: Richard Marsham

“I couldn’t really start to act until I could face up to how scared and upset I was,” Gemma Williams wrote. “For me XR was a good forum to allow those emotions and get me past a kind of numbed off and frozen passive anxiety.”

“People don’t want to connect with something that means they will actually have to put effort in and make a change,” suggested Nic Jaff.

“There’s a great article called The Dragons of Inaction all about the denial processes that kick in around climate breakdown,” said Louisa Knight.

“I think the emotions are so big that people block them just so they can continue to function,” said artist-activist Hilary Cox Condron. “Or transfer the emotions somewhere else - to be angry at the person on the road block rather than the corporation that is destroying our future.”

“We are now in a phase where vested interests in society are actively hiding the climate catastrophe from the majority of the population,” said Dr Jason Scott-Warren via email. “If we acknowledged the truth, we’d need to make major changes to our economy to put planet before profit. Many people stand to lose from this revolution, so they are trying to stop it happening.”

A spokesperson for Cambridge Schools Eco Council told the Cambridge Independent: “The science is right, and lots of people listen, but we need to change the system itself so they can make the right decisions.”

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