Endgame is a 1956 drama by Irish writer Samuel Beckett. It is set in a partially burned world where a few people have survived here and there. Endgame can also be found in the titles of numerous films and television series made after the turn of the millennium, when climate change became an issue. And finally – although not explicitly in the title – the film “Don’t look up” deals with a global apocalypse that satirizes the political, media and social handling of climate change, a “climate endgame” so to speak.
A group of climate researchers led by Luke Kemp has just published a perspective article under this very title, in which they advocate that climate science should also take the worst effects of the climate crisis into account. So far they have concentrated too much on obvious climate developments. Even if the probability of a mass extinction of humans due to self-inflicted climate change is extremely low, it cannot be completely ruled out.
Kemp works at the Center for the Study of Existential Risks at Cambridge University. Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, formerly one of the directors of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, and Johan Rockström, his successor, also co-wrote the paper. Schellnhuber became popular with his book “Self Combustion” and Rockstrom with his concept of planetary boundaries.
The development possibilities of the earth’s temperature
At the moment, by 2100, the earth is on the way to a world that will be 2.1 to 3.9 degrees warmer than before 1850. If all nationally agreed contributions to reducing emissions are met by 2030, the world mean temperature would still be around 1.9 to 3 degrees above pre-industrial temperatures. However, only the more optimistic of the model scenarios assume this.
According to the team of authors, this does not rule out the possibility of particularly extreme climate changes. There are feedbacks that are often not taken into account in the models, such as methane from thawing permafrost or carbon loss from fires in the Amazon region. Also, the cooling stratocumulus cloud fields could suddenly disappear at the CO2 concentrations that the models project for 2100. That would push warming up another dramatic eight degrees.
The extent of climate change is therefore still uncertain, even if future greenhouse gas concentrations are known. Therefore, the authors propose a program of action for “Climate Endgame” research, which should explore the effects of extreme climate impacts in more detail.
Research on extreme climate change
German climate researchers and communicators certainly welcome the Cambridge group’s initiative. Like Carl-Friedrich Schleussner, head of the research group Temporal development of obstacles to adaptation and their significance for climate-related losses and damage at the Integrative Research Institute for the Change in Human-Environment-Systems at the Humboldt University in Berlin.
He self-critically states: “At the moment we are mostly looking at the risks of climate change in an otherwise idealized and conflict-free world. The reality is different. In the year 2022 and unfortunately probably also for a long time in the 21st century.”
But he resists the Endgame authors’ claim that climate research is primarily focused on the risks of 1.5 and 2 degree warming. He can prove: “By far the most scientific studies examine climate impacts in extreme warming scenarios.”
Societal risk factors should be included more systematically, he notes critically. Because the “climate endgame” has long since begun in vulnerable countries: “The perspective of those most affected from the global South hardly seems to play a role in the agenda of the authors.”
Extreme scenarios important for the climate debate?
Unlike the communication scientist Michael Brüggemann, professor at the University of Hamburg. He believes that while climate researchers need to deal with extreme scenarios, it is more important for the public debate to focus on the likely risks. “These are already serious enough and challenge politicians and citizens enough.”
Likewise, he cannot agree with the perspectives authors when they see disaster research as a successful shock therapy for public perception: “What tends to overwhelm people mentally is speculation about even more extreme dangers that could also threaten us.” Because the team of authors assumes that knowing about the worst case can force you to act.
However, Reinhard Mechler can certainly gain something from this argument. He is head of the research group for systemic risks and resilience at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Laxenburg, Austria. Research on extreme events is particularly relevant because, due to the high risk potential, it should be about avoiding rather than accepting the risk. Mechler is convinced: “This would then underpin the need for massive greenhouse gas avoidance.”
The extreme climate researchers are therefore faced with a communication dilemma, as Philipp Schrögel from the Käte Hamburger Center for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies at Heidelberg University states: “On the one hand, haunting scenarios can permeate the public and political economy of attention and convey urgency. On the other hand, individuals can be overwhelmed by see no individual perspectives for action and ignore the scenarios.”
Schrögel believes that well-founded scenarios, which also cover catastrophic developments, form the basis for conveying the increasing pressure to act. He says: “One major challenge, however, is to find a basis for a substantive discussion in the already highly politicized and emotionally charged field.”
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