Study: scientists should research possibility of human extinction from climate change

A study was published on August 1st (Edit: 2022) in a collaboration from researchers from various countries and universities, including the esteemed Oxford and Cambridge. It doesn’t assess the likelihood of human extinction, but instead looks at how much research has been done on this crucial topic. And a popular news broadcaster in the UK even took up the story.The authors conclude that science is sorely lacking. To quote the paper directly: “The closest attempts to directly study or comprehensively address how climate change could lead to human extinction or global catastrophe have come through popular science books”. Not scientific, peer-reviewed research. Pop-sci books.

As far as I can tell, the closest current science actually gets is examining individual risks (e.g: how food production will be affected by rising temperatures) rather than taking them together, let alone looking at how risks might cascade into or exacerbate each other.But I suppose what surprised me the most, and why I’m writing about this, is this. Exisitential risk is actually making the news in a highly-regarded, mainstream news outlet, and is becoming the subject of serious research from respected academic institutions. The fact that Cambridge University actually has a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at all I think shows the beginnings of a step change in attitudes. Naturally, we have a way to go. I laughed out loud at how the news article described the study: “The researchers said that seriously studying the consequences of worst-case scenarios was vital, even though it might scare people.” It would seem that most are (understandably) still of the attitude ‘we shouldn’t talk about scary things because it paralyses people’, but things may be beginning to change.

What do you all think about this? The study is here, and the news article talking about it is here.


  • Comments (13)

    • 1

      That’s pretty shocking that most of our climate change understanding comes from science fiction books. 📚

      With climate change, I assume that we will see a general human migration away from the equator and more towards the poles and see more technology developments like indoor growing of our food if the outside temperatures are getting too hot and inhospitable for crops. Hopefully with an increased focus of minds on the issue, we will come up with solutions to the problem rather than band-aids.

    • 3

      I hope this study is more informed and accurate than Paul Erhlichs’ Population Bomb in 1968 or the Limits to Growth in 1972.

      Like many movements, environmentalism is often hijacked by non-scientists for other reasons. This is a shame because all of us really can do more to protect and manage our environment for the better. The difficulty for the average person is to find a reliable source of information and make up their own mind.

      I am wary when someone tells me ‘the science is settled, all scientists agree, you just have to vote for this new thing’. What I hear is someone unwilling to have dialogue, to be open and transparent, to engage with their detractors with good will and integrity.

      One of the people I trust for much of the information I need about environmentalism and environmental engineering is Dr. Vaclav Smil, a distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Manitoba. He is the author of over forty books on topics including energy, environmental and population change, food production and nutrition, technical innovation, risk assessment and public policy. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canda and a Member of the Order of Canada.

      I don’t agree with all his conclusions by a long shot but I trust his figures, math and integrity.

      Below is a snip of his recent writing on carbon in our atmosphere:

      ‘At the beginning of the 19th century, when the United Kingdom was the only major coal producer, global emissions of carbon from fossil fuel combustion were minuscule, at less than 10 million tons a year. By century’s end, emissions surpassed half a billion tons. By 1950, thy had topped 1.5 billion tons. The postwar economic expansion in Europe, North America, the USSR and Japan – along with the post-1980 economic rise of China-quadrupled emissions thereafter, to about 7 billion tons of carbon by the year 2000. In the two centuries between 1800 and 2000, the transfer of carbon from fossil fuels to the atmosphere increased 650 fold while the population had increased only sixfold!

      The new century has seen a significant divergence. By 2017, emissions had declined by about 15 percent in the European Union, with its slower economic growth and aging population and also in the United States, thank largely to the increasing use of natural gas instead of coal. However, all these gains were outbalanced by Chinese carbon emissions, which rose from about 1 billion to about 3 billion tons – enough to increase the worldwide total by nearly 45 percent, to 10.1 billion tons.

      Atmospheric concentrations of carbon have increased from 180-280 parts per million 800,000 years ago ranging from 275 ppm in the early 1600s to about 285 ppm before the end of the 19th century. Continuous measurements of the gas began near the top of Mauna Loa, in Hawaii, in 1958: the 1959 mean was 316 ppm the 2015 average reached 400 ppm and 415 ppm in May 2019.

      Emissions will continue to decline in affluent countries, and the rate at which they grow in China has begun to slow down. However, it is speeding up in India and Africa, and hence it is unlikely that we will see any substantial global declines anytime soon.’

      Dr. Smil says that the quickest way to reduce atmospheric carbon load it to significantly reduce the size of homes throughout the world and dramatically improve their insulation. This would drop the fossil fuel used to heat and air condition our large homes.

      How many of us are willing to cut the size of our homes or apartments 35-50%?

    • 3

      It is possible to greatly reduce your carbon footprint by living in a smaller house. My house is about 2,500 sq. ft. Would I be willing to live in a 1,500 sq ft house? Yes – but all our children are gone so it would be easier. And I would want a big screened porch or 3 season room. I would also have to build it with either 2×6 framing or double 2×4 framing. And triple pane windows. It would greatly reduce the heating and cooling cost and therefore my carbon footprint.

      Wouldn’t I be a great guy?

      Not really. Only the Australians have larger average sized homes than Americans.

      This is an eye opener:

      How big is your house

      The Brits, Swedes, Italians, French (ALL Europeans!) and Japanese have much smaller homes than Americans. 50% smaller. I doubt they are well insulated. Hong Kong, China and Russia have homes 25% the size of ours.  They need to insulate and replace their windows but we have to rebuild…

      • 2

        It would be interesting to see the average home price and average utility cost to heat and cool those houses and compare that as well. Interesting chart!

    • 2

      There are now university courses in Climate Change, so I find the idea that there aren’t enough peer-reviewed articles and studies a bit dubious. I would say that Climate Models are probably becoming more and more accurate over time. If anything, I think even people who thought we were in immanent danger from Climate Change, didn’t realize how many glaciers would be melting this quickly already. 

      Many places are already caught in drought/flood weather pattern loops. Water has been an issue in different countries for decades, but now it’s coming to Europe and America. 

      Kids figure out that they are forked by about age 8 now. Which is how kids wind up becoming Climate Activists, because the adults sat on this for decades and did either nothing, or worse than nothing, or on the other hand, barely anything even if they wanted to do more.

      The Climate Report of 2018/19 is what got me interested in Prepping, by the way. There is usually a big international Climate Report every year or two that comes out. 

      • 2

        Hey, Erika, Yup, I took those university courses in climate change in the early 1980s. I recently looked back at my old  books and found sections, and sometimes chapters, in the following texts: physics, astronomy, meteorology, and physical geography. My ecology and botany classes may have mentioned the greenhouse effect, too. It scared the hell out of us.

        And you can bet that generations of grad students plunged into a research frenzy to get their degrees, and yes, add to the knowledge-base about climate change. Things are a lot less uncertain than they used to be.

        Besides that, through the decades, my uni friends and I have personally watched  predictions morph into reality on a too-frequent basis. Desertification, vast forest destruction in wildfires, glacial melting, ecosystem collapses, intensifying hurricanes, check ’em off the list.

        Meanwhile, our young-adult kids look at their future with jaws clamped and hard determination on their brows.

        They give me hope. Humans are incredibly adaptable – we’re great at figuring things out. Heck, we learned to thrive in the world’s most inhospitable spots – a long time ago. A portion of us will figure this out, too.

        So I prep. I want to buy my kids time to survey the scene and figure out the next best thing to do.

      • 1

        That is beautifully said. We are adaptable and figure things out when the going gets tough. Certain things will be harder for future generations, but they also will have more tools and knowledge at their disposal to combat and life with those challenges.

    • 2

      Look into the meaning of the term “cascade collapse” especially as it relates to sea life, then remind yourself that the oceans are responsible for creating approximately 60% of the oxygen that we breath. Oceanographers like Dr Sylvia Earle have been talking about this for decades. We should be thanking the oceans for every breath we take and not dumping our waste in them.

      • 2

        I’ll just be happy if we live long enough to finish off our bulk store of quinoa.

      • 2

        The big glacier in Green Land is something to watch out for. It is melting faster than people thought, and could raise ocean levels by up to a foot. People in low lying areas on coasts will need to adapt or move away. 

        I live near the Great Lakes, lots of fresh water, but they could be hurt by algae blooms. There is always something to look out for!

      • 1

        Here’s an artist’s prediction of what coastal locations will look like after 5, 12, or 25 feet of ocean rise. So many places, businesses, and home are built right on the beach.


    • 3

      It’s the first I’d heard of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. Here’s their website, which lists their research in a variety of existential risks such as biotech, climate change, and artificial intelligence.