ASU professor calls for more research into 'climate collapse'

In new opinion piece, Tyler DesRoches and colleagues ask: What is climate collapse and how can we prevent it?


People sitting on a beach in the foreground while industrial smokestacks loom in the background.

Photo courtesy Spencer Thomas via Flickr

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Around the world, signs of climate change are evident — rising temperatures, heat waves, extreme droughts, severe tropical storms and decreasing snowpack, to name a few.

Will these events cause climate collapse? What would be the outcome for interconnected, global societies? What can we do to prevent climate collapse?

In a new opinion piece published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers are urgently calling for more investigations into the specific pathways by which civilization could potentially collapse due to climate change. 

“Our goal is to draw attention and awareness to the non-negligible probability of climate collapse and to galvanize action that prevents such a catastrophic outcome,” says Tyler DesRoches, co-author of the article. DesRoches is an associate professor of sustainability and human well-being with Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and a senior global futures scholar with the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Futures Laboratory.

“That said, we are not portending doom. We simply emphasize that climate scientists and others need to take the mechanisms underlying climate collapse seriously,” says DesRoches, also an associate professor of philosophy with the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies.

“Scientists have warned that climate change threatens the habitability of large regions of the Earth and even civilization itself, but surprisingly little research exists about how collapse could happen and what can be done to prevent it,” says Daniel Steel, co-author and associate professor of philosophy with of the University of British Columbia. “A better understanding of the risks of collapse is essential for climate ethics and policy.”

DesRoches, Steel and Kian Mintz-Woo, lecturer of philosophy with University College Cork, define civilization collapse as the loss of societal capacity to maintain essential governance functions, especially security, the rule of law and the provision of basic necessities, such as food and water.

In the article, the co-authors investigate three civilization collapse scenarios. First, they looked at the possibility of localized collapse of specific, vulnerable locations. The second considers the collapse of some urban and national areas, while the remaining ones experience detrimental climate-related effects, such as food and water scarcity. The final possibility is global collapse — where urban areas around the world are abandoned, nations are no more and global population falls.

It is not only the direct effects of climate change – such as drought, flooding and extreme heat – that could create collapse risks, but also less-studied mechanisms.

The authors explain that climate change may have indirect effects on global systems, such as food production and trade, which may in turn lead to political conflict, dysfunction and even war. The scientists also state that these effects may lessen the adaptability of civilizations, which would leave them more vulnerable to additional shocks, such as pandemics.

“We need a sober assessment of the risk of climate collapse and the pathways by which it can be kept at bay. Our purpose is not to generate more anxiety concerning climate collapse,” says DesRoches. “In fact, we hope our piece has the opposite effect. By calling for a rigorous scientific understanding of the mechanisms underlying climate collapse, we hope to settle growing public anxiety, especially among young people today."

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