Urgent research needed on risk of collapse of civilisation due to climate crisis, say academics

Not enough is known about how extreme weather events will affect society, doctors suggest in scientific journal

A sober assessment of the risk of the potential collapse of civilisation triggered by the climate crisis must be pursued urgently. That is the stark warning of three academics, including a philosopher based in University College Cork.

The world must face up to the reality that a warming planet could undermine social structures and functioning, they suggest in an opinion piece published by a leading scientific journal, which includes three possible “civilisation collapse scenarios”.

They highlight, in particular, the risk to global systems of food production and trade due an overheating world, “which might in turn lead to political conflict, dysfunction, and war”.

“Scientists need to do more to answer the difficult questions posed by the impact of climate change on future societies — including worst-case scenarios that would see the catastrophic collapse of civilisation,” they warn in a paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


The co-authors are Dr Kian Mintz-Woo from UCC’s Department of Philosophy and the Environmental Research Institute.; Dr Daniel Steel of the University of British Columbia and Dr C Tyler DesRoches of Arizona State University.

Climate collapse need not be determined by environmental factors alone: other causes, such as pre-existing political conflict and incompetent government, may be crucial, they add — it may also entail “local collapse” which impacts far beyond a particular location.

Citing the Syrian civil war, they contend it “illustrates the dire consequences for human welfare that collapse may have and that local collapses can contribute to political instability in non-collapsed places, as illustrated by rising right-wing populism in Europe in response to the influx of Syrian refugees”.

Dr Kian Mintz-Woo said: “My colleagues and I are trying to draw scientists’ attention to the difficult questions of how to link climatic effects to social impacts, especially those that could undermine social structures and functioning. This kind of research requires interdisciplinary collaboration and investigation, but is crucial to responding to climate change and understanding the threats we face.”

“We know climate change involves extreme weather events, but we don’t know enough about how those will affect society,” he added.

In their paper, the authors explain how the climate crisis may have knock-on effects on food production and trade, leading to political destabilisation in many countries. These effects may lessen civilisations’ adaptability which would leave them vulnerable to other shocks, like pandemics, they add.

The first collapse scenario sees climate disruption cause collapse in specific, vulnerable locations while civilisation elsewhere is largely able to adapt to climate impacts.

The second envisages a situation where urban and sometimes even national-level collapses are widespread, but some large urban centres and national governments still exist. “However these existing centres suffer from negative climate impacts such as persistent water and food scarcity.”

The third — and worst-case — scenario contemplates a world where all large urban areas across the globe are virtually abandoned, functioning nation states no longer exist, and the world’s population undergoes a significant decline.

The authors recognise some may worry that pursuing these difficult questions would cause anxiety or lead to a resigned, fatalistic disengagement from action on climate change, they believe the opposite is the case.

“Warnings about climate collapse issued by scientists and scientifically informed public figures are already present in the public discourse, while survey data suggest that climate change is a source of widespread public concern and anxiety. Against this backdrop, careful scientific study of climate collapse might act as a counterweight to discussions of climate collapse that are sensationalistic or biased towards portending doom,” they argue.

“And, depending on the results of the research, it might serve as a rebuttal to sceptics who refuse to take the possibility of climate collapse seriously at all. A sober assessment of the risk of climate collapse and the pathways by which it can be kept at bay, we suggest, may help to settle nerves and spur action.”

As a topic of urgent concern to humanity, the risk of climate collapse demands careful scientific investigation, the authors underline. “And research on closely related topics — such as past cases of collapse, limits to adaptation, and systemic risk — makes it difficult to argue that climate collapse is impossible to study scientifically.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times