What a climate apocalypse might look like

The possibility of climate change as a threat to civilisation has moved from the genre of science fiction to the literature of cli-fi and now to serious research about what this might involve.

It has also generated an increasing amount of research into, and speculative analysis of, cataclysmic possibilities. This builds on historical research into significant changes in climate throughout history and their impacts on societies.

For instance, Bryan Ward-Perkins, in his The Fall of Rome and the end of Civilisation, examines residues in ice to interrogate whether Virgil’s lines – “And likewise, mourning Rome, with Caesar dead, /In dim rust-coloured haze he (the Sun) veiled his head” – may not be simply metaphorical but rather reflected the reality of volcanic-induced climate change which caused a dramatic decline in industrial production.

Geoffrey Parker, in Global Crisis: War, Climate Change and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, has similarly convincingly linked the 17th century ‘Little Ice Age’ with global crises.

Peter Frankopan, in The Earth Transformed, looks at the impact of climatic changes on civilizations around the world over several millennia and concludes that our current situation is unprecedented.

A PNAS article in October 2022 by Daniel Steel, C. Tyler DesRoches and Kian Mintz-Woo suggests that “Although a body of scientific research on historical and archaeological cases of collapse, discussion of mechanisms whereby climate change might cause the collapse of current civilisations has mostly been the province of journalists, philosophers, novelists and filmmakers.”

The authors define civilization collapses as “the loss of societal capacity to maintain essential governance functions, especially maintaining security, the rule of law and the provision of basic necessities such as food and water…..associated with civil strife, violence and widespread scarcity.”

They postulate three scenarios about possible wider or narrower impacts. The first – local collapse would be collapse in specific vulnerable locations while civilisations elsewhere largely adapt to climate impacts. As an example of what this would look like they cite the Syrian civil war where model simulations indicate “that the type of drought implicated in the war was more than twice as likely to happen given anthropogenic climate change.”

They link this political instability in the region to a knock-on effect in terms of rising right wing populism in Europe as a result of the Syrian refugee influx.

The second scenario is dubbed broken world drawn from the philosopher Tim Mulgan’s book about potential post-apocalyptic worlds. This scenario involves urban and sometimes national level collapses are widespread, but some urban centres and national governments still exist but “these centres experience negative climate impacts such as persistent water and food scarcity.”

The third scenario is labelled global collapse where all large urban areas are affected; functioning states no longer exist; and, the world’s population undergoes a significant decline.  Despite the word collapse the authors see it not as the phrase civilization collapse evokes in most people but rather as an extension of the broken world scenario “wherein the remaining non-collapsed states and urban centres, which have by then become highly vulnerable, are pushed over the brink by further climate impacts.”

“Climate collapse, then might not be an abrupt event but rather an extended process that starts small and plays out over the course of a century or more.”

The authors stress that the scenarios are not predictions but should be regarded as starting points raising questions about whether there are plausible mechanism where the scenarios might occur and, if so, what could be done to counteract them.

They then look at the mechanisms which could cause global collapse or broken worlds and suggest these might involve direct impacts, socio-climate feedbacks and exogenous shock vulnerability.  

With direct impacts they hypothesise about tipping points – rising sea levels, drought, flooding, extreme heat, agricultural failure, water availability and other bases of civilisation. They also point to irreversible rapid collapse of Antarctic ice sheets (signs of which are emerging now) and releases of methane from permafrost or forest diebacks.

As for socio-climate feedback they consider food production, political, conflict, dysfunctions which lead to warfare and destabilisation.

In terms of exogenous shocks, they refer back to possible societal collapses such as those discussed in Parker, Frankopan and Ward-Perkins although they stress that “exogenous shock vulnerability mechanisms suggest that climate change might weaken adaptive capacity leaving global society vulnerable to collapse triggered by other types of shocks such as wars or pandemic.”

“Historical and archaeological research suggest that past societal collapses have rarely been the result of direct climate perturbations but instead were more commonly attributable to a combination of stressors. However, this does not mean that the risk of climate collapse is overstated. To the contrary, it suggests that collapse could result in climate impacts to which global civilisation might have adapted.

“The risk to civilisation is not from direct climate impacts alone but rather those impacts occurring together with dysfunctional social feedback and other destabilising factors. Finally, the rarity of collapse as a direct result of climatic changes in the past may be a poor guide to a future outside the stable climate of the Holocene.”

In the meantime, two other developments are worth considering. Peter Dutton thinks the answer to all these problems is nuclear power. But given their cooling needs will require them to be placed where there is a plentiful water supply there is the problem that in the decades – and billions in costs – they would take to build water shortages in Australia will worsen and rising sea levels will inundate the plants.

On the other hand, later in 2024, the Hague International Court of Justice might give an opinion on nations’ legal obligations to combat climate change and on any legal consequences for those who are damaging the climate. Although the ruling will not be legally binding it will put new pressures on government and could influence domestic legal cases. It might provoke more action – although probably not from Peter Dutton.

The PNAS article was drawn to the blog’s attention by its friend John Spitzer. Reviews of the Parker, Ward-Perkins and Frankopan books can be found on this site.