A journey from dinosaur enthusiast to climate change specialist

30 June 2023

Risk is incredibly hard to process - as humans we are generally pretty bad at it. When we hear the phrase “unlikely to happen” we generally translate this internally to “this won’t happen”. This is especially true when the risk relates to a catastrophic scenario, maybe even an existential one. The potential outcome feels so final, we may find ourselves shutting down. Personally, I am very motivated by risks, even very small ones. My journey to adopting this attitude started with a stuffed toy of a triceratops.

Like many children, I was obsessed with dinosaurs. I had dinosaur clothes, toys and bed sheets, you name it and I owned it. Most important to me though were my dinosaur books. I would pore over these, and for several years when prompted I could regurgitate facts on the subject like there was no tomorrow. I would daydream about how cute the 70 cm Microraptor probably was, and mull over the fact that T Rex and Stegosaurus existed so far apart that the former may have stumbled upon a fossil of the latter.

One of my main fixations was considering what it would be like to be one of the mammals left after the catastrophe. Guilty of anthropomorphising them beyond belief, I would wonder how they would process the changing environment. Would they fight against all odds to survive, eager to continue populating the dark and cold earth left behind after the asteroid impact that took out 76% of all species? If I was one of those remaining, I would have hoped that things would be better for those who would come after me. I would hope that easier times would be ahead.

This isn’t the only mass extinction our planet has experienced. In the history of the Earth, there have been five major extinctions. The largest of these - the End Permian extinction 250 million years ago - took out 96% of all species[1]. There’s one thing all these extinctions have in common. All of them were caused by rapid changes in the climate, for one reason or another. The asteroid impact 65 million years ago was so colossal that its impact and the resultant dust produced caused rapid global cooling. The End Permian extinction, in contrast, was due to elevated CO2 and sulphur levels in the atmosphere from intense volcanic activity leading to global warming.   

As I got older and learned about how our whole climate was currently changing, the parallels for me were undeniable. The instances that had led to catastrophic climate change in the past left devastation in their wake. It felt surreal that, as a species, we too would be marching towards such a fate, although this time willingly.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predictions suggest that, if current policy commitments are abided by, median warming will be about 3.2°C by 2100[2]. Already, it is estimated that between 3.3 and 3.6 billion people are “highly vulnerable” to climate change, and as thermometers continue to rise so will this number[3]. Human brains were only designed to handle about 100 human connections, so emotionally digesting suffering at such a scale boggles the mind. This is especially true when, sat here typing this in Oxford in the UK, I am deeply lucky to not be ravaged by climate change effects. I am not face to face with the tangible consequences. I have the luxury of distance.

Taking closer inspection of the IPCCs AR6 report, the observant amongst us may notice that many of the temperature increase projections have large uncertainty bounds. The climate is so complex, it’s incredibly difficult to predict how it will react to how we have rapidly changed the atmospheric makeup. Under the worst-case scenario (significant policy reversal leading to increased fossil fuel use), the IPCC predicts that the surface temperature is likely to increase significantly. The 90% confidence limit is a warming of almost 6 °C by 2100 relative to temperatures between 1850 and 1900[4]. That means that there is a 10% chance temperatures could be even higher than this. Coupled with the potential for complicated climate feedback effects that could lead to further warming[5], the maximum possible temperature is a couple of degrees above even this.

It's when I consider the combinatorial risk of all of these individual risks that the situation looks incredibly concerning. In a worst-case scenario world where everything I’ve mentioned that could happen does indeed happen, warming would exceed 10 °C. This is where my personal attitude to risk leads to my interest in climate change as a cause area.

As I’m sure is obvious to any of you reading this, the devastation on our lives in this combinatorial scenario would be on a completely unprecedented scale. As food systems buckle and collapse under the pressure, competition for fresh water mounts and hundreds of millions are forced to migrate to more hospitable conditions, risks of a great power war will rise. This is where I believe that climate change flips from threat to life to existential threat to humanity.   

Do I think this is likely to happen? Absolutely not. But do I think it is impossible for this to happen? Again, also no. In my 25 years of life I have already been shocked and confused by multiple policies from decision makers that have left me aghast. Just because something is unlikely to happen, doesn’t mean it can’t happen. Even a very very small chance of something very very bad happening should be enough for us to sit up, look smart and jump up into action.

Maybe it’s because all that dinosaur content I consumed as a child increased my risk aversion, or maybe I am inherently risk averse because I’m a Virgo. Either way, I’ve always been a firm believer that up-front cost to prevent a potential bad outcome is always worth it. And the worse the outcome could be, the higher the upfront cost should be. We don’t have to be certain something will happen to take note, just that we know it could happen and that’s enough for me.

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[1] https://ourworldindata.org/mass-extinctions

[2] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-3/

[3] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg2/

[4] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-i/

[5] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/sixth-assessment-report-working-group-i/

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