Humanity is facing an “inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change”, according to Professor Jem Bendell at the University of Cumbria in the UK. This is the theme of a paper released in July, 2018 and which has since gone viral. The paper, entitled “Deep Adaptation” argues that the future negative consequences of climate change have been underestimated both in terms of impact, as well as timing. And that a gradual adaptation to these changes will have limited benefits. A complete societal transformation is needed or the world will face “starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war”.

The paper has gained widespread attention, but partly for reasons not of content, but of controversy. It was originally rejected as an academic paper during the peer-review process for potential publication in the Sustainability Accounting, Management and Policy Journal (SAMPJ). Reviewer concerns centered around some of the source material, lack of citations to previous published literature on the subject, and whether the conclusions of the paper added any significant contributions to the climate change debate.

While it may not be considered a well-written academic paper, that doesn’t necessarily mean the subject matter is not a relevant discussion topic. Dire warnings of the future of humanity are becoming more frequent. The scientific community, as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5oC published in October, 2018, warned of the need for “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid the worst consequences of a changing climate. And a number of organisations and prominent spokespeople have suggested that, as we continue to make slow progress on climate change mitigation, we face the possible extinction of our species. Greenpeace, the Extinction Rebellion, the young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, and Sir David Attenborough, among them, are all trying to bring this subject to the forefront of our thought processes.

While these warnings should be taken seriously, there is a significant debate about the timing of any impending social collapse. Many still believe it to be in the long-term future, or even preventable should we take certain actions or create technologies, such as Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Geoengineering, to offset or reverse the damage being done by Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions. Professor Bendall, on the other hand, believes that society may collapse much more quickly, as early as a decade from now. This is considered by many peers as being a rather alarmist stance. Professor Bendall counters that the scientific models being used to predict the impacts of climate change are grossly underestimating the rapid change in GHG emissions, referencing credible recent research into the increases in methane, a very potent GHG, being released into the atmosphere from melting permafrost in the Siberian Arctic, for example.

A central issue with Professor Bendall’s paper, however, is there is no real link, in terms of time, between the scientific evidence he refers to and the disasters he claims will befall humanity. It’s mostly conjecture. On the other hand, the IPCC has drawn their own line in the sand, by suggesting that emissions must fall 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and be at net zero by 2050 to keep the average temperature increase to 1.5oC above pre-industrial levels to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. That implies there is still time if the world takes transformational action in the near future. Yet, even in this scenario, the timeframe to decide on these steps is limited and current global politics is not particularly attuned to any urgent deadline on the matter. The fires in the Amazon, the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, and so on, suggest no immediate unified global political action is likely to take place.   Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, though, Director Emeritus at the Potsdam Climate Institute maintains that the plain brutality of the climate math suggests we have 12-18 months at most to decide to alter our future or suffer the consequences. That suggests COP 26 (the UN’s Conference of the Parties on Climate Change) scheduled for November 9-19, 2020, only a few days after the next US Presidential Election, may be one of the last chances to make a collective decision on the future of the human race.

This debate on timing detracts from another of the paper’s messages, that of preparation for a potential catastrophe. Professor Bendall’s paper discusses the need for a Deep Adaptation Agenda of Resilience, Relinquishment and Restoration. The Agenda addresses several key questions: How do we increase our capacity to deal with changing circumstances; How do we let go of behaviours and beliefs that make matters worse; and What can we learn from our past, in terms of attitudes and approaches to life, that provide more ecological benefits. All urgent questions. In Professor Bendall’s words, “it is time we consider the implications of it being too late to avert a global environmental catastrophe in the lifetimes of people alive today”.

Don Jurries

Featured Images:  Headline Article from Vice, Zing Tajeng, Feb 27, 2019

Disclaimer:  The views and thoughts expressed in the text by the author are intended to paraphrase the central tenants of Professor Jem Bendall’s paper “Deep Adaptation”.  The author does not make any representations as to his own beliefs on the subject, but is attempting to simply report various existing opinions from the wider scientific community for purposes of further discussion and debate.