Organization Breakthrough has published a new report that has been getting quite a bit of attention in mainstream media. It argues for an urgent risk reframing of climate research and the IPCC reports, because they don't deal adequately with lower-probability, but higher-impact events.


Human-induced climate change is an existential risk to human civilisation: an adverse outcome that will either annihilate intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential, unless carbon emissions are rapidly reduced.

Special precautions that go well beyond conventional risk management practice are required if the increased likelihood of very large climate impacts — known as “fat tails” — are to be adequately dealt with. The potential consequences of these lower-probability, but higher-impact, events would be devastating for human societies.

The bulk of climate research has tended to underplay these risks, and exhibited a preference for conservative projections and scholarly reticence, although increasing numbers of scientists have spoken out in recent years on the dangers of such an approach.

Climate policymaking and the public narrative are significantly informed by the important work of the IPCC. However, IPCC reports also tend toward reticence and caution, erring on the side of “least drama”, and downplaying the more extreme and more damaging outcomes.

Whilst this has been understandable historically, given the pressure exerted upon the IPCC by political and vested interests, it is now becoming dangerously misleading with the acceleration of climate impacts globally. What were lower- probability, higher-impact events are now becoming more likely.

This is a particular concern with potential climatic tipping points — passing critical thresholds which result in step changes in the climate system — such as the polar ice sheets (and hence sea levels), and permafrost and other carbon stores, where the impacts of global warming are non-linear and difficult to model with current scientific knowledge.

However the extreme risks to humanity, which these tipping points represent, justify strong precautionary management. Under-reporting on these issues is irresponsible, contributing to the failure of imagination that is occurring today in our understanding of, and response to, climate change.

If climate policymaking is to be soundly based, a reframing of scientific research within an existential risk-management framework is now urgently required. This must be taken up not just in the work of the IPCC, but also in the UNFCCC negotiations if we are to address the real climate challenge.

Current processes will not deliver either the speed or the scale of change required.


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3 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:06 AM

Thanks for posting this. I am grateful they published this report, and I hope that their explicit reframing in terms of existential risk will get the EA community's attention.

The EA standpoint so far has been "lots of money is already being thrown at climate change, it's mostly a question of policy now". And that's true. Good ideas are out there: fee-and-dividend carbon pricing, Project Drawdown, etc.; all it takes is political will. Unfortunately, in my experience, many EAs take this to mean that climate change is an issue they can't help with.

It's true that it is difficult finding out which policy approaches are effective and politically viable, and it's also difficult to convince others that the climate needs urgent attention. Therefore, it seems to me that there is still much potential for EA organizations to give better advice to those of us who want to contribute not as donors or full-time researchers, but as citizens doing some "effective activism" in their spare time. If anyone can point me to work that has been or is being done in this direction, I would be grateful.

(Meta: Curious why this post was downvoted at least once. Personally, I'm grateful for this pointer, as I consider it relevant and might not have become aware of the report otherwise. I don't view the linkpost as an endorsement of the content or epistemic stance exhibited by the report.)

[Epistemic status: climate change is outside of my areas of competence, I'm mostly reporting what I've heard from others, often in low-bandwidth conversations. I think their views are stronger overall evidence than my own impressions based on having engaged on the order of 10 hours with climate change from an existential risk perspective.]

FWIW, before having engaged with the case made by that report, I'm skeptical whether climate change is a significant "direct" existential risk. (As opposed to something that hurts our ability to prevent or mitigate other risks, and might be very important for that reason.) This is mostly based on:

  • John Halstead's work on this question, which I found accessible and mostly convincing.
  • My loose impression that 1-5 other people whose reasoning I trust and have engaged more deeply with that question have concluded that climate change is unlikely to be a "direct" extinction risk, and me not being aware of any other case for why climate change might be a particularly large existential risk otherwise (i.e. I don't have seen suggested mechanisms for how/why climate change might permanently reduce the value/quality of the future that seemed significantly more plausible to me than just-so stories one could tell about almost any future development). Unfortunately, I don't think there is a publicly accessible presentation of that reasoning (apart from Halstead's report mentioned above).

FWIW, I'd also guess that the number of EAs with deep expertise on climate change is smaller than optimal. However, I'm very uncertain about this, and I don't see particular reasons why I would have good intuitions about large-scale talent allocation questions (it's even quite plausible that I'm misinformed about the number of EAs that do have deep expertise on climate change).