Introduction

The Cambridge Existential Risks Initiative (CERI, pronounced /ˈkɛri/) has opened applications for an in-person, paid, 10-week Summer Research Fellowship (SRF) focused on existential risk mitigation, taking place from July to September 2022 in Cambridge, and aimed at all aspiring researchers, including undergraduates.

To apply and find out more, please visit the CERI Fellowship website

If you’re interested in mentoring research projects for this programme, please submit your name, email and research area here, and we will get in touch with you in due course. 

The deadline to apply is April 3 2022 23:59 UTC.

For more information, see the Summer Research Fellowship announcement forum post.

Climate Change Overview

This post is an overview of the climate change track of the fellowship, with a brief description of the major categories of possible work in this area and some potential directions to tackle them.

Our goal is to develop the field of climate change existential and global catastrophic risk research, by supporting aspiring researchers to develop their careers and help them build the skills, knowledge, and relationships to continue research in this topic after the fellowship. 

The existing body of work tackling climate change from an explicitly existential or global catastrophic risk perspective is, perhaps surprisingly, quite small. Therefore a lot of the research problems we think have the greatest potential are primarily focused on reducing our uncertainties about climate change, around both direct and indirect impacts. In other words: climate change mitigation has such a large array of potential ways to work on tackling the problem that knowing what to work on is one of the greatest challenges.

Broadly, we can identify 3 possible ways climate change may affect existential or global catastrophic risk:

  1. Effects of extreme global temperature rise (e.g 5+ degrees C).
  2. Extremely unlikely events at likely levels of global temperature rise (e.g. 2-3 degrees C).
  3. Climate change as an accelerant or driver of other existential or catastrophic risks.

Notably, the first two are direct risks while the third encompasses all indirect risks from climate change.

Extreme Warming

Although the world is currently on track to reach between 2 and 3ºC of warming by 2100, this comes with large uncertainties, stemming from both the climate models and uncertainty about which emissions pathway the world will take. These uncertainties are themselves difficult to estimate, owing partly to the fact that climate models are designed to estimate the mean and general trend of the climate probability distribution over the 21st century, not the tails of the distribution.

This implies a small but uncertain chance of an extreme level of warming, such as warming above 5ºC based on emissions up to 2100. The direct impacts of this level of warming are relatively unknown in comparison to lower levels, but the mechanism by which this could constitute an existential risk is unclear. High levels of warming may also provide greater incentive for some nations to unilaterally pursue geoengineering techniques, some of which come with potentially catastrophic levels of risk if mismanaged. 

The recent IPCC Assessment Report 6 from Working Group I provides some useful updates to our estimates of the likelihood of extreme warming via two mechanisms:

  1. Decreasing uncertainty in climate and economic models means we have a better idea of the range of likely warming given our current trajectory. This range makes extreme scenarios such as the SSP5-8.5 emissions trajectory much less likely.
  2. Decreased uncertainty around the sensitivity to climate from a doubling of CO2 concentrations. The IPCC report revised the top end of the likely range downwards to 4ºC from 4.5ºC.

For more information, see the excellent EA forum post “Good news from climate change” by John Halstead and Johannes Ackva. 

The primary uncertainties in this area are centred around the potential mechanisms that might allow extreme warming to pose an existential or global catastrophic threat, and more work needs to be done to understand these mechanisms better. Therefore we think research in this area is worth supporting as part of the SRF.

Catastrophic Impacts

The second category of risks suggests that even keeping to 2-3ºC warming, there may be potential low-probability events which could pose a global catastrophic risk. It is uncertain whether these types of events would be enough to truly create a catastrophic outcome, however the pathways to reducing the likelihood of this seem mostly focused on adaptation to extreme weather events, particularly those that might be capable of causing collapse in systems such as food supply chains. As a result, potential work on this area can take many different forms, such as assessments or work to improve countries’ capacity to adapt to extreme weather events, limits to adaptation, research on heat-resistant crops, and more.

For example, one particularly current question is the degree to which the Ukraine invasion may cause global food supply issues, since Russia and Ukraine produce a major portion of the food and fertiliser used to feed the populations of some of the most food-insecure countries around the world. Investigating whether the effects of this food supply shock can be analogous to the impacts of climate change, or what the bottlenecks are to countries’ potential to adapt to such shocks are two examples of the type of work we are looking to support in this category.

Indirect Effects

Finally, climate change has the potential to be an accelerant or driver of other existential risks. This can mean viewing from a climate perspective risks traditionally considered “separate” from climate change, such as nuclear war or natural pandemics. For example, several locations around the globe (e.g. the Indus River basin) are particularly vulnerable to climate-induced conflict involving nuclear powers, either as a result of potential mass migration combined with existing tensions or via conflict motivated by critical resource shortages. An investigation of the locations most vulnerable to large scale climate-induced conflict and potential ways to adapt to this risk does not yet to my knowledge exist, and would be a valuable research project.

Another possible mode of risk in this category comes from underappreciated consequences from the human response to climate change, including societal collapse from negative feedback loops and fragilities in human systems, or global instability driving governance & coordination failures.

As pointed out by Beard et al. (2021), the first two categories of risk above focus heavily on global temperature rise and direct climate impacts according to climate and integrated assessment models, without taking into consideration human responses. We believe that this third category contains the greatest uncertainties and variety of possible research directions, and is therefore the largest in scope with the most capacity and promise for further work.

Further Reading

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