The challenge of climate change has been defined as a ‘super-wicked’ problem. It is intricately linked to everything else – energy, land use, food, water, transportation, trade, development, housing, investment, security, etc. Solving it requires tremendous, unprecedented collective action by countries with heterogeneous interests, priorities and circumstances, where powerful forces pushing for environmentally destructive development prevail. The sharing of responsibility in mitigating climate change has thus been a central challenge in international negotiation.

Moreover, the rules already established for operationalising the agreement provide very few obligations for countries to implement ambitious climate action at the domestic level. Other important guidelines remain undefined as parties have not reached consensus yet. These include rules to develop a global carbon trading system and how to channel new financial resources for helping countries already facing the adverse impacts of climate change.

"…as societies have never lived a global climate catastrophe and nature is a vast and blurred subject, public and political concern for that possibility is low."

In spite of the devastating fires, storms, social protests and climate strikes that swept the world in 2019, the last Conference of the Parties of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change ended in failure. Countries such as Brazil, Australia and Saudi Arabia, ‘invigorated by the US withdrawal from the Paris agreement and rising nationalism at home (…) defended loopholes and opposed commitments to enhance climate action’.

It thus appears highly unlikely that the international community will be able to prevent global warming from exceeding 1.5 °C. In this context, we need to prepare for dealing with the consequences of an increasingly unstable ecological environment and mitigating the risk of a climate catastrophe. There are, however, a number of limitations and obstacles that challenge our ability to do so.

The first is the fact that our brain is wired to process linear correlations, not sudden, rapid and exponential changes; our cognitive expectations are failed by the uncertainty and non-linearity of socio-ecological systems. In addition, our political-legal system was developed to address structured, short-term, direct cause and effect issues (the exact opposite of the climate issue); our institutions provide simple solutions with immediate effects.

Managing catastrophic risks requires proactivity to anticipate emerging threats, mobilise support for action against possible future harm and provide responses that are sufficiently correct the first time, as those risks offer little or no opportunity for learning from experience and revising policies. Nevertheless, in addition to the fact that few existing institutions are capable of acting in this manner, there is the risk that such a proactive approach translates into oppressive behaviours and security measures.

The second is the possibility of creating a new risk through efforts to prevent another, e.g., large-scale deployment of bioenergy with carbon capture and storage to help prevent catastrophic climate change, which would erode natural habitats and cause the loss of biodiversity, thus increasing the risk of ecological collapse.

Third, mitigating the risk of a climate catastrophe requires that current generations resist short-term individual benefits with the aim of improving the far future of human civilisation. Many people lack motivation to help the far future.

Fourth, there tends to be a general distrust in human agency in the face of high-magnitude situations that demobilise people. In addition, people tend to experience strong, mobilising feelings about recent, visible events, and develop feelings of compassion especially when a subject is given a face; as societies have never lived a global climate catastrophe and nature is a vast and blurred subject, public and political concern for that possibility is low. It remains to be seen whether the COVID-19 pandemic will make people more open to considering abrupt, high-impact situations.

Finally, averting a global climate catastrophe requires deep levels of global cooperation. Global cooperation is currently facing enormous challenges e.g., the rise of anti-globalisation nationalism and the ‘Cold War’ between the US and China over trade and technology.

More research is needed to increase our understanding of catastrophic climate risk, better reach the public and pressure political actors to act.

"...mitigating the risk of a climate catastrophe requires that current generations resist short- term individual benefits with the aim of improving the far future of human civilisation."

The Paris Climate Agreement

The Paris Climate Agreement, signed in 2015 and in force since November 2016, avoids the critical issues of the allocation of responsibilities for safeguarding the climate and fairness of each country’s mitigation efforts. In addition, it fails to include:

 

  • Dates by which countries must reach a global peaking of emissions,
  • Legal obligations determining concrete mitigation actions,
  • Means for coordinating the countries’ contributions,
  • Solid mechanisms for monitoring the implementation of national pledges and supporting the mitigation efforts of developing countries,
  • Tools to punish the parties that do not comply with its provisions, and any references to the end of fossil fuel subsidies.