The report, Climate change: A risk assessment, warns policy-makers of the catastrophic effects of the worst-case scenarios of climate change, urging them to prepare for the worst.

Writing in the report foreword, the minister of state for the Commonwealth and Foreign Office, Baroness Joyce Anelay, said: “In the past, when assessing the risk of climate change, we have tended to take an approach that is, perhaps, too narrow – or incomplete.

“In public debate, we have sometimes treated it as an issue of prediction, as if it were a long-term weather forecast. Or as purely a question of economics – as if the whole of the threat could be accurately quantified by putting numbers into a calculator. Often, too, we have not fully assessed the indirect or systemic risks, such as those affecting international security.”

Baroness Anelay added that a holistic approach was needed, adding: “It is an approach that applies as much to climate change as to, for example, preventing the spread of nuclear weapons.”

The risks

The report authors, led by UK climate envoy Sir David King, said the systemic risks of climate change included spiralling crop failures leading to a tripling of food prices and widespread shortages.

Extreme water stress and competition for productive land could also become a source of conflict, warned the report, while migration could start to take place on a “historically unprecedented scale”.

The report continues: “It seems likely that the capacity of the international community for humanitarian assistance would be overwhelmed. The risks of state failure could rise significantly, affecting many countries simultaneously, and even threatening those that are currently considered developed and stable.

“The expansion of ungoverned territories would in turn increase the risks of terrorism. The temptation for states or other actors to take unilateral steps toward climate geoengineering would be significant, and could become a further source of conflict.”


However the report also points out ways to avoid this apocalyptic scenario. It says political leadership can “significantly change the trajectory of any country’s emissions in the short term”, while accelerating the rate of technological innovation should be a priority.

Finally the report calls for small changes in the finance system that can produce large results, such as carbon pricing, or mechanisms that encourage investment in technologies with long-term benefits.

“The risks of climate change may be greater than is commonly realized, but so is our capacity to confront them,” concludes the report.

“An honest assessment of risk is no reason for fatalism. If we counter inertia with ingenuity, match feedback with feedback, and find and cross the thresholds of non-linear change, then the goal of preserving a safe climate for the future need not be beyond our reach”.

Brad Allen

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