Climate change will cause societal collapse, probable catastrophe, and possible human extinction

Climate change is already here, argues Dr Jem Bendell. So we might as well accept the impending social collapse and get to work on how we’re going to survive without electricity and food. 

Dr Jem Bendell, a Professor of Sustainability Leadership at the University of Cumbria takes his role seriously.

He wants you to know that climate change is real and that we’re already much deeper into it than you might think. The reasons for this are multiple but stem largely from an entrenched scientific community interested primarily with maintaining the status quo.

In reality, the evidence suggests that climate change may have reached a point of no return.

The impact? Inevitable societal collapse, probable catastrophe, and possible human extinction.

On 26 July 2018, Dr Bendell released a paper on his blog outlining ‘A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’. It’s a call to action. A statement of reality that Dr Bendell argues is essential for us the plan ahead.

I summarise Dr Bendell’s paper below, but I encourage you to read the paper in full on his website if you can.

The contention

You and the scientific community need to reassess how you live. Why? Because climate change is worse than you think and it will inevitably bring about near-term social collapse.

Hope is not lost. In order to survive, we’ll need to adopt a Deep Adaptation Agenda, which has three key aspects, explained further below:

  • resilience
  • relinquishment, and
  • restoration.

The science suggests it’s too late to deter the environmental impacts of climate change

The effects of climate change are increasing exponentially. Seventeen of the 18 warmest years in our 136-year record have occurred since 2001. This is an increase in global temperatures of 0.9°C since 1880.

In the Arctic, things are much worse. Temperatures have risen 3.5°C since 1900, and over two thirds of the ice cover has disappeared since 1980. This ice reflects the sun’s rays and without it, global warming increases. At these rates, even if we removed a whole quarter of our cumulative carbon dioxide emissions from the last three decades, it would not be enough to counter the effects of the amount of ice we’ve lost. Leading climate change scientist Peter Wadhams believes the Arctic will one summer have no ice, increasing global warming caused by carbon dioxide emissions by 50%.

We’ve already spent our climate budget

We’ve reached a point in carbon emissions where any feasible amount of reduction is too late. It’s also too late to try to remove carbon from the atmosphere with machines as our technology is so behind the 8-ball that it would need to increase by a factor of 2 million within 2 years to reduce the heating already in the system.

What we could do is plant more trees, restore agricultural soil and grow seagrass and kelp. Seagrass and seaweed can remove millions of tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere. Changes in agricultural systems can also effectively reduce emissions. But these changes require a complete global overhaul, as effective as undoing 60 years of developments in world agriculture. Furthermore, too much CO2 has already dissolved into our oceans, which will inevitably destroy a significant proportion of marine life.

It’s not just about carbon, we have methane to worry about, too

Methane emissions allow more trapping of heat from the sun than carbon emissions. They stem from fossil fuels, agriculture, and melting permafrost. But scientists are still debating their largest sources. It’s possible that rising temperatures will trigger a mass release of methane hydrates near the Arctic. In reality, we don’t know enough about when this might happen. All we know is that such a release would heat the earth by over 5 degrees within just a few years.

In its current state, climate change already affects our health and food production

Agricultural yields have fallen 1-2% every decade over the last century.

Weather abnormalities cost billions in dollars every year.

Underwater, about half of all coral reefs have died in the last 30 years. In the decade to 2016, the Atlantic Ocean soaked up 50% more carbon dioxide than the previous decade, impacting the ability of fish to reproduce.

Increasing temperatures also harbour rises in mosquito and tick-borne viruses.

What happens next is catastrophic

Over 100 million people will be internally displaced due to effects on the environment and rising sea levels, in addition to millions of international refugees, according to the World Bank in 2018.

There will be more storms and they will be stronger.

Agricultural yields will decline dramatically. By the end of this century, it’s predicted China’s yields of rice, wheat and corn will decline by 36.25%, 18.26%, and 45.10%, respectively. In India, wheat yields will decline by 6–23% and 15–25% during the 2050s and 2080s.

Effects on coral will reduce fisheries productivity by over 50%.

About half of all plants and animal species in the world’s most biodiverse places are on track for extinction.

By many accounts, humans are causing the sixth mass extinction in the history of planet Earth.

Climate change will bring about starvation, destruction, migration, disease, and war

Climate change affects the environment around us, but also ourselves.

Dr Bendell wants to make it clear: “But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.”

Without sufficient research, we don’t yet know enough about how soon it will all happen

With such little analysis on the impact of climate change, the spectrum of conjecture ranges from societal collapse, catastrophe, to human extinction. For Dr Bendell, the evidence indicates inevitable societal collapse, probable catastrophe, and possible extinction. To know which is the correct position is currently unfeasible.

While it’s difficult to know when we’ll begin to feel the impacts of collapse or catastrophe, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. In fact, some data suggests we’re already in the midst of collapse. Given this, how is anyone to know how soon to abandon society?

We need to acknowledge the self-interests that prevent us from addressing climate change head on

It’s a mistake to think we have enough time for things to work themselves out.

Some scientists argue that brutal honesty feeds fear and doom and is counterproductive to a solution, perpetuating hopelessness. In reality, we don’t really know the best way to get people to realise that something needs doing now. Therefore, there’s a case for being honest with the public in an effort to inspire change.

While many of us acknowledge that climate change is real, we don’t spend enough time identifying effective means of making a difference. People sign online petitions and renounce flying. But in performing these small activities, we avoid confronting the reality of climate change.

Interestingly, those of us with higher levels of education are more likely to want to maintain the status quo of existing social and economic systems. Climate change jeopardises that, demanding a rehaul.

Institutions are complicit, too, since there is little to be gained economically from fanning a collapse discourse (other than a few niche companies who may benefit from people who seek to prepare by buying their products).

Either way, we need to overcome these emotional difficulties if we’re going to explore how we will adapt to changes to the structures we depend on.

The problem with what we’ve been doing so far

For too long, we’ve taken hyper-individualist, market fundamentalist, incremental and atomistic approaches to tackle climate change.

  • Hyper-individualist: focusing on individual actions like switching light bulbs and buying sustainable products
  • Market fundamentalist: implementing ineffective carbon caps and trade systems rather than government intervention
  • Incremental: celebrating quick-wins like company sustainability reports rather than large-scale changes
  • Atomistic: incorrectly delineating climate action from the governance of markets, finance and banking, which have the potential for enabling sustainability.

These approaches have stymied efforts to effectively address climate change issues.

A Deep Adaptation Agenda to guide the next steps

Initiatives need to focus not only on physical adaptation to climate change but psychological.

  • First, we need to build resilience. We need to figure out the valued norms and behaviours that human societies will wish to maintain as they seek to survive. What should we keep?
  • Second, we need relinquishment. We need to let go of our assets, behaviours, and beliefs if keeping them would make matters worse. This includes abandoning coastlines and changing how and what we consume. What should we let go?
  • Thirdly, we need restoration. We need to rediscover a harmony with nature that has been eroded by modern civilisation. This includes returning landscapes back to their wild conditions, changing diets to fit the seasons, and rediscovering non-electronically supported forms of interaction. What can we bring back?

So what’s next?

Knowing or at least being aware of our potential extinction can be cause for bringing humanity together.

We need to have open discussions with our friends and family about how to tackle the inevitable social problems that will happen in our lifetimes.

Give yourself time to reflect on where you currently sit in human history and prepare yourself for significant psychological and environmental changes.

The more we discuss, the closer we get to identifying solutions.

Feature image by Max Wolfe.


  1. “Dr Bendell wants to make it clear: ‘But when I say starvation, destruction, migration, disease and war, I mean in your own life. With the power down, soon you wouldn’t have water coming out of your tap. You will depend on your neighbours for food and some warmth. You will become malnourished. You won’t know whether to stay or go. You will fear being violently killed before starving to death.’”

    I think Dr. Bendell, as a Professor of Sustainability Research, was actually referring to Venezuela.


  2. From Judith Curry:
    “‘We are also told of general catastrophes and a succession of deluges, of the alternation of periods of repose and disorder, of the refrigeration of the globe, and of the sudden annihilation of whole races of animals and plants, and other hypotheses, in which we see the ancient spirit of speculation revived, and a desire manifested to cut, rather than patiently to untie, the Gordian knot.’ – Charles Lyell

    This text excerpted from the classical text ‘Principles of Geology’ by Charles Lyell (1st ed.. Vol. III, pp. 1-5, London, 1833). Charles Lyell is generally regarded as the father of modern geology.

    Lyell’s essay provides some words of wisdom as we seek a coherent philosophy of natural science in the 21st century, particularly as related to climate change. Our understanding of climate variability and change on decadal to century relative to the maturity of geology in the 19th century can only be assessed in hindsight: are we in the infancy of our science?

    The primacy of the epistemic status of climate models as a source of alarming and catastrophic predictions seems to be an attempt to cut the Gordian knot of understanding climate change rather than to unravel the knot.”

    I would urge you to read the entire chapter. Volume III, Chapter 1

    The climate has been changing for four and half billion years. It’s changing now. I won’t argue that with you. Why? And how? You might want to investigate more than just Sustainability Research as a source of information.

    Go get ‘em, Frankey.


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