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Climate Change and Civilization Collapse

Shifts in climate – both large and small – are at least partly responsible for the rise and fall of many ancient civilizations. From the drought-related collapse of the Maya in 900AD to the dust storms and prolonged winters which contributed to the fall of ancient Mesopotamian cities over 4,000 years ago, scientists have observed that civilisations which failed to adapt to changing patterns of weather were victims of their inflexibility.    

In today’s globalised and technologically interconnected society, the concept of civilisational collapse due to anthropogenic climate change may seem far-fetched, but perhaps this is because our definition of what would constitute such a collapse needs to be revised. Now, a new project representing a collaboration between researchers in UCC and researchers in Canada and the United States is assessing the risk of civilization collapse due to anthropogenic climate change and exploring the resulting conceptual, epistemological, and ethical issues. 

The project, "Climate Change and Civilization Collapse", led by Dr Daniel Steel in the University of British Columbia will begin by clarifying what the collapse of modern-day civilisation would really look like. Dr Kian Mintz-Woo of the UCC Environmental Research Institute and the Department of Philosophy suggests that a society collapses when it reaches a point where justice can no longer be implemented. Dr Mintz-Woo and colleagues will also examine possible emission and adaptation scenarios that may make climate collapse more or less likely, and finally, will consider ethical implications of the risk of climate collapse. The most apparent is to provide support for a precautionary approach, which hold that avoiding catastrophe has complete priority over non-catastrophic considerations. 

The importance of this project is to understand whether high estimates of warming, e.g. four degrees Celsius, should be thought of as reasonable proxies where state capacity is undermined. Given that state capacity is important for both individuals pursuing their plans and for coordinating policy for social benefit, these would be incredibly dangerous outcomes. If so, precautionary thinking might support avoiding them at almost any cost. We examine and try to develop this precautionary argument.” – Dr Kian Mintz-Woo. 

The work will be funded by an over $200,000 CAD grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) through the Insight program which aims to support and foster excellence in social sciences and humanities research intended to deepen, widen and increase our collective understanding of individuals and societies, as well as to inform the search for solutions to societal challenges. 

At the nexus of philosophy and climate action, Dr Mintz-Woo is also the recent recipient of a $10,000 USD Future Fund Regranting grant by FTX Futures which will support his research long-term climate change-related problems and possible policy solutions.