Climate crisis may trigger recessions like one caused by Covid, scientist predicts

‘If we don’t fix it, it will fix us,’ Prof Katharine Hayhoe tells Dublin Climate Dialogues

The world is conducting "an unprecedented experiment with the only home we have" as CO2 continues to be released into the atmosphere at the highest level in human history, according to climate scientist Prof Katharine Hayhoe.

With global temperatures repeatedly hitting new records, “every 10th of a degree matters” in fighting the climate crisis, she told the Dublin Climate Dialogues on Wednesday.

Fossil fuels were already linked to 9 million premature deaths a year; triple the number of Covid deaths, the US-based scientist said. Left unchecked, climate disruption would eventually trigger similar recessions to that caused by the Covid-19 pandemic on a yearly basis, she predicted.

While many threats from the climate crisis were known – including more heatwaves, rising sea levels and more intense rainfall – others were suspected, such as the extent of melting polar ice caps, she said. “All we can say is the further and faster we push our planet, the greater the risk of some truly nasty surprises.”


While the planet is not fundamentally at risk, humans are, because climate change threatens “our homes, our health, our economy, our civilisation”, she said.

Warming of the planet was already more than 1 degree higher than pre-industrial times, “and that’s why climate change matters. Because if we don’t fix it, it will fix us,” Prof Hayhoe warned.

“It’s loading the weather dice against us.”

She noted that people are asking why they were experiencing more intense rainfall, while flood risk was being exacerbated “because of how we have changed the landscape”.

Because of warmer oceans, hurricanes are getting bigger and more intense and "can get further north" – posing an additional risk to Ireland, she said. Due to climate change, wildfires "burn greater area whether it's Ireland, California or Australia", the professor stated.

The crisis is not being treated as an emergency because of how people respond to risk and to change, she said, noting that people often perceived risks as being distant from them in time and space – and hence relevance.

This was not helped by media coverage accompanied by images of polar bears and melting glaciers “rather than what’s happening here where people live”, with “killer heatwaves” on their doorstep.

‘Solution aversion’

She said the second factor holding back progress was “solution aversion”: the perception that solutions would take away “our cars, our homes, our livelihoods, our farms”, when the reality was the opposite.

There are real solutions for everyone in terms of cleaner and cheaper energy and public transport, in making soils healthier and in applying nature-based solutions including restoration of forests and ecosystems, she added.

The climate threat is immediate for the 700 million people living in coastal zones where high tides were a constant threat and long-term permanent inundation was a risk, Prof Hayhoe said.

This, she added, could be seen in maps indicating what Dublin and Cork would look like in a world where there was a 2-degree rise in global temperatures or a 4-degree rise. “What’s the difference between these two futures? It’s our choice – it’s not too late to choose which future we will head towards.”

Climate change is "a threat multiplier" in terms of impact on poverty, hunger, inequality and biodiversity/habitat loss, Prof Hayhoe said. This means it is also a climate justice issue requiring the voice of every individual generating momentum for change as the issue "is much too important to be left to politicians or the UN", she added.

‘Get real’

Meanwhile, climate justice campaigner Mary Robinson endorsed the US move to halve its emissions by 2030 and double its commitment to climate finance to help poorer countries adapt and build resilience. A Paris Agreement promise of $100 billion a year from developed countries for climate finance was "kind of a minimum now", she said.

All industrialised countries needed to double their climate funding at the forthcoming COP26 summit “if we’re going to have a successful conference in Glasgow”, the former president stressed.

The combination of climate shocks and Covid had exacerbated inequality and debt in developing countries, she said, which contrasted with “the loosening up of trillions of dollars” by rich countries to cope with Covid.

In that light, “$100 billion doesn’t seem very big . . . We need to get real about the climate crisis and [secure] much more support for adaptation,” Mrs Robinson said.

The world needed to prepare for increased climate migration this century, she said, where it was not coping well with current levels of migration because of “the wrong narrative” and failure to recognise migration was a human phenomenon throughout history that benefits countries.

This migration would be marked by communities and small-island peoples having to migrate rather than individuals, she said, noting: “We have to prepare for it because it will be greatly accelerated.”

Meeting the climate challenge required optimism and hope to ensure the energy to “make a difference with what we’ve got”. This contrasted with the doom and gloom of some scientists, Mrs Robinson said. It was also about personal stories of action, while highlighting injustices, she believed. “Then we will have a good world to hand on to our children and grandchildren.”

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times