On the Understatement of Existential Climate Risk: Part I – The Magical Thinking of Policymakers

The following quotations are from one of the most important recent reports on climate change: “What Lies Beneath: The Understatement of Existential Climate Risk”, by David Spratt and Ian Dunlop. Due to the importance of this document, I will be posting brief quotations from it over the next few weeks.

This report is important, not because it presents new and compelling research, new facts and figures, but because it provides a new perspective on the existential risks associated with anthropogenic global warming. Among other things, it examines the reasons why scientific research and climate change reporting has become so reticent and conservative. It also discusses political understatement and the myopic perspective of policymakers. The quotes I selected for this post, speak to the ‘magical thinking’ of policymakers.


A fast, emergency-style transition to a post-fossil fuel world is absolutely necessary to address climate change. But this is excluded from consideration by policymakers because it is considered to be too disruptive. The orthodoxy is that there is time for an orderly economic transition within the current short-termist political paradigm. Discussion of what would be safe — less warming than we presently experience — is non-existent. And so we have a policy failure of epic proportions.


Policymakers, in their magical thinking, imagine a mitigation path of gradual change to be constructed over many decades in a growing, prosperous world. The world not imagined is the one that now exists: of looming financial instability; of a global crisis of political legitimacy and “fake news”; of a sustainability crisis that extends far beyond climate change to include the fundamentals of human existence and most significant planetary boundaries (soils, potable water, oceans, the atmosphere, biodiversity, and so on); and of severe global energy-sector dislocation.

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