Researchers Envision Four Climate Change Scenarios for Civilization-Planet Systems

Posted on June 5, 2018

Easter Island Climate Change Illustration

Researchers developed a mathematical model to determine how alien civilizations might cope with climate change. The research was led by astrophysicist Adam Frank, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester. The researchers looked at the problem of civilized planets facing climate change from an astrobiological perspective.

Frank says in a statement, "If we're not the universe's first civilization, that means there are likely to be rules for how the fate of a young civilization like our own progresses. The point is to recognize that driving climate change may be something generic. The laws of physics demand that any young population, building an energy-intensive civilization like ours, is going to have feedback on its planet. Seeing climate change in this cosmic context may give us better insight into what’s happening to us now and how to deal with it."

Four Scenarios

The researchers came up with the following four scenarios four potential scenarios for civilizations facing climate change on their planet.
  1. Die-off: The population and the planet's state (indicated by something like its average temperature) rise very quickly. Eventually, the population peaks and then declines rapidly as the rising planetary temperature makes conditions harder to survive. A steady population level is achieved, but it’s only a fraction of the peak population. "Imagine if 7 out of 10 people you knew died quickly," Frank says. "It's not clear a complex technological civilization could survive that kind of change."

  2. Sustainability: The population and the temperature rise but eventually both come to steady values without any catastrophic effects. This scenario occurs in the models when the population recognizes it is having a negative effect on the planet and switches from using high-impact resources, such as oil, to low-impact resources, such as solar energy.

  3. Collapse Without Resource Change: The population and temperature both rise rapidly until the population reaches a peak and drops precipitously. In these models civilization collapses, though it is not clear if the species itself completely dies outs.

  4. Collapse With Resource Change: The population and the temperature rise, but the population recognizes it is causing a problem and switches from high-impact resources to low-impact resources. Things appear to level off for a while, but the response turns out to have come too late, and the population collapses anyway.

Climate change scenarios for civilization-planet systems
University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw


Frank says the "Collapse With Resource Change" scenario is the most frightening. He says, "The last scenario is the most frightening. Even if you did the right thing, if you waited too long, you could still have your population collapse."

The civilization of Easter Island was used as a model for the the study. Take a look:



A research paper on the study was published here in the journal, Astrobiology.Frank is also the author of the upcoming book, Light of the Stars: Alien Worlds and the Fate of the Earth.

Image: University of Rochester illustration / Michael Osadciw