Climate foresight is a valuable strategy, both for helping direct our efforts toward coping with climate change, and for helping us fully grasp the seriousness of the crisis. Although we won't know the future until it arrives, climate futurism takes an educated guess at what the planet and society might look like decades from now, and helps us anticipate the results of our choices today.
Our allies at Forum for the Future have developed a series of detailed scenarios depicting what they think our lives on Earth could be like in the year 2030 ... depending on the actions we take between now and then.
Here's how James Goodman, head of futures at Forum for the Future, describes the project:
"The two decades to come will be defined as much by climate change as the 1930s were by depression or the 1950s by the Cold War. It will be everywhere in decisions and discussions, whether we are on the way to solving it – or not. We should, in short, plan for a climate-changed world, and not just climate change.
"With this in mind, we embarked on the Climate Futures project, and developed five scenarios for 2030 in partnership with HP Labs. These are not predictions, but possible, plausible worlds. The aim: to provoke fresh thinking over the likely consequences of global warming itself – and of the varying strategies we might choose to tackle it."
[Three scenarios are described below; all five can be read in full and summary at Forum for the Future]
"The first scenario, Efficiency First, is a world in which market mechanisms have been redesigned to value carbon at exactly the right level to unleash a storm of low-carbon, high-tech innovation. It all began in the 2010s when, faced with increasingly gloomy scientific projections of climate impact, the EU pushed hard for more draconian measures – only to find itself outflanked by India and China. They were unwilling to sacrifice economic prosperity “to solve the West’s problem”.
"But as it became clear that climate change posed a major threat to their own people, they brokered a new agreement: one based firmly on incentives and markets – not caps and restrictions. In this they had the enthusiastic support of the US which, with its vast renewable resources, saw a low-carbon future as an opportunity to rebuild its shattered economy. Together, they shared a resolute determination not to sacrifice economic growth for environmental gain, but to maintain the world’s drive for development through growth.
"Processes and products began to achieve startling efficiency gains, all in the name of profit. Super-computers took system design to a new level of sophistication – and even took over a range of decision-making and strategy-setting tasks. Cars went electric – and two-car families became more common around the globe. Energy generation was massive and bold: huge nuclear reactors sprang up, concentrated solar arrays covered mile after mile of north African desert, and a new generation of computer-controlled clean coal power stations piped their exhaust straight into empty gas fields. Striking new geo-engineering projects sucked carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and deflected sunlight to reduce global warming.
"Growth in carbon dioxide emissions flatlined in 2020 and began to fall slowly. When the news broke, there were celebrations all around the world. Yes, the effects of climate change were still being felt, and from Bangladesh to Florida the world’s poor were still suffering. But the impetus to ‘grow the solution to climate change’ gained ever more momentum, despite misgivings in some quarters about the ‘ethics-free’ economy it had created. In 2030, global warming is starting to feel like yesterday’s problem. Now countries debate the merits of returning the world to pre-industrial levels of greenhouse gas concentrations.
"Too good to be true? Perhaps – but there are some serious downsides to Efficiency First. A drive for growth at all costs has widened the gap between rich and poor, and prompted growing social conflict. Meanwhile, nature is in headlong retreat. Ecosystems everywhere need close management or risk collapse. Wilderness is all but vanished from the planet, and natural resources are in short supply. The world is in a deadly race to develop new technologies, materials and processes before the whole house of cards collapses.
"By contrast, another set of predictions leads to the Environmental War Economy world. This is a world that woke up late to climate change. It’s one where governments fought shy of a global agreement until 2017, by which time the accumulated evidence of catastrophic shifts in weather patterns meant they saw no choice but to take draconian action. Out went the soft talk of incentives and persuasion; in came hard policy and tough regulation. As time went on, the state took a stronger and stronger role, rationalising whole industry sectors to reduce their climate change impacts, and even putting Carbon Monitors in people’s homes to watch their energy use. And so in 2030, greenhouse gas emissions are at last beginning to decline dramatically – but the cost to individual liberty – and that of business, too – has been severe.
"Such a vision might seem alarmist – but some of our climate futures experts saw elements of it, at least, as inevitable. According to this view, we currently have a window of opportunity – perhaps for just a few more years – to use markets to combat climate change. Miss that window and we’ll be forced into more immediate, sweeping measures. For business, it will become a question of complying, or facing the consequences.
"Both these worlds assume that there is some sort of global consensus for action, sooner or later. Given the snail’s pace of progress so far, that can’t be taken for granted. Which might leave us living in our third scenario: Protectionist World. This suggests what could happen if national interests start to take priority over any global drive to mitigate climate change.
"It’s a world where governments have turned their back on burdensome treaty obligations, and poured resources into protecting themselves from the consequences of climate change running rampant. They’ve effectively pulled up the drawbridge: raising trade barriers and even going to war to secure water and food supplies. Climate mitigation is cast aside in favour of a flurry of selfish adaptation measures, producing a ‘tragedy of the commons’ of gigantic proportions. By 2030, world trade has shrunk dramatically; the UN is on the point of collapse and globalised civilisation as we know it today is facing a very uncertain future.
"This is a world that nobody wants and many fear. Even greater, then, is the need to understand what might lead us down this road – and do whatever possible to avoid it.
Room for optimism
"These aren’t the only outcomes imaginable: the Climate Futures project identified several more scenarios, some more ‘optimistic’ than others – but all designed to get people thinking seriously about what a climate-changing world might be like.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. The challenge of mitigating, and adapting to, climate change may be looking tougher almost by the day – but the process of thinking about future directions of policy, business, technology and individual attitudes leaves a lot of room for optimism. Four out of five of the worlds we explored were certainly on their way to accommodating climate change in one way or another by 2030. Major change is needed, yes, but even small steps taken now can open up previously unimagined paths of hope."
Image courtesy of Forum for the Future.