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Dealing with climate change: three scenarios

By Peter McMahon - posted Thursday, 23 May 2019

If climate change is actually happening, and at the rate the science suggests, then we must do something about it. This is the message being put forward by a growing number of people around the world as expressed at the ballot box, in social media and in protest actions.

Perhaps most telling, the young are increasingly vociferous on the subject, putting their elders on notice to act. They will inherit the future, and they don't like what they see.

In this piece we'll consider how things might pan out by utilising the scenario technique used in many futures studies. Basically, the technique identifies key drivers of change, then suggests an array of scenarios depending on which drivers are dominant. The scenarios are not predictions as such, but suggestions intended to aid critical thinking.


Such a technique cannot factor in inherently unpredictable developments, such as the rise of charismatic leaders, surprising scientific evidence, pandemic disease, or radical technological breakthroughs. Instead, we'll assume that the current scientific understanding of climate change is about right, that technology continues to advance steadily, but that public sentiment can shift dramatically and that government action can as well.

We'll assume the main drivers of change to be climate change itself, government actions, and popular concern. The scenarios go from the most optimistic to the most pessimistic.

Scenario One: Solving the problem

In this scenario, climate change is no worse than the IPCC says it is, and is amenable to prompt action. Governments manage to cooperate and agree to a new treaty to end fossil fuel usage by 2030, and a global structure is set up to ensure compliance. There is a massive investment in renewable energy, both government supported and also from private sources. This accelerates the technical efficacy of renewables like solar, wind, wave, and hot-rock energy. Energy conservation increases as digital systems enable better control over energy use. In addition, vast areas are planted with trees, bushes and grasses to soak up atmospheric carbon. Market changes discourage air travel and much transport shifts to trains and electric cars. Local production of goods and food increases and the average person recycles more and travels less. People take more and more responsibility for their own carbon footprints (keeping 'down' with the Jones's).

The younger generations are focused on sustainable living as a fundamental belief, and increasingly shape events as they move into positions of power and influence. The world's population manages to maintain a cooperative attitude and to encourage their leaders to do the same.

The growth in greenhouse gas emissions is halted and a decline begins. There is still work to do, but the population of Earth breathes a huge sigh of relief. Furthermore, all the hard work sets us up for a bright future, even a new golden age.


Scenario Two: Bumbling along

In this scenario, governments undertake some new policies to counter climate change, mostly to avoid criticism, while talking a lot about adaptation. Renewable energy is promoted, but the main energy reliance is still on fossil fuels, especially gas, and some nuclear. Some people are satisfied with this largely token effort, but increasing numbers protest about the pace of change. Hard core protesters emerge to cause real disruption, which governments soon describe as terrorism. Increasingly harsh sentences are handed down to such protesters, further alienating moderates.

The pace of warming eases somewhat, but long term trends remain a problem. People have not really changed their attitudes to reflect the new times and so leaders can avoid genuine remedial action. There is an ongoing unease in people's minds which begins to have widespread psychological and health effects.

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Article edited by Margaret-Ann Williams.
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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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