Originally published on July 6th, 2014 at generalcirculation.blogspot.com
I am an avid consumer of the kitschy, dystopian, sci-fi movie.
Give me your misunderstood artificial intelligence, your ethically dubious eugenics, your post-apocalyptic pastiche--I'll eat it right up.
I've only recently realized, though, that this genre obsession is mostly driven by a fascination with the future.
I often find myself reading an article about current debates on gender equality or recent advances in stem cell research and wishing desperately that I could fast-forward a few generations and see how it all plays out. This is probably related somewhere in the depths of my subconscious to why I often glance at the last page of a gripping novel to make sure it has a happy ending, or read the entire Wikipedia synopsis of an old TV series before I decide whether to watch it. I can't help it--I just really want to know how things will end.
Luckily, when applied to thinking about the future of society (as opposed to binge-watching), the questions that this curiosity inspires start to sound a bit more noble.
What will the movements and evolutions of societal and physical systems that we see today look like in a hundred years? In a thousand? Will the arc of the moral universe bend toward justice? Will the world end with fire or with ice, or will it end at all? Will we sail off into the egalitarian techno-topia of Star Trek, or swashbuckle our way into the messy interstellar Western that is the Firefly universe?
I’m so enchanted with these hypothetical thought experiments, that a friend and I are organizing a film series for our colleges’ undergraduates, entitled Visions of the Future.We'll watch and philosophize over some of the great film conceptions of what’s in store for human (and extra-human) civilization: from Blade Runner to Wall-E.
As it turns out, this futuristic musing is not entirely divorced from the kinds of questions asked by the climate science/economics/policy community. One of the questions that scientific review bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change must address in their Assessment Reports is how climate may change into the future. And one of the ingredients in that prediction is what decisions society will make over the next hundred years--what technologies we'll adopt, what societal values we'll espouse, how population will grow, etc.
In order to come up with scenarios for the 21st Century, the IPCC has used a few different strategies over its history. In the 2008 Fourth Assessment Report, the IPCC strategy was the following:
Step 2 - Program those storylines into Integrated Assessment Models (IAMs), which are simplified economic and technological models of society
Step 3 - Use the IAMs to simulate the evolution of emissions of different pollutants in each of those storylines
Step 4 - Put the emissions from each storyline into global climate models to give a range of possible evolutions of the physical climate system
The storylines (known as SRES, for their provenance in the Special Report on Emissions Scenarios) that were looked at most closely in the 2008 report span a range of possible futures that will not sound unfamiliar to connoisseurs of the Netflix sci-fi section.
The storylines are separated into different scenario "families" within which there are a few variations:
The A1 Scenario Family -- Society develops very rapidly, with population increasing into the mid-21st century and then declining, but does so with equally rapid technological advances and greater global interaction, cohesion, and equality. The variations lie in what energy sources society chooses to rely on: fossil fuel intensive (the A1F1 scenario), non-fossil fuel intensive (A1T), or a balance between the two (A1B). The A1B scenario was the favorite of much of the IPCC analysis, perhaps because it seemed like the right balance of realistic and hopeful.
The A2 Scenario Family -- Society stays heterogeneous (the taglines of this scenario family are 'self-reliance' and 'preservation of local identities'), with economic growth and technological advance remaining regionally confined. As a result, both occur more slowly than in the other scenario families and population grows throughout the 21st century.
The B1 Scenario Family -- This family is like the A1 family, but with the difference that the global economy transitions to being based mostly on the information technology and service sectors (i.e. our economies are based less and less on making stuff). We adopt global strategies for achieving economic, social, and environmental sustainability, and develop clean and efficient technologies.
The B2 Scenario Family -- This family is somewhere between the B1 and A2 families in terms of population growth and the rate of technological and economic advance. There's still an emphasis on sustainability and equity, but it's done at a local level rather than a global one.
The IPCC scenario strategy has evolved a bit since the 2008 Fourth Assessment Report, but the ideas remain similar. The latest Fifth Assessment Report that came out last year uses Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), which describe the evolution of the atmospheric concentrations of pollutants rather than of their emissions, but span a similar range of futures.
Of course, there’s a lot of guesswork involved in predicting the future, and the scenarios don’t span nearly all of the possible trajectories for humanity. They don't include the possibility of climate policies, like those that assign a price to carbon that captures its environmental damages, which could drastically change society’s decision-making around whether or not to do things that emit carbon. They also don’t deal very well with discontinuities—sudden, large disruptions like wars or subprime mortgage crises.
Nonetheless, reading through the scenario descriptions when they were first published gave me the same sense of desperate wishing to know how it would all end. Which path do our decisions of today (after all, we're already a tenth of the way through the 21st century) point us down? Should we think more about what the evolutions of societal and physical systems that we see today will look like in a hundred years?
And, most importantly, how do we make sure it has a happy ending?