How to see the future through the IPCC

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its latest report on the physical science basis of climate change, concluding, among other things, that the evidence for climate change is unequivocal and it’s almost certain that all of the climate change we’ve seen in the last 60 years has been caused by humans. This represents the results of “perhaps the biggest and most rigorous process of peer review conducted in any scientific field, at any point in human history.”


No one reading this, however, will be surprised to hear that climate change is real, it’s happening and we’re causing it. What most of us are likely thinking is a combination of a) “How can the IPCC report prepare us to think about what’s ahead?” and b) “What can be done to address the problem?”

I’m not going to touch on solutions at all, for now. (If you’re interested in climate action, I encourage you to check out my book, Carbon Zero: Imagining cities that can save the planet). Instead, I want to make a few observations about the IPCC, planetary thinking and futures exploration.

1) We can’t understand the future without understanding the kinds of pressures climate change and other planetary crises are putting on humanity.

There is still a strong desire in some quarters to treat climate change as “an issue” or “a variable.” It’s not. Climate change and the rest of the planetary crisis we face (climate chaos, population and urbanization pressures, resource and ecosystem crises, lack of effective institutions and short timelines for action and innovation) is simply bedrock reality. Everything else is a sub-set of the most fundamental question we face: Whether humanity can live on this planet without destroying ourselves.

There is no valuable thinking now that is not planetary thinking, and no futures work that fails to respond to these challenges can be very interesting. So understanding the trajectory of that planetary crisis is baseline capacity now, which means keeping up with climate knowledge is a core competency.

2) The IPCC’s statements are eminently credible, but they are also the product of scientific caution and political pressures.

Anyone who questions the intellectual rigor of the IPCC process is simply lying for political gain (or repeating the talking points of someone else who’s lying for political gain). That’s blunt, but true. The IPCC is rock-solid in its conclusions.

In fact, if anything, this rigor creates one of the IPCCs weaknesses. Because the IPCC must meet the highest standards in two realms of debate—science and policy—it works under pressures that force it towards extremely conservative statements.

Scientists know the stakes involved in getting the science right, so they converge on the findings that can be defended most strongly, and assign probabilities to those findings that can bear sustained scrutiny. This is in many ways as it should be, but it also means that work on the cutting edge (and assessments of less likely but severely dire consequences) tend to get squeezed to the sidelines. Scientific caution leads to a focus on what science can say about climate change without scientific controversy.

Th IPCC, of course, is also a policy body (it has intergovernmental right in its name), and that imposes a second set of pressures. Simply put, governments have a strong say in what gets published in the report. Few governments are interested in torpedoing the whole process. Various governments have strong incentives, though, to see the certainty of the science, the seriousness of the threat and the necessity for immediate action if not censored at least played down. They in turn are responding to political pressure climate-destroying industries, other domestic political concerns, and a deeply-ingrained tradition in national climate policies of trying to make climate action an urgent priority to be taken by someone else, somewhere else, at some later date.

Add these two pressures together and what you get is very reliable, but fairly conservative statements about how climate change works and what we need to do about it.

[This last part—what actions we can take—represents, I think, a particular weakness of the process. As a policy matter, the scientists tend to be doubly wary of less-than-fully-supported statements about climate action. Governments, meanwhile, suffer myopia when looking at the policy tools available to them. Both tend to prefer mechanistic and behavioral approaches (e.g., cap-and-trade and consumer choice), as frequently discussed and studied approaches which (outside of the most reactionary circles) kick up little controversy. Other critical approaches (from land-use change and other systems redesign to the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies and policies prohibiting oil and gas development) tend to receive little attention, as being outside the comfort zones of both the scientists and the government officials involved. These kinds of policies, nonetheless, may well prove necessary.]

3) When it comes to climate and thinking about the future, the most useful tools are carbon budgets and timelines.

Reliable and conservative meets certain needs. What it doesn’t do is give us very useful tools for thinking about the future. To think about the future, we need more than an agreed-upon scientific consensus about the most certain things we can say what we’re doing to our planet’s climate.

4) We need better and stronger information about carbon budgets.

What consequences can we expect given what ranges of gigatonnes of CO2 we emit? We’ve added basically 300 GTs of CO2 to the atmosphere—what are the differences between 700, 1,000 and 5,000 GT futures? And what does each imply about the necessity of banning fossil fuel extraction? Finally, once we agree on a carbon budget, who gets to “spend it,” and on what? What must those remaining gigatonnes buy us in order to create sustainable prosperity for everyone over the long haul?

We don’t discuss enough the reality that whatever the budget we choose, at some point, we will have “spent” it and be left with a budget of zero. Yet humanity will need to zero-out our emissions within the lives of people alive today. Zero emissions will likely mean a net-zero approach, where we emit no more than carbon sinks absorb (it’s essentially impossible to eliminate all our emissions and feed billions of people). It may also not be a bold-enough goal. We may find ourselves needing to “run the clock in reverse” by not just zeroing-out but restoring the health of climate sinks, engaging in massive reforestation and sequestering carbon through approaches like agricultural biochar.

Whatever our eventual approach, we need to have constantly in mind the need to bring the net flow of anthropogenic climate emissions to zero. This reality—that the goal is zero—redefines how we think and talk about climate action, I believe, but it is one of the statements both scientists and policy makers find extremely difficult to make.

5) We need clearer understandings of the timelines forced on us by the climate crisis, and their implications.

We suffer, still, from the idea that climate change (and therefore climate action) are problems for the future. They’re not. Not only is climate chaos already unfolding, but a majority of us will live through the worsening of that crisis.

The median age on the planet is 28, meaning half of humanity is younger. As this simple, clever interactive graphshows, those who are 28 today will have the rest of their working careers defined by serious-to-disastrous warming, while babies born today face lives of disastrous-to-catastrophic warming:

warming graph 

Avoiding the catastrophic end of that curve is still within our power, but the magnitude of the emissions cuts required (and the speed with which they need to be implemented) are off the charts in terms of our current, broken policy discussions.

How quickly we must bring our emissions to [net] zero and how quickly we must deal with the consequences of our inaction so far are both critical questions for understanding the future. And this question of timing shows one of the ways in which the IPCC process doesn’t necessarily facilitate genuine understanding of the trajectory we’re on.

The timelines for action on both mitigation and adaptation have been (at least in past reports) things to be inferred from the generalities and probabilities the IPCC feels able to give us. As people thinking about the future, we need more concrete answers—doubly so, since our current debate mostly pushes off the very question of timelines into the category of problems people will tackle in the future.

How quickly will we need to act? What are the costs of delay? Given the timelines we face, what are our most important first steps? What actions today can facilitate bigger actions later? What approaches will simply take too long to matter? These are all critical questions.

6) What are the black elephants?

Black swans, as you may know, are major events which are considered extremely unlikely, or even impossible… until they happen.

Black elephants, on the other hand, are major events which are treated in politics or business as extremely unlikely, or even impossible… but are known to many to be entirely possible, maybe even likely. They are the elephants in the room whose consequences we refuse to consider.

Herds black elephants stampede through the climate debate. The implications of major, game-changing possible events often go under-discussed: the possibility of worse-than-expected impacts from (or feedback loops set in motion by) our emissions; the feedbacks between ecological collapses and climate chaos; societal instabilities caused by climate impacts and their potential to both harden resolve to act and weaken capacity to act; geo-political conflicts created between nations who need to respond to climate change and those who want to delay; intergenerational political conflicts over the speed of implementing change; and so on and so forth.

The IPCC finds itself unable to engage very deeply on the seriously non-linear possibilities unfolding around us—indeed, I feel this is one of the most disastrous effects of the immoral campaign of lies and propaganda pushed by climate denialists over the last decade.

To think skillfully about the future, we must ready ourselves for the nonlinear events rapidly disturbing a complex system can create: we must keep an eye on the black elephants. To lack a vigorous scientific discussion of their nature, likelihood and threat at the highest levels of global debate is therefore a real loss for humanity. (It also makes the task of planetary futurism even more vital.)

7) Therefore, the best way to use the IPCC report (and its forthcoming reports) is as a baseline reality and launching pad for thinking through follow-on implications of that science in terms of the scope, scale and speed of change for humanity.

Take the reports as the minimum amount of change we need to consider, the foundation for good thinking about climate. Then start to add to the picture. Here are some suggestions:

Understand that the climate debate to date is useless as a guide to the future. “Realism” in the past has been seriously skewed by climate denialism (one of the largest, best-funded and most successful PR ploys in history). Casting it aside (as we are obviously in the process of doing) reveals a much different picture. The range of politically viable climate strategies is clearly growing: how much and how fast could climate politics change, and how could that play out?

Think about the magnitude of future instability people are actually willing to accept in their own lives. How much instability are they willing to inflict on their children? We are picking the climate we’ll respond to and our descendants will live out their lives in. Given full knowledge, what would future climate would humanity choose? How would that choice differ between generations, economic classes and various cultures?

Imagine what the need for change can look like in terms of the total carbon budget available to humanity. Given our range of choices, what is our range of budgets?

What do those budgets dictate about timelines? In order to stay within those budgets, how quickly do we need to de-carbonize, and who needs to go first? If we delay, how must more drastic do cuts need to become in order to keep to the same budget?

What do these budgets demand we do, or stop doing? For example, any budget to have our emissions stop at 1,000 GT CO2 will demand leaving most of our proven coal and oil reserves in the ground, permanently. That, in turn, demands greatly reducing energy demand through better planning, policy and technology, greatly increasing availability of clean energy, or both at once. (Again, see Carbon Zero)

With any given carbon budget, some serious climate impacts are predictable; some even worse ones are possible. These impacts are not just direct (your city gets hit by a hurricane-fueled storm surge; your farmland dries up and blows away), but systemic (trade suffers; food prices rise). What are the systems repercussions of climate impacts of varying severity?

Given these serious repercussions, climate adaptation will involve not only direct ruggedization (storm barriers and a controlled retreat from the sea; better irrigation and drought-resistant crops) but also the creation of adaptive capacity(ability to create a wider range of less-vulnerable economic activity; the will to implement agricultural change). What might ruggedization and increased adaptive capacity look like in different economic, geographic and political contexts?

What patterns will not only change, but shift? When do changes in degree become changes in kind? An American city using 10% less oil wouldn’t be visibly different, except on the margins; a city using 95% less would be a different city. Where’s the inflection point? Because in terms of thinking into the future and its possibilities, those inflection points are incredibly powerful to contemplate.

What will the economy look like as we begin to shift these patterns? Where are the giant business opportunities in climate action?

Finally, what is becoming possible that we can’t yet imagine? I suspect a great deal is emerging we cannot yet see. Learning to detect the unforeseen, to aid positive change and brace for disruption—well, that’s one the big reasons to try to engage in planetary futurism these days.

Understand the future breaks things, beginning with our preconceptions; planetary thinking can sometimes feel like a discovery of all we once thought to be true that isn’t. But it is by liberating our debate from false assumptions and out-dated models that we can think our way into making bold, effective moves. “Free your mind, and your ass will follow.”

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PS: I started out to write short, simple blog post, here. I’ve find myself with a long strung-together series of incomplete notes. Still, I hope you find some utility in this.