Summary: To share the excitement of the UN Conference of Parties in Paris (COP21) let’s imagine how the people of 2100 AD will see the world, an exercise giving us a better perspective on the choices facing us. This post describes a “business as usual” scenario, an antidote to the prophecies of doom flooding the news. This is the fourth post in a series attempting to understand the final chapters of the campaign for public policy measures to fight climate change.
The campaign for public policy action to fight climate change relies on visions of a horrific future. Most of these have their roots in the RCP8.5 scenario used in the IPCC’s Assessment Report 5, one of its 4 Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs). While AR5 provided little information about RCP8.5, it was appropriately used as a worst case outcome for the 21st century — showing a future where long trends in tech progress and population growth reverse, creating a crowded late 21st century world that (like the 19thC) relies mostly on coal (details here). RCP8.5 should reassure us, showing that this worst case outcome is unlikely.
But before and after AR5 activists (including activist scientists) scored a propaganda coup, wrongly describing it as the “business as usual” scenario — using it to manufacture nightmarish visions without explaining RCP8.5’s unlikely assumptions (many examples here). Journalists loved these stories.
I’ve found no attempts to describe a realistic “business as usual” scenario, so here’s a rough draft as an antidote to the fearmongerers. This describes continued tech progress (solar power was space science in the 1960s, it is on your neighbor’s roof today), declining fertility (Iran’s fertility was 6.0% in 1980, it’s ~1.6 now, far below the replacement rate of 2.1), and consensus estimates of the climate’s sensitivity to CO2.
To frame this description, let’s ask ourselves how might The Britannica’s 2100 edition describe the campaign of 1988 – 2015 for massive public policy action to fight climate change? This exercise can help us gain better perspective about our own time.
A more reasonable “business as usual” scenario, seen from 2100 AD
One interesting if little-known story of the transitional period between the 20th and 21st centuries was the last large-scale outbreak of eschatological fears — that the world’s end was coming, visions of an imminent end time combining fear of death and the fear (or eagerness) for judgment. These were common in western history, becoming more frequent as the rate of social and technological change accelerated during the first three industrial revolutions.
Previous outbursts prepared society, with fears of collapse from pollution, overpopulation, and “peak oil”. See their entries for explanations of these terms. In brief, “pollution” resulted largely from release of byproducts of that era’s industrial chemical processes, before the breakthroughs of catalytic chemistry. People worried about overpopulation before the baby-bust of 2030-2080, never imagining that today only large subsidies for child-rearing maintain our population at 2 billion. Peak oil described fears that centuries of technological process had ended so that the late 21st century would be powered by coal (before the invention of the Flynn-Fletcher fusion generator in 2030).
All of these things were predicted in outline by experts at that time — but people’s fears proved stronger than their confidence, despite the repeated failure of doomsters’ predictions. The movement gained a large following on the Left, but never gained a majority in America — and remained a minority concern in most emerging nations (e.g., in China, many of whose leaders considered it another western tactic to restrict their development).
The campaign was stymied by early — and fatal — tactical errors. First, they allowed activists of the Left to hijack it as a means to advance their political goals — from increasing government control over the economy to substantially changing the current economic system (e.g., Naomi Klein). This made climate change a partisan issue. Large-scale political change in the US usually requires a bipartisan support, difficult to achieve in the divided governments of the early 21st century. This became almost impossible after climate change policy became politicized.