The climate change crisis as seen from 2100 AD (a business as usual scenario)

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.

World in A Forest


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.

By Joanaaaa at Deviantart.

Thus an extraordinary claim requires “extraordinary” (meaning stronger than usual) proof.
— Marcello Truzzi (sociologist and founding co-chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal), August 1987.

Second, they did the opposite of what the public expected of scientists presenting information about a threat to the world. They could have asked for a review of their data and methods by an unaffiliated interdisciplinary group of experts (e.g., software engineers and statisticians as well as climate scientists). The cost would have been trivial compared to that spent on the WaveRider x-51A hypersonic cruise missile, and little more than pocket lint in the budgets of the Star Wars missile defense and F-35 programs.

But rather than presenting their data and methods for inspection — radical transparency — they attempted to hold it as esoteric knowledge available only to their guild. This aroused suspicion, inevitably so in an era shaped by lies of government leaders and business executives (e.g., concealing the effects of lead in gasoline, smoking tobacco, and concussions on football players). Climate scientists became bogged down in years of fighting a small number of amateurs (“skeptics”), refusing to comply with requests for information under journal disclosure rules, Freedom of Information requests, and Congressional subpoenas.

“In response to a request for supporting data, Philip Jones, a prominent researcher {U of East Anglia} said ‘We have 25 or so years invested in the work. Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it?’”

– From the testimony of Stephen McIntyre before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce (the July 2006 hearings which produced the Wegman Report).

Third, they chose to directly target the public’s fears — an emotional appeal using extreme (and often extremely unlikely) scenarios. Much research shows that this is ineffective as the primary message (see this essay by Judith Curry). For example, see “The Role of Emotion in Global Warming Policy Support and Opposition” by Nicholas Smith and Anthony Leiserowitz in Risk Analysis, May 2014.

“‘Dire’ fear-based messaging around extreme weather and other climate phenomena has been found to raise anxieties, but also to distance the public. O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole found that catastrophic and alarmist visual imagery actually decreased public engagement with the issue.”

As a result, by 2015 the policy campaign was stalled. James Hansen wrote in disgust about President Obama’s (a Democrat) unwillingness to take bold action or even meet with him. Activists such as Oren Cass (Manhattan Institute) angrily admitted that COP21 would produce at best meager results. In an act of remarkable hypocrisy, Leftist activists cheered Pope Francis as a moral leader after his embrace of CAGW as a reason to condemn capitalism — although they condemned him as sexist for the Church’s positions on abortion, homosexuality, and exclusion of women from the priesthood.

Unfortunately, we paid a cost for the years of focus on fears about climate change: less attention on more imminent threats — such as the Thirty Years War (2017-2047), which ended with the November nukings; the collapse in the 2020s of the ocean fisheries (largely from overfishing); and the AI rebellion of 2060.

Mr. Fusion

We will never know if the forecasts of catastrophic anthropogenic climate change were correct. The oil bust of 2015-16, the spread of fracking and horizontal drilling, and increased regulation of air pollution in the emerging nations led to the replacement of most coal-burning generators by natural gas by 2030. The rollout of cheap electric vehicles (2020–40) and the Flynn-Fletcher fusion generator (2040-60) led to the decarbonization of the world economy just when climate alarmists expect CO2 emissions to skyrocket. In hindsight, they projected that technological progress would slow just as the Third Industrial Revolution was beginning.

Although their work has been mostly forgotten, those climate warriors left a useful legacy. First, the 2021 Science Transparency Act and the resulting NSF ethical guidelines gave greater credibility to scientists’ warnings about the serious threats of the 21st century. Second, our sophisticated weather and climate prediction models have their roots in the surge of research they sparked. Third and most importantly, post-mortems of their movement gave scientists, political leaders, and the public a better understanding of how science can guide us through a world of increasingly serious risks — many of which have proved beyond the imagination of people in the early 21st C.


Seeing the future
Ron Chapple/Getty Images.

Other posts in this series

  1. The bottom line: How we broke the climate change debates. Lessons learned for the future.
  2. A story of the climate change debate. How it ran; why it failed.
  3. The 5 stages of grief for the failure of the climate change campaign.
  4. The climate change crisis, as seen from 2100 AD.

For More Information

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. For more information about this vital issue see The keys to understanding climate change and My posts about climate change. Also see all posts about forecasts of the future world, and these posts about the campaign for public policy action to fight climate change — how it went wrong and how it can be fixed…

  1. Ten years after Katrina: let’s learn from those predictions of more & bigger hurricanes.
  2. Manufacturing climate nightmares: misusing science to create horrific predictions.
  3. Politifact tells us about American politics and science. We should listen.
  4. A new response to climate change that can help the GOP win in 2016.
  5. Important: climate scientists can restart the climate change debate – & win.

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