Are We Giving Up On Managing Climate Risk? Part 2

In Part 1 of this blog series, we asked whether the growing focus on “resilience” means that we are giving up on climate change risk management.  We don’t really think many observers would argue this to be the case; it’s too politically incorrect.  But that doesn’t change the fact that focusing on resiliency and arguing that “we’ll adapt” to whatever happens is much more psychically satisfying than trying to prevent climate change in the first place (and a self-fulfilling prophecy to boot).

In thinking about long-term societal outcomes relating to climate change, one can pretty well cover the landscape with a small number of scenarios.

  • Scenario 1 – Success of the “Predict Then Act to Manage Risk” Policy Analyst Response.  We’ve been operating under this paradigm for decades; it’s reflected in policy-makers’ continuing assumption that we will somehow be able to limit climate change to 2oC. This paradigm can realistically be termed a failure, even though it continues to dominate many climate change discussions.
  • Scenario 2 – Climate Change Leads to a Tipping Point, After Which “We Get It.”  The popularity of this paradigm is growing. It’s perhaps most optimistically reflected in Paul Gilding’s book The Great Disruption – How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy.  Gilding lays out a scenario in which society fails to respond to climate change until really, really bad things start to happen (he sets that date as 2018 in the book). At that point, public perceptions and public policy shift rapidly and drastically. He predicts a painful transition with millions of deaths from starvation and other ills; however, the result is that the world starts to work together, massive technology deployment occurs, we move rapidly to a low-carbon world, and climate change is ultimately reversed to 1oC.  Gilding builds a detailed and intuitively attractive description of this scenario, making it sound quite credible.  Yet many commentators believe that the whole idea of a “tipping point,” followed by a massive resurgence of public policy and international cooperation, has little theoretical foundation in human and societal behavior.
  • Scenario 3 – Bad Climate Things Happen, and Then More Bad Things Happen.  This is the ultimate “we’ll adapt” scenario, but stated this way it will never be a popular paradigm; it’s simply too depressing. The paradigm is perhaps best reflected in James Powell’s 2084: An Oral History of the Great Warming, a dystopian “future history” in which the narrator interviews people from around the world who lived through the Great Warming and witnessed the death of Rotterdam, the abandonment of Florida and New York City, and many other cataclysmic outcomes.  2084 is similar to The Great Disruption but without the notion that a societal “tipping point” will be triggered after which “everyone comes together” to solve the problem.
  • Scenario 4 – Technology to the Rescue.  This scenario is based on a belief that since the Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones, there’s reason to hope that we can transition out of the Fossil Fuel Age long before we run out of fossil fuels.  This scenario is reflected in William Hewitt’s 2013 A Newer World: Politics, Money, and Technology and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis.  It, too, is an attractive scenario, supported by a very detailed story.  However, many commentators observe that there’s little empirical foundation for assuming that the kinds of technology development and deployment required to avoid catastrophic climate change can occur in the needed timespan.  The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones — but it took more than 2,000 years to transition from the Stone Age to the Iron Age.  Most studies of technology development and deployment are hard-pressed to suggest how a transition to a low-carbon future can “naturally” occur over a short period of time, especially if we fail to address the underlying economic externality leading to climate change in the first place.

There are plenty of other scenarios one can imagine, from “we were totally wrong about the science,” to the view that other risks, from a global pandemic to nuclear war, will get us before climate change does.  But we think that these four scenarios do a pretty good job of spanning the landscape of climate change outcomes.

Is there any reason to judge one of these scenarios more likely than the others?  As the theory of Occam’s razor says, the simplest explanation of a phenomenon is often the correct one.  Of the four scenarios laid out above, James Powell’s 2084 scenario is probably the simplest, and perhaps the one most based on observed outcomes and easiest to anticipate human behaviors.  It has much in common with the upper end of “business as usual” forecasts of 6-8oC of temperature change by 2100 which more and more studies are forecasting.  It is certainly more reflective of historical reality than Gilding’s more optimistic Great Disruption scenario, the premise of which has until now been limited in application to science fiction stories about planetary response to an alien invasion.

James Powell’s scenario is not an attractive one.  It reflects an abject failure of the policy analyst’s approach to problem solving.  But it does fit well with the “we’ll adapt” approach to climate change we are hearing more and more about in the media. If we’re not giving up on climate change risk management, we had better do some hard thinking about how to change the relative  probabilities of these four scenarios; any of them would ultimately be preferable to Scenario 3.  Simply focusing on “resilience,” however, doesn’t do much to change these probabilities.

In our next post, we’ll talk about Changing the Probabilities.

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