Rethinking Climate as a Driving Force

Image: Flickr / Nick Douglas

Image: Flickr / Nick Douglas

If you haven't been following Jamais Cascio's "future of the world" conversation with Jon Lebkowsky on The Well (a follow-on to the always informative and entertaining "State of the World" chats with Bruce Sterling), I recommend a read. These long public conversations are far more useful than a quick article or blog post, as they often allow ideas to unfold at their own speed—revealing the value of slow, asynchronous conversations in a 'shoot from the hip' world. In some cases, they allow for interesting debate and comparison of mental models and worldviews that don't happen enough in widely accessible forums, and which can be enlightening in terms of understanding the internal mechanics of foresight, in this case.

Last week, Jamais threw out a question to the futures community:

"How do you go about integrating climate into your forecasts/scenarios? Is it something that you include as a stand-alone, exogenous factor? Or do you integrate it into all dynamics?" (link)

Bruce and I both responded. Here is an edited recap of the conversation so far:

Jamais Cascio:  I personally go back and forth about making climate explicit; the risk of trying to embed it in everything is that it's all too easy to let it fade into the background, while the risk of making it an explicit dynamic is that you can too often push aside stuff particularly relevant to the forecast issue. (link)
Me: At this point, and really going back a few years, I've dealt with climate change in the same way one would 'compute in' demography—a given, for which directionality can be assumed for a time. So, for demography, we know through the magic of census data etc that a certain-sized age cohort will move through the demographics of a country in a certain way (pig-in-a-python style, in the case of baby booms). I'd say first-order issues like global temp rises act similarly, only we can't see at this point the mechanism that would lower them. Knock-on effects like sea-level rise follow to some extent, but that's where it gets interesting—we don't quite know which other second and third order impacts and actions will take place, so it falls back to some form of scenario logic or alt futures modeling (carbon taxes as response, reengineering, gradual population migration etc). 
Climate change is a measurable thing, man-made or natural, and as such, should be dealt with just as other big STEEP drivers are. Finally, the second 'E' gets real. It also puts it on the list of 'solutions not discretionary' issues. (link)

Bruce Sterling: I'm with Scott there: I don't "fit in" climate change. Climate crisis is not some minor change-agent like the death of the manual typewriter industry. The entire atmosphere of a planet has been soiled. The effects are present every day, today, and getting more drastic quickly. So I just assume the whole world is Anthropocene, and I take it from there. 
It's like "fitting in" demographic change, as Scott says. Nobody "solves" that. People just get older. They just get older until they can't get older, and then they're not around any more. "Old people in big, dirty cities, afraid of the sky." That's a sensibility, it's a human condition. It's not a series of issues to be deflected with Davos position papers. There are already old people in big dirty cities afraid of the sky. More every day, and in future, lots lots more. (link)
Jamais Cascio: ...the demographics analogy feels spot-on. In my own scenario and world-building work, creating just for myself or to undergird an independent project, that's the approach I like to take.
For client-facing stuff, as a working futurist, this approach has its risks. Most of the time, the scenarios and forecasts are created at least in part by the clients in workshops, and they're usually not as well-versed in the climate science as we are. Trying to build climate change in as a context element, affecting everything, can too easily lead to it disappearing into the background, or functionally replaced by something like "sustainability." Pulling it out and making it an explicit driver is more likely to push the clients into thinking about it as a real issue -- but here the risk is making it seem like an exogenous factor outside of our influence. These risks *can* be avoided, but it's something that I have to give close attention over the course of the engagement. 
That's the thing about being a working futurist: I have to balance an ability to think big, think philosophically about the possible futures we face with the practical, hands-on work of using forecasts as a tool for organizations making present-day decisions. I can't just dismiss either one. (link)

These sorts of comparative discussions don't happen enough, IMHO. They help to pull back the curtain on the actual work of developing forecasts, future visions, scenarios and the like. Contrary to what often seems to be the common view, these forecasts and their underlying elements and formulation aren't just made up out of our fever dreams, but are (usually) carefully constructed and hopefully context-dependent. For each situation, the world should get a fresh set of eyes, and relationships between drivers and trends and the topic at hand need to be cleanly assessed.

Another important part of this conversation, and hat tip to Jamais for asking, is the question of whether something like climate change is a driver or just another trend. Drivers, or driving forces, tend to be major, deep lying, long-duration forces that don't change quickly or disappear in a year, but which rise and fall over time, gaining their own momentum. I used the example of demographics—things like aging—but there are also long-term economic forces such as a rise to economic power of a particular country or region, or the networking of a large part of the world. These factors become major actors in the scenarios we develop, though not always with the same weighting from one to the next. How they interact with other forces is what the discussion above addresses.

Regardless of what one believes about its cause, or how many decades or geological ages one thinks it will endure, basic data show the climate is in a state of change, and as a (the) major global system, its impact should be figured in to a lot of different kinds of forecasts—just how, and how strong a driver it is, depends.

What doesn't happen often enough is a thoughtful reflection about which new forces have escalated from trend to driver, for example. It's easy to develop model lock-in over time, become fixed in worldview, and rely on the same group of big forces without stepping back to ask if circumstances have changed.

Jamais talks more about some of these issue over at Fast Company this week.