Monday, December 14, 2015

Five scenarios for the post-COP21 of Paris

Scenarios are not predictions, just ways of describing possible futures; useful in order to be prepared for unexpected events. The only rule in scenario building is that the assumptions should not be too improbable; such as involving time machines. And, yet, it seems that in some cases involving climate projections, time machines are a built-in assumption

The COP21 conference in Paris has brought again climate to the attention of the public and, from now on, there starts the real challenge: what can we really expect for the future of the earth's climate? As always, predictions are difficult, especially when there are many variables involved. Nevertheless, climate change is the result of physical factors that we can understand and we know that the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere - if it continues - is going to lead us to a very unpleasant future.

If we look at the long-term future, the whole question rotates on whether we manage to stay below an increase in temperature that is believed to be "safe" (it might be 2 degrees C, but we don't know for sure), or we pass the limit and we find ourselves above the "climate tipping point" after which the system starts moving by itself toward more and more warming with all the associated disasters.

So, I thought I might engage in a little exercise of qualitative "scenario building" with a special focus on climate. Here are some scenarios; listed in no particular order. Some you could see as horrible, some as unlikely, others as overoptimistic. But they are just that: scenarios. The COP21 was a step in the right direction. Avoiding the worst outcomes will not be easy, but it is up to us.

1. Business as usual. In this scenario, things remain mostly as they are today; just gradually worsening. There are no major wars, no abrupt economic collapses, no sudden climate disasters. But temperatures keep increasing while the world's economic system is battered by one crisis after the other. So, the economy gradually loses the resources necessary to keep alive the structures that study and understand global problems: universities and research centers. As a consequence, global problems slip away from the collective consciousness. People get killed by heat waves, starved by droughts, and swept away by monster hurricanes, and still no one is able to connect all that to climate change, while the burning of fossil fuels, although reduced because of depletion, continues. In the long run, that would lead to the end of civilization by a whisper, rather than by a bang.

2. The climate panic.  This is the symmetric and opposite scenario to the above. As the climate crisis gets worse, we may arrive at a "perception tipping point;" maybe generated by some spectacular event (e.g. a monster ice calving from Antarctica or Greenland) or, simply, by the accumulation of evidence. A wave of climate panic would lead to a scramble to "do something" and things might worsen rather than improve if some extreme forms of geoengineering were attempted. However, it might also lead to positive results. For instance, a push for reforestation and for renewable energy would effectively mitigate climate change. It is not obvious that our civilization needs a burst of panic to be saved, but that might give us an extra chance.

3. The Seneca collapse. Before being hit by some climate disaster, the world's economy could experience a "Seneca collapse" as the result of resource depletion.  such a situation, people would have no time to worry about anything but their immediate survival and that would lead to climate change being completely forgotten. On the other hand, the economic collapse would cause a reduction in emissions probably well beyond even the wildest dreams of environmentalists and might be sufficient to avoid to go above the "climate tipping point". Then, of course, such a collapse would be a disaster in all other terms; causing the probable disintegration of the whole world's economy. Nevertheless, it might still give us a "window of opportunity" to restart from scratch with a new renewable energy infrastructure and then rebuild a new and better society.

4. The warring states. The present situation has been likened to the beginning of the first world war and there are serious risks that the ongoing conflicts will escalate into a major worldwide confrontation. In such case, all the worries about climate change would be immediately forgotten. A major war would likely boost the efforts to extract as much fossil fuels as possible, including, probably, the oil shales that pure market forces seem to be unable to extract (it may be that the current drive for war arises in part from this kind of considerations). That would lead to emissions spiking up, at least for the duration of the war. On the other hand, it is likely that any major war would rapidly peter out because of the lack of energy and resources to carry it on. So, the carbon spike won't last long. Still, it could do a lot of damage, making things even more difficult.

5. The nuclear holocaust. A variant of the war scenario, it assumes that one or more contenders would decide to play the nuclear card. That could take the shape of tactical or strategic nuclear bombing or also that of attacking the adversary's nuclear plants utilizing conventional weapons. In all cases, we would see a rapid drop of the carbon emissions as large industrialized areas would be destroyed or just rendered uninhabitable. A massive nuclear exchange would also generate so much dust in the upper atmosphere that the result could be described as a "nuclear winter" causing an extreme cooling that might do even more damage than warming. However, that would do nothing to change the long-run effect of the greenhouse gases already emitted in the atmosphere. The dust would eventually settle down and the warming restart with a vengeance.

6. Depopulation. Most current projections assume that the human population will keep smoothly increasing throughout the 21st century, plateauing at around 9-10 billion individuals, or perhaps more than that. However, the historical record shows that human populations rarely follow this kind of trajectory, more often tending to collapse after having peaked. A good case in point is that of Ireland, between 1845 and 1850, when population crashed to about half of the size it had at the peak. The world's population might collapse in the same way as the result of wars, epidemics, pollution, of someone playing games with biological weapons and it might not be impossible to lose several billion people in a few decades, or even faster. The result would be a strong reduction of the greenhouse gas emissions, albeit obtained at a price that nobody would want to pay. However, people would continue burning fossil fuels and the cumulative amount of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere would continue increasing. So, it is not obvious that even this extreme scenario could lead to avoiding the climate tipping point.

7. The renewable revolution. Renewable energy is the wild card of the situation. It is already efficient enough that it can outcompete fossil fuels and it could grow fast enough to replace them before it is too late. Assume that people understand both the advantages of renewable energy and the desperate need we have to stop burning fossil fuels, then we could arrive at a "bottom-up" revolution in which we don't need government-enforced emission trading or a carbon tax. A situation in which even climate science deniers wouldn't be so silly to pay more for dirty fossil energy when they can have cheaper and clean energy. In the end, the battle for climate would be won when a consortium of renewable companies buys Exxon and closes it down. Problem solved and it is the beginning of a new era.

We could combine some of these scenarios together, or think of different ones. The only rule is that they shouldn't be too improbable. For instance, we shouldn't include scenarios dealing with an alien invasion of the planet or with the COP97 being held in Siorapaluk, in Northern Greenland, in 2074 finally arriving at a binding treaty on the phasing out of fossil fuels. Apart from this, the future always surprises us. Just don't forget that the future cannot be predicted, but that you can be prepared for it.


  1. Ugo, renewable energy capture systems are currently being made, installed and maintained using the energy from fossil fuels. Can you point me to some information that shows that they will be actually sustainable, i.e. made, installed and maintained with the (net) quantity (and quality) of the energy they produce? And that availability of resources won't be a problem?

    1. ...I think you cannot demonstrate the sustainability of RE. What you can do is try and see (while the whole system is adapting to the new situation) ....and if you don't have any other better (probabilistic) alternative,this is the most rational thing to do (from the probabilistic point of view). Even if you can't measure the real probability distribution of the different scenarios, you can estimate their impact and use some heuristic for decision making (the "fourth quadrant" of Nassim Nicholas Taleb).

    2. Try this link: We cannot demonstrate that the replacement will be done, but that it could be done, yes!

  2. What about a poll with the blog readers? I pick the Seneca collapse scenario.

    1. I was thinking, maybe the alien invasion is not as improbable as I wrote it is..... :-)

  3. It is true that the future cannot be predicted. But people both as single individuals attempting to survive in whatever ways they consider optimal in any given historical moment, and at their many levels of "collettive aggregation" and self-identification i.e. Various types of groups, organizations, businesses, localities, provinces, nation States, empires, banks, religious organizations, labour organizations, so called NGO's , and research and scientific institutions , indigenous tribes, mafias, political parties, media organizations, ethnicities, the ultra rich, political, economic , and cultural "elities" , religious sects, Clubs of Rome or of other Places, and "United Nations" .....just to name a very few among the very many that make up human society on "our" Happy Planet Earth (these vary by historical period) all try to understand and interpret what the future might hold in store and try to devise approaches that they think might "serve their interests" , or those of other collettivities they "care about" or of humanity as a whole , all understood in a variety of ways. They then all more or less implement various individual or collective actions or inactions based on their understandings and the general approaches which they think they point to. The future is then the interaction of all such understandings, approaches and actions or inactions over different time frames from the immediate all the way to those measured in millennia. At least this is how I understand and interpret the issue of how we go from the present to the future. So I agree that that the future is unpredictable . But we both as individuals and as various collettivities can certainly try to prepare for it as I believe we always have done. I doubt this comment will help anyone to do so better except perhaps at a general existential level so at more specific levels, perhaps the seven scenarios above may be more "helpful".

  4. I wonder if the issues with intermitency and, above anything else, seasonality, will lead us to the Galactic Eastern Planet.

    A hint:

    Best regards,


  5. Ugo
    Thanks for ‘thought maps’ of possible outcome that could follow from the aggregate of multiple ‘forward planning’ described very ably in his comment by Max: i.e. ‘all over the place’! (For an example perhaps of the latter variety I read recently that Mafia are re-emphasising their HQ away from Southern Italy, which could be a response to a nexus of economic woes in the present resource climate – and even the stirring perhaps of a response to climates-various to come.

    We already knew and science could calculate accurately orbital mechanics and associated insolation. Climate Science has been an increasingly coherent science for the past three decades – based on satellite and other global data collection (instrumental records) combined with geological history (ice and sediment stratigraphy). Global atmospheric carbon is accurately tracked, particularly the regularity of CO2 net accumulation. The exceptional rise in non-condensing heat-trapping gases is seen to continue and is way (way!) ahead of anything in the previous half million years when inter-glacial global mean temperature maximum never exceeded 2 deg C above our recent (latterly cool 19thC) Holocene pre-industrial temperatures. The major feedback response – the effect on the main greenhouse gas, water vapour - is already in train, and the accumulation of heat in the main (vast) heat sink of the ocean is already discernible.

    Nearly 30 years ago I attempted much less thoroughly a similar set of sketches of the future that you have offered us, and specifically wondered about a ‘civilisation’ response to Climate Change. James Hansen had already put the case that industrial civilisation, or at least the so-called ‘advanced’ segments thereof, could as they say in the American vernacular, find us “up the creek without a paddle”. My sketchy judgement at the time was that nothing commensurate with a similarly existential predicament of whatever size had ever been attempted successfully by any civilisation that I had heard of, and that global business models were very (very) unlikely to rise to the occasion. Being relatively young in those days I hoped to be proven wrong.

    As a slightly older friend of mine put it this year, he and I are in the departure lounge. How apposite is the metaphor? Any bets based on COP21 (or Club of Rome LTG) that there will be a recognisable, say, airline industry by 2065?


    1. Hi Phil, glad you liked my comment and I hope you are keeping well. This post also was translated for Effetto Risorse, the sister (or brother?) blog of Cassandra Legacy in Italian.

      On that blog I posted the following comment…which I now will translate into English and also place here. I hope you will find it equally interesting or "very ably describing" the current situation.

      "A lot also depends on whether the GRAND PLAN for a "New World Order" (the one which clearly is a conspiracy theory which does NOT exist)…(and this last statement I included sarcastically since many people simoktg refuse to consider the abundant evidence for such a plan and the ample literature which describes it; the Bilderberg is only one of the Apex organizations which is working on this through several governments, foundations, think tanks, academic institutions, Hollywood, mainstream media and alternative media, controlled opposition groups and etc. etc.) ….will i) manage to score a goal which will make it through the goal posts, or ii) whether it (the plan and the planners) will instead score a major self-goal, or iii) whether their shot might be deflected or put off course at the last moment by the "New World Awakening" , or iv) whether the shot and the various players which set it up near the goal post... all will be sucked in and immobilized by the quick sands of the pitch made up of just too many interactive systems and sub-systems of various kinds sitting under their feet (economic, environmental, political, social, cultural, military, resources, ideological, technological and etc.) ….and in fact most probably ALL FOUR of these things will happen at once ….(as I think they already are happening) and they too with various complex interactions, and therefore with wholly unpredictable outcomes and results…on any longer-term time frames…but probably also over much shorter ones...

      But let me explain all the above a bit more:

      Regardless of the merit or lack thereof of the ISSUES which were discussed at the COP21 and of what it concluded or achieved, I think the COP21 is ALSO part of the ongoing plan for a New World Order as is Agenda 21 as a whole…….and which has been pursued for decades. What feeds it is the fear of a world environmental catastrophe. Generally speaking the NWO types try to never miss the opportunity which a good crisis whether real or manufactured or a bit of both represents. The Global War on Terror is another major(planned) response to a fear factor which in this case definitely has been mostly created by the NWO types. Will the ever more divided and fragmented (and also deliberately) people of the world WAKE UP to these realities? (what I have called the New World Awakening). Thus far there is very little evidence that very many people are truly and authentically "waking up". In my own non-humble opinion (but in fact it is very humble at a deeper level) most people live in a kind of "dream world" ….and both internal and external "reality" is being perceived and understood on the basis of the progressive multi-layered deep but also more surface level programming which we all have undergone from the time we were still in the womb and up until the moment we die. (I am ignoring here the genetic and epigenetic programming !). Our families, religions, the educational system from primary education through to post-doctoral education, "accepted societal customs both practical and mental", academia, advertising, media both mainstream and alternative, "controlled opposition" groups, and MUCH more all program us into perceiving and understanding in a certain way. And some of this programming is being organized and done deliberately by some. (continues)

    2. To overcome this "programmed reality" and highly resistant mental syndrome there will have to be a worldwide awakening. So far I see very little evidence of any real awakening. (naturally I could be totally brainwashed myself along with the relatively few others who think in these totally mistaken ways !) But let's just consider for a moment that "this" problem may be real. What would be our predicament? Here a thought experiment might help to shed some light. Imagine that you could step back into the year 1000 somewhere in medieval Europe. (or China or meso-America or India for that matter) And imagine that you wanted to explain to an "average man or woman"….(or to ANY man or woman belonging to any social group of those times) the psychological reality (made up of the interactive complex of "beliefs, ideas, "values", attitudes, personality traits, pre-dispositions, social norms, and etc.) that make up the psychological reality of a "modern" man or woman living in 2015. (naturally there are very many such current psychological realities but they tend to share some common elements of present day "modernity" to various extents) How much luck do you think you would have in "waking up" the medieval man who is under the total influence of his own then current such "integrated and interactive complex" (and therefore highly resistant) to a modern 2015 understanding of both himself and what he is and why he is what he is and what he thinks and feels and why, and of the world around him? In Medieval Europe maybe the New World Order types of the moment were various Popes and church hierarchies and various aristocracies or other "noble classes" of the moment operating mostly in secrecy and using various nonsense to brainwash the people of that period? Some of those same folks are STILL at work, but they have been joined by many other birds of a feather such as central bankers, "democratic government leaders" hyper rich families, zionists, industrialists, and several others. (the Bilderberg attendee lists offer some clues)

      This is the problem we face right now in "waking up" from our comatose and brainwashed states to "see the present" as someone from the future easily would see it. And therefore it probably will take us nearly a thousand years to truly wake up and change anything. And by then we probably will have self destructed since medieval meso-Americans didn't even have guns and fought with bows and arrows (or other similar such) whereas we now have nuclear weapons and also LOTS of OTHER nice modern toys and gimmicks and systems with which to destroy ourselves. (or be destroyed by some of those same NWO types pursuing what they think are their insane "interests") And we also live inside much more precarious overall systems since we are 7.3 billions and "globalized" but still need to eat. Is any of this stuff being discussed at the Paris COP or at the current "United Nations" "Security" Council meeting on Syria? Somehow I really doubt it. Why? Because those meetings and groups are just another part of the same problem. ATB, Max

  6. 50% of Forest Bird species will go extinct in 50 years.

    60% of Flower species will go extinct in 50 years.

    50% of Mega Cities will go extinct in 50 years.

    90% of Soil will go extinct in 50 years.

    40% of Humanis will not have enough water in 15 years.

    100% - Ocean Acidification doubles by 2050,

    200% - Ocean Acidification triples by 2100.

    99% of Rhinos gone since 1914.

    97% of Tigers gone since 1914.

    90% of Lions gone since 1993.

    90% of Sea Turtles gone since 1980.

    90% of Monarch Butterflies gone since 1995.

    90% of Big Ocean Fish gone since 1950.

    80% of Antarctic Krill gone since 1975.

    80% of Western Gorillas gone since 1955.

    60% of Forest Elephants gone since 1970.

    50% of Great Barrier Reef gone since 1985.

    80% of Western Gorillas gone since 1955.

    40% of Giraffes gone since 2000.

    30% of Marine Birds gone since 1995.

    70% of Marine Birds gone since 1950.

    28% of Land Animals gone since 1970.

    28% of All Marine Animals gone since 1970.

    97% - Humans & Livestock are 97% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

    0.01% - 10,000 years ago we were 0.01% of land-air vertebrate biomass.

    1,000,000 humans, net, are added to earth every 4½ days.

    Stop lying to yourself

  7. Most sustainable energy transition scenarios gloss over one of the biggest economic aspects of the process; if renewable energy systems make up enough of a fraction of our energy supply that fossil fuel use drops below the productive capacity of inexpensive fossil fuel, the price of fossil fuels will collapse. Renewable energy cannot compete in the market against ultra-low cost, high EROI fossil fuels, so any transition comes to a standstill until fossil fuel use rises enough to cause demand driven price increases. If there is no economic basis for discouraging fossil fuel use, they will be used.

    Greatly reduced prices for fossil fuels will always provide a great temptation for their continued use, and since depletion alone cannot be counted on to keep fossil carbon out of the atmosphere, that temptation that will not be resisted without a carbon tax to raise prices or a worldwide mandatory prohibition of their use regardless of price.

    COP21 resulted in neither a carbon tax nor binding constraints on fossil fuel use. A sustainable energy transition cannot really take off until either one or the other is instituted. Since neither is likely in the near future, all scenarios involving a sustainable energy transition are increasingly irrelevant.

  8. Another energy scenario that is more technically feasible than an advanced technological civilization with 10 billion people relying upon renewable energy ---- and is equally unlikely:

    The 500 Overlords who own most of the global economy realize that business as usual will result in economic collapse which will vaporize the wealth and power they have accumulated.

    They initiate a crash program to replace all fossil fuel electric production with relatively safe Liquid Floride Thorium reactors built on an assembly line to a standard design, and rapidly de-commission the world's existing 460+ light water atomic reactors. Abandoned auto factories in China, Europe, and the US are re-profiled and each turn out a new LFTR reactor per day. The world still would have a nuclear waste disposal problem, but it would be radically lower in volume and shorter lived, and thus more manageable than that posed by the dangerous solid fuel uranium and plutonium reactors of the present.

    And the Overlords would retain their domination of the new order.

  9. There are other possible scenarios that you haven't told.
    One of the most sensible would be a future when averybody has learnt to live with less, developping austerity towards a voluntary and controlled decrease in use of the Earth. That change in our minds could avoid a lot of blood and famines. If you didn't talk about this scenario because of it's probability is almost zero, you are much more pessimistic than I thought, Dr. Bardi.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)