Future Scenarios Blogpost April 2017

Blog Post 25 April 2017



Ophelia: We know what we are, but know not what we may be.


Hamlet, Act IV, scene v.


We have, according to the Mercator Institute, Berlin, 4 years and 21 days until we have released the amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that will induce 1.5 degrees of global warming. This estimate is based on their most ‘optimistic’ estimate of the effects of greenhouse gases on warming, coupled with a rate of carbon use taken from 2014 figures (whilst in fact the annual rate of greenhouse gas emissions continues to grow). The carbon counter also allows us to look at a more ‘pessimistic’ but still highly plausible estimate, alarmingly giving us 1 year and 3 months until we have burnt sufficient carbon to take us to 1.5 degrees of global warming.


The Paris Agreement surprised the global community, not only by achieving a global consensus that keeping ‘a global temperature rise this century well below 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels’ is necessary, but by including the aim ‘to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius’.


But is the Paris Agreement all a fantasy? Does the inclusion of the aim to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees in fact expose the whole agreement as a kind of collective fiction? There is a distressingly significant gap between the aims discussed and the reality of the effects of the current rates of carbon use. If these politicians and policy makers worked in the theatre, there would be serious concerns about the (im)plausibility of their narrative when compared with the facts. In the theatre, absorption in a fictional scenario is dependent on that scenario feeling credible to an audience. By buying into the fiction that limiting emissions to 1.5 degrees is plausible in the current policy context, there is a collective denial of the urgent need to make radical, extreme change to our socio-economic conditions.


According to the ADVANCE project, set up in response to the Paris Agreement, specifically to examine 1.5 degree scenarios: ‘to meet the long term goal of the Paris Agreement, net emissions would need to reach zero by 2050, and then go below zero in the second half of the century.’ For more information please click here.


However, Current policies presently in place around the world are projected to reduce baseline emissions and result in about 3.6°C warming above pre-industrial levels. The unconditional pledges or promises that governments have made […] as of 1 November 2016, would limit warming to about 2.8°C [3] above pre-industrial levels’. For more information please click here.



The naturalisation of current levels of fossil-fuel dependency offers a comforting myth of powerlessness – ‘this is just how things are’. Yet not only do we, with Ophelia, not know what we may be – we also do not know what we were. For to imagine a future of reduced carbon emissions is also to invoke a past of less carbon. Since 1970, the still-operational US Environmental Protection Agency tells us, there has been a 90% increase in carbon dioxide emissions. Knowing that the intensity of fossil fuel combustion has increased so radically does not however enable us simply to turn the clock back.


If we do not collude in the fiction of the compatibility of keeping temperatures to 1.5 degrees and the sustaining of current socio-economic structures, then the question must be asked: does the lifestyle of the so-called developed world mean more to its inhabitants than the future of humanity? Fear of encountering the unknown of ‘what we may be’ somehow seems to imprison us in the comfortable space of knowing ‘what we are’ – a fear of change that somehow seems to outweigh the ever more apparent threat of planetary destruction.


In the development of my postcards, I’ve been thinking this month about opposites; this is in the context of imagining a move beyond the economic structures that limit effective action to mitigate climate change. In this context, I wonder, what is the opposite of ‘to grow’? It isn’t, exactly, ‘to shrink’. What is the opposite of ‘more’? ‘less’ is often figured as ‘sacrifice’ – which binds us to the same value structure that makes virtues of ‘more’, ‘growth’, and ‘accumulation’. What does achievement look like in an alternative economy? Collective success would be the saving of the planet – but what how would personal value be recognised? Could the values of ‘ingenuity’ be valued over ‘accumulation’? Could (non-material) ‘experience’ be the aim, rather than (material) ‘goods’? Can ‘lightness’ be sought after, rather than the heaviness of the cost of our carbon use (imperceptible to many of us, being beyond our immediate horizons)? Could ‘stewardship’ replace ‘ownership’? And then the question: what kinds of lives would we be living if this were the case? Could we know what we may be?

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