Tom and Emma are visiting today. They are our godchildren; nine year-old twins living in a developed, contemporary society with all its benefits and pitfalls. They are the subject of today’s post.
In 2048, Tom and Emma will be 50. They may have children of their own, or godchildren, or even grandchildren. What will their lives be like in that year? What sort of a life will they have had, and what hopes and fears will they have for their offspring?
In the most simple sense, this is the point of climate science; to offer us, now, a glimpse of the possibilities that exist for these children and, beyond them, their descendants. As such, it is one of a number of disciplines which aims to use current and past trends to point to likely future trends, and suggest a current ‘best action’ for a plausible ‘best future’.
But Tom and Emma aren’t the only people to concern climate science; beyond them, there are the many millions of children all around the world who are the subjects of the future. Then there is the other, nonhuman element of the world to consider; what can we expect for the ecosystems and species of animal and plant, for the wildernesses and cities? Who knows, even the old man might still be around in 2048. And climate science isn’t the only discipline which attempts to understand trends for the future; economics, politics, business, conflict studies; many areas of research have as at least one component a consideration of how things might look in the future.
But we all know that knowing what will be in the future is impossible. We are aware that, even in the most general sense, predicting how Tom and Emma’s lives will pan out is. strictly, pointless. The question is, whether we have yet reached a stage where the discipline of futurology has become scientific enough for us to be able to say, with any confidence, what sort of world they might be living in.
And this generalised, trend-based, ambiguous tomorrow is clearly dependent on a huge number of variables. One interesting question we might ask is whether the world’s timeline acts in a chaotic or a predictable manner. How much effect might a small development now have in forty years’ time? How much inertia is built into the global human system, such that any change is inevitably slow and thus trends are very reliable indicators? It is tempting to suggest that the future, especially as we deal further down the line, beyond a forty year horizon to a hundred, or two hundred years, may respond in both ways to change. Sometimes, small discoveries or ideas arrive in the right time and place, and their potential (for good or ill) is realised rapidly, the consequences felt nearly immediately and expanding as time passes. Other times, the behemoth that is human society rumbles so inexorably in a given direction that plans, however drastic, are doomed to failure because the machine cannot be stopped.
Beyond the matter of what sort of future is implied by current trends, there is the matter of what sort of systemic changes (should they be desired) will be achievable, by us and by them? This in turn might depend on what attitudes persist in society towards the problems facing society. And Tom and Emma’s attitude to their world will be shaped, at least in part, by what they learn from us.
What is becoming increasingly apparent, by whatever measure we use to ascertain the present and future state of things, is that the way in which we humans currently live in the world and interact with its natural components is not sustainable; it probably hasn’t been for fifty years or more, now. What is also apparent is that the trends in all disciplines point in similar directions into the future; towards breakdown, or collapse, of one element or more of our environment, security or (erstwhile) wealth. ‘Business As Usual’ is the currently common term to describe the path we are currently on. It is more or less certain that BAU is not a viable option for the sake of Tom and Emma, and even less so for their children. Whatever else has been argued or disputed in recent years, this conclusion seems pretty much rock solid. Which means, knowing the current way of doing things is inadequate, we need some guide as to what to do for the future, how to respond and what changes to make.
This, then, is the point of climate science. Yes, there are many, many elements which deal with this either indirectly or not at all; after all, there is a lot we don’t yet understand about the climate, especially on the global scales we deal with when considering climate change. But the value of climate science, economics, planning in all its many guises, lies in giving us a pointer, a guide, about what to do and how best to respond to the most likely changes. What we do in response to the information we have is critical. It is important for us, but for Tom and Emma, it is absolute essential that some changes in the way we live do happen. And these changes need to be powerful enough, collectively, to stop the juggernaut of BAU.
As I have said before, we can be either positive or negative about the future. It can be a shadow in which we see some inchoate terror, or a horizon beyond which lie all sorts of possibilities. Tom and Emma have the enthusiasm and optimism of youth on their side. They can develop an understanding of the world we live in based on what we have learned and what we already understand. But how they deal with this knowledge, what difference it makes to their lives and the lives of others, probably depends on something very fundamental, which is already forming within them; their ethics.
What is the point of climate science? One version would have it that is exists to save the world, to prevent destruction, and to avoid the dangers of the future. The other, that it is there to point us to the trail that leads to the pass in the mountains. And when we get to the mountain pass, and see what is laid out on the other side, we will know where we are going.