Scientists have modeled 100,000 different futures

(ORDO NEWS) — Most of us have had at least one moment in our lives when we wished we had made a different choice.In hindsight, it’s easy to see what went wrong, but the key factors that could have played a decisive role at that moment are often easily overlooked when we experience them.

Understanding these turning points becomes even more difficult for complex systems on a global scale. Predictive modeling, however, is the only tool that can help us get closer to understanding these important factors before they pass us by.

To this end, environmental policy researcher Francis Moore of the University of California, Davis, and colleagues in the US used computer modeling to predict and analyze 100,000 climate change scenarios.

By running scenarios over and over again, changing various factors like climate groundhog day, we can begin to understand the potential pivots around which our collective destinies revolve.

With global commitments still unfulfilled under the Paris Agreement and projected carbon emissions rapidly exceeding our remaining carbon budget, finding those footholds is now more important than ever.

Most climate models to date have focused on the technical aspects of the problem – climate itself or mitigation technologies. Previous research has shown that we have the technical capacity to make the necessary changes, and that they are economically feasible.

But again and again, other factors that modeling has so far largely neglected – human social and political systems – prevent this from happening, despite the fact that what we as humans choose to do with our emissions far outweighs all other climate variables.

Moore and his team searched many different disciplines to include the social, economic and political factors that will influence our emissions levels for computer simulations of the level of warming by 2100.

“We’re trying to understand what it is in these fundamental socio-political-technical systems that determines the level of emissions,” says Moore.

They added constraints to their variables using historical data and identified several social factors – including society’s attitudes towards climate change – as key to determining which group of scenarios would be most likely.

“It has been hypothesized that this emerging signal of climate change in people’s daily experience of the weather could lead to widespread acceptance of the existence of global warming and possibly support for mitigation policies,” the researchers explain in their paper.

“The trend towards social conformity can lead to a ‘tipping point’ type of dynamic where the system suddenly shifts from a previously stable state when there is a sufficient critical mass of supporters of the alternative norm.”

That is why factors such as the perception of our society remain so important. Moore and colleagues also looked at how cognitive biases, such as the baseline bias effect, can influence social factors.

Moore previously led a study on this bias, which found that people tend to compare current weather anomalies to what they remember from the past eight years rather than more historical weather, so this baseline of comparison also changes over time.

Whether this comes into play or not is one of many factors that will influence which future path we take.

Of course, social factors are also closely intertwined with the cost and effectiveness of mitigation technologies and how quickly political institutions respond to them.

“Nearly all of the clusters we identified have distinctive parameters of more than one [discipline], meaning that the interaction between these subsystems is a key determinant of differences in potential … emission pathways,” the team writes.

The good news is that the model assumes a high probability of accelerating emission reductions after all factors are taken into account. Over 90 percent of the simulations showed that we are at least on track to reduce warming by 0.5°C under the usual scenario (3.9°C), even when accounting for higher ends of the uncertainty band.

In these worst-case scenarios, the team notes: “Populations are highly fragmented along political lines, preventing the spread of support for climate policy. Unresponsive political institutions, biased towards the status quo, are postponing climate policy to post-2080.”

Modeling shows that it is now unlikely that we will be able to stay below 1.5°C, even under the “aggressive scenario”, as other studies have already warned.

This is not surprising, Moore and colleagues explain, since achieving 1.5°C now requires extensive use of negative emission technologies that were not included in the model, since such technologies do not yet exist on the scale and with the efficiency required. However, this does not mean that they may be more useful in the future.

Moreover, not enough regions take into account the very real possibility that nature can do for us at least part of the carbon reduction through mass greening.

However, future scenarios show that we still have a good chance of keeping emissions below 2°C. In 30 percent of the scenarios, the future looks like this:

“The rapid expansion of climate policy support is leading to a rapid increase in policy ambition in the 2020s. Efficient emission reduction technologies and their rapid expansion around the world will bring global emissions to zero by 2060.”

The team acknowledges that there are still many unknowns left out of the models, but their work gives us insight into how existing climate models relate to the human world they are embedded in – at the individual, national and global levels.

The researchers concluded that our social attitudes, technology improvements and cost reductions, and the response of our political systems are the strongest determinants of future emissions and may serve as the best targets for potential positive tipping points.

“Understanding how society responds to environmental change, and how politics emerge from social and political systems, is a key issue in sustainability science,” says Moore. “I believe that this work advances this research and is also useful for climate adaptation planning and its impacts.”

This is the closest we’ll ever have to a retrospective. The question is, will we use it? After all, despite all our wonderful technological achievements, we still cannot go back in time and correct the situation if we make a mistake.


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