Playing the futures game

During moments of idleness I’ve often dreamt of seeing into the future. I have been known to ponder frivolously who’ll win a World Cup Final or the US Masters but other times it’s a lot more prosaic; what will happen with a new initiative at work? How should I respond to comments on a research paper? Shall we go for coffee? And so on. We all draw on as much knowledge as we can to answer these sort of questions, but there’s often moments when we need to make a decision quickly; where time is of the essence but we don’t have all the information we’d like. Fortunately, if we make the wrong choice and things don’t go to plan, it’s often possible to quickly change tack and redress the situation. Yet what happens when you have a global environmental issue which urgently needs a deal that can’t afford to be wrong? Next month, the United Nations faces just such a challenge. Negotiations are taking place in Copenhagen to thrash out a new climate deal to replace Kyoto with nations offering a dizzying range of offers to cut their greenhouse gas emissions. What best combination will work?  If there was some way of rapidly seeing into the future it would mean policy-makers could make a more informed decision and get the best possible deal that will help solve the problem.  

Having a speedy insight into the future climate effects of policy decisions looks like it’s just made a big step forward with new technology offered through Climate Interactive. Climate Interactive offers policy-makers a proverbial crystal ball to see what will happen under different greenhouse gas emission scenarios.  The model is known in the business as ‘Climate Rapid Overview and Decision-support Simulator’ (or C-ROADS-CP for short) and is operated by Ventana Systems in the USA. Calibrated using the global climate model results reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (better known as the IPCC), C-ROADS-CP produces instant results on what effects future emission scenarios might have. If we are to avoid the most dangerous effects of climate change, the European Union and other nations have set a target to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2˚C since the onset of Western industrialisation.  Assuming agreement can be made in Copenhagen, the big question is just how big a cut in emissions will be needed by everyone to keep the temperature low enough to hit this target. C-ROADS-CP is now being used by policy-makers around the world to answer this question and offers real-time answers during Copenhagen.

Climate crossroads in Copenhagen
This is all well and good but C-ROADS-CP is principally for policy-makers.  Excitingly, Climate Interactive also lets you assume the role of an international negotiator and see what the future might hold. You can sit at a computer with a cup of coffee (or something stronger if you like) and run a slimmed down version of the program called C-Learn, free of charge. You don’t have to be in Copenhagen behind closed doors. With C-Learn it’s possible to play with a whole range of different scenarios of your own devising.  You can enter the changes in greenhouse gas emissions for developed and developing countries, the time over which you want nations to make their cuts, targets to reduce deforestation and increase sequestration from afforestation, and the target of carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. It’s fascinating to work with the system online and a great way for people to play out their ideas for what we should do.  

You can quickly see which combination of proposals may work and those that haven’t a chance of making a meaningful difference.  After entering your ideas for who should do what and when, the long-term effects pop out a short moment later. You get an instant insight into future greenhouse gas levels and what will happen to the world’s temperature. If you’re giving a presentation you can even save the images for a talk to show the results to a wider audience. I found it fascinating.  Scientists are often accused of just raising problems but here is a wonderful example of where science and policy come together to offer a range of answers (albeit challenging ones). 

As an example, below is a screen shot of a scenario where we pump out 500 per cent more greenhouse gases by 2050 relative to 2005 levels. It’s a worst case scenario where we carry on partying likes there’s no tomorrow.  The result is a projected temperature rise of 4.6˚C by 2100 with a carbon dioxide level of 955 parts per million (remember, today we’re at 388 ppm). Not great. 

Once you play with the different controls on C-Learn, it soon becomes painfully clear that the developed world need to drastically reduce emissions. No great surprise here but the scale of the cuts are an eye opener. Have a look at the second screen shot below. If we plug in an 80 per cent target reduction by 2050 (relative to 1990) for the developed world as proposed by the European Union, stabilise emissions by the developing world and balance the rate of deforestation against afforestation we get an increase in global temperature of 2.8˚C with a carbon dioxide level of 467 ppm. This still punches through the 2˚C target but we’re getting closer to where we want to be.

There’s a sobering message here but the fabulous thing about the website is that it gives an instant answer to what effects proposed emission reductions might mean in a practical sense.  What goes on with negotiations no longer has to be behind closed doors.  Anyone can have a play with the future and see what might happen before world leaders set out their plans.  

Have a go and see what you think. We can all get a clearer view of what lies ahead.

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