The UN climate panel still doesn’t understand technology — and it matters

Scenarios past and present

The previous generation of climate scenarios published in the Fifth Assessment Report in 2014 were known as Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCPs. The RCP scenarios were labeled according to the amount of radiative forcing expected by the end of the century in each case. Radiative forcing is the scientific term for the change in the balance between the Earth’s incoming and outgoing energy. The Fifth Assessment Report focused on four of these scenarios, with RCP2.6 having the least warming and thus being the “best case”.

  • SSP1–1.9 — Sustainability (Taking the Green Road)
  • SSP1–2.6 — Middle of the Road
  • SSP2–4.5 — Regional Rivalry (a Rocky Road)
  • SSP3–7.0 — Inequality (A Road Divided)
  • SSP5–8.5 — Fossil-Fueled Development (Taking the Highway)

Flaws in climate scenarios

A scenario is only as plausible as the assumptions it makes. Unfortunately, the technology assumptions made in both the RCP and SSP scenarios are not remotely plausible, and as a result they are extremely misleading. If there were even one scenario that made genuinely plausible assumptions, then the others could be useful for comparison. But the lack of any properly plausible one means that, taken together, these scenarios will only cause harm by leading decision-makers and the public badly astray.

Source: Adapted from Van Vuuren et al., 2011, and IPCC, 2014.
Note that the vertical axis of the chart is logarithmic, increasing by a factor of 10 at each major interval, which means the trajectory is exponential

Projections to 2100… seriously?

It is worth stepping back a moment and recognizing that the RCP and SSP scenarios make quantitative projections to the year 2100. This in itself is flatly preposterous.

Anti-technology sentiments in conventional environmental orthodoxy

At least part of the explanation for fundamental errors and misunderstandings around technology we see in the RCP and SSP climate scenarios is that they were developed by a small group of academic authors operating inside an ideological bubble.

When you don’t know enough to know you’re being fooled

The climate science community failed to realize the importance of consulting technology experts in the development of climate scenarios. Instead, they made the mistake of relying on conventional forecasts for technologies like solar and wind power from incumbent energy interests such as the International Energy Agency and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. This would be a bit like relying on Blockbuster Video to accurately forecast the future of streaming video, or Kodak to forecast the future of digital cameras, or the American Horse & Buggy Association to forecast the future of automobiles.

Predicting the future is hard

The future is obviously uncertain, and the further ahead we look, the blurrier the picture becomes. At first, it might seem reasonable to err on the side of conservativism — after all, if you don’t know exactly how the world will change in the future, isn’t it best just to assume it won’t change much from the present? The answer is no, but the reason why this logic is flawed is rather subtle.

Refusing to admit past mistakes only feeds conspiracy theories

The climate science community has made very serious technology forecasting errors in its climate scenarios, but has so far refused to acknowledge and take responsibility for them. This is a losing strategy.

Getting technology wrong in climate scenarios does real harm

Given the enormous stakes involving trillions of dollars and all of the world’s policymaking, the errors around technology in the RCP and SSP climate scenarios have had serious consequences. They have misled policymakers and the public alike into believing that the only means to solve climate change are punitive — that we must atone for our past environmental sins by sacrificing human prosperity, tightening our belts, and giving up our indulgent personal lifestyles. They have demonized the prosperity of the rich nations of the Global North as unsustainable, and condemned the aspirations of poorer countries of the Global South as unattainable. They have led nations to waste time and resources trying fruitlessly to achieve sustainability through austerity, when this approach is hopelessly counterproductive as I have previously explained.

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RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX, disruptive technology think tank

RethinkX is an independent think tank that analyzes and forecasts the speed and scale of technology-driven disruption and its implications across society.