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Future scenarios

By Peter McMahon - posted Friday, 7 July 2006


Awareness of the global environmental crisis is growing, but understanding of what the changes mean remains sketchy. A consideration of possible scenarios can help to develop such understanding and give us an idea of what we need to do to avoid the worst possibilities.

Scenarios are a technique used by futurists as a conceptual tool to better understand the ramifications of particular trends. They are not predictions as such, simply attempts to posit how various factors might interact to produce certain results. In this piece, the scenario technique is used to stimulate thought about what the future may be like and what we can do about it. These scenarios present the world situation as it might be in five to ten years' time.

Scenario 1: back to business as usual

In this scenario, with further evidence the models are found to be faulty and global warming is not apparent, or else natural systems kick in to negate dramatic change.

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Heaving a huge sigh of relief, the world goes back to business as it was during the heyday of globalisation in the 1990s. Thanks to investment in new energy sources and energy conservation brought about by concern about global warming, there is a new surge of productivity gains. Combined with the fine tuning generated by new information technology, a global economic boom results. Structural problems between the US, Europe, China and India are minimised as everyone benefits from strong economic growth. The looming problem of Peak Oil is ameliorated thanks to the new technologies coming on line.

Scenario 2: global warming as just another factor to manage

The research evidence shows global warming is occurring, but at the lower end of the predictive models. There is some sea level rise and weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme.

Investment and tax policies are introduced to direct money and effort into new energy sources and a carbon-trading system evolves.

Two basic models of response emerge: one based on Kyoto centred on government action; the other (favoured by the US) centred on carbon markets. Taking account of global warming becomes just another factor in the economy, the US and China using the issue to gain advantage in their ongoing rivalry, the developing nations to gain accessions from the developed nations.

The shift of populations as sea levels rise and weather alters becomes another part of the migration changes already under way. Casualties and refugees due to rising sea levels and storms begin to rise in number but are dealt with by a combination of government, NGO and corporate effort. The material problem gets worse, but global organisations are learning how to manage a sustained emergency.

Scenario 3: the world organises to face the crisis

Global warming is recognised as a real problem, with the Gulf Stream under threat and sea levels rising several metres due to ice sheets melting. The occurrence of major storms increases, while deforestation, species decline and disease are also major problems.

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Pushed by popular concern, global agencies to manage control of energy usage are put in place to ensure the economic pain of change is spread evenly. Global emergency agencies are established to shift resources around the globe in response to emergencies.

The “Gorist” Democrat Government in the US embraces global management as a New Deal for mankind, taking the lead. A new corporate sector emerges focused on emergency management and new technology, especially new energy and information technology systems.

The negative impact of global warming is partially offset by the economic gains of new technology and the rapid economic development of previously excluded populations in Asia and Africa. Population shifts are managed co-operatively and new efforts to control population growth undertaken.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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