Dr Stefan Hajkowicz gave an interesting presentation on 12 July 2010 in Brisbane, Australia, on recent CSIRO research of megatrends, megashocks and future scenarios.

Stefan is the co-author of Our Future World: an analysis of global trends, shocks and scenarios, released by CSIRO in April 2010. The report is being used to guide CSIRO’s research investment strategy.

The report defined a “megatrend” as “a collection of trends, patterns of economic, social or environmental activity that will change the way people live and the science and technology products they demand.”

The five interrelated megatrends identified in the report are:

  1. More from less. This relates to the world’s depleting natural resources and increasing demand for those resources through economic and population growth. Coming decades will see a focus on resource use efficiency.
  2. A personal touch. Growth of the services sector of western economies is being followed by a second wave of innovation aimed at tailoring and targeting services.
  3. Divergent demographics. The populations of OECD countries are ageing and experiencing lifestyle and diet related health problems. At the same time there are high fertility rates and problems of not enough food for millions in poor countries.
  4. On the move. People are changing jobs and careers more often, moving house more often, commuting further to work and travelling around the world more often.
  5. i World. Everything in the natural world will have a digital counterpart. Computing power and memory storage are improving rapidly. Many more devices are getting connected to the internet.

I attended the presentation interested to think outside my normal (environmental law) box and to hear how future scenarios could incorporate climate change impacts. Ove was also there to listen in.

While the Stefan’s presentation did include a significant component on “TRIAGE” for the Murray-Darling and coral reefs due to over-allocation of water and climate change respectively, I came away fairly disappointed with the scientific validity of the analysis that was presented.

The major failing of the analysis is that it treats climate change as only as seemingly minor component within megatrend 1 and there was no reference at all to ocean acidification.

In fact, climate change is only mentioned in megatrend 1 tangentially through reference to “growth in the global carbon market”.

The only direct reference to climate change in the report is in the megashock section of the report through identification of “extreme climate change related weather.”

Incidentally, the full list of environment-related global risks identified in the report are:

  • Extreme climate change related weather
  • Droughts and desertification
  • Loss of freshwater
  • Cyclone
  • Earthquake
  • Inland flooding
  • Coastal flooding
  • Air pollution
  • Biodiversity loss

Ocean acidification, the “evil twin” of climate change, is not mentioned anywhere in the report.

It is hard to reconcile the failure in the report to recognise climate change and ocean acidification as a megatrend in their own right with the peer-reviewed literature or numerous synthesis reports of leading scientific bodies, including but far from limited to IPCC 2007.

Just read the abstract of one of the many recent review articles on climate change and ocean acidification to understand the dystopia that current science foresees in the near-term future for the world’s oceans based on current and likely future trends in carbon dioxide emissions (Hoegh-Guldberg et al 2007):

“Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration is expected to exceed 500 parts per million and global temperatures to rise by at least 2°C by 2050 to 2100, values that significantly exceed those of at least the past 420,000 years during which most extant marine organisms evolved. Under conditions expected in the 21st century, global warming and ocean acidification will compromise carbonate accretion, with corals becoming increasingly rare on reef systems. The result will be less diverse reef communities and carbonate reef structures that fail to be maintained. Climate change also exacerbates local stresses from declining water quality and overexploitation of key species, driving reefs increasingly toward the tipping point for functional collapse. This review presents future scenarios for coral reefs that predict increasingly serious consequences for reef-associated fisheries, tourism, coastal protection, and people. As the International Year of the Reef 2008 begins, scaled-up management intervention and decisive action on global emissions are required if the loss of coral-dominated ecosystems is to be avoided.”

Stefan wondered during his presentation into the climate change thicket when discussing the rapidly rising middle-class in India and said “we must fix poverty before we fix climate change.”

To me that sounded a lot like Bjørn Lomborg’s misguided argument that climate change should be given a low priority because increasing the world’s riches will solve climate change in the future without costly interventions or unpopular behavioural change now. Understandably Lomborg is thin on the details of how this magic transition will occur.

Like Lomborg’s work, the analysis reflects an economist’s rosy confidence in market forces and humanity’s technological capacity to solve all problems. Also like Lomborg’s work, more attention to the physics and chemistry of the world’s atmosphere and oceans would improve its usefulness as a guide to the future.

Overall, it was a thought-provoking presentation and a report that is well worth a look at but there is a serious discrepancy between the analysis and the world that climate science suggests is our most likely future.

Unlike their treatment in this analysis, climate change and ocean acidification should be regarded as a megatrend in their own right as they are fundamentally altering the world we live in on a massive scale and they will continue to impact on all aspects of life in the future.

Page photo: “Dystopia” by Moebius (Hat-tip to Climate Progress)

 

3 Responses to Our Future World: CSIRO research of megatrends, megashocks & future scenarios

  1. T. Greer says:

    Stefan wondered during his presentation into the climate change thicket when discussing the rapidly rising middle-class in India and said “we must fix poverty before we fix climate change.”

    To me that sounded a lot like Bjørn Lomborg’s misguided argument that climate change should be given a low priority because increasing the world’s riches will solve climate change in the future without costly interventions or unpopular behavioural change now. Understandably Lomborg is thin on the details of how this magic transition will occur.

    I suggest that you read Michael Schellenberger’s Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility. He spends quite a bit of time on this subject, using the American environmental movement as his prime example. Schellenberger details the emergence of the movement and offers an interesting observation: it is only when a community is well developed that environmental issues can get mainstream attention.

    Should we fix poverty before we fix climate change? This is not a question. In reality, we can’t>/i> fix climate change without fixing poverty. Until the latter has been accomplished there will be no political will to lower carbon emissions.

  2. Megan Evans says:

    Also interesting that biodiversity loss gets a brief mention (a few points down from “Growth in biodiversity markets”).
    To me it seems that most of these trends and shocks can be attributed to the quest for infinite economic growth. I’d be interested to know how poverty and the rising disparity between rich and poor created by ongoing, disproportionate growth is expected to be fixed. Presumably the answer would be “more growth”. Strange that the very clear link between climate change and poverty was not addressed. Thanks for the review, Chris.

  3. Ken Fabos says:

    T.Greer, I disagree – without addressing climate change we will fail to successfully address poverty with solutions that can be sustained. With so much warming already in the pipeline the idea that delay is our friend looks extremely dubious and if the alleviation of poverty is predicated on using more fossil fuels it looks even more dubious. Of course Australia looks like it’s leading from example on this – lock in the maximum future sales of coal and gas to the world, continue growing it’s own electricity grid by building more coal fired plants, pretend Carbon Capture and Sequestration will one day save the day. It looks like it’s not just the developing world that acting like they’re in a race to come last on emissions.

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