What is the place of Foresight and Futures Literacy among economic challenges of the 21st Century? And how economists can make usage of Futures Studies? This time we were presenting the potential of futures thinking in the context of economic transformations and globalization, during the 7th International Scientific Conference “World Economy – Challenges of the 21st Century” that took place in Radom (Poland) on the 24th of November.
The discussion led to the important question: What incentives can we offer to the companies in order to make them future (long-term?) – oriented in the times of strategic thinking defeated by short-termism? The question that may be even more important is: why we still need to ‘sell’ the idea of future orientation?
Short-term orientation is not a new concern in the world’s financial history, but the crisis of 2008-10 made a short-termism issue alive and strongly relevant again. Two hundred days is the time that an average share of the firms in the S&P 500 index stay in “one hands”.
According to FCLT Global 2016 report “Rising to the challenge of short-termism”, it is commonly believed by board members and executives that the short-term pressure is continually growing. 87% of over 1000 surveyed C-level executives and board members (representing the companies from across the world, covering a full range of industries and functions) admit to feel the highest pressure to exhibit strong financial results within two years or less.
Despite the newest research findings by McKinsey Global Institute, showing that long-term companies demonstrate better (stronger and more stable) financial performance, the corporate short-termism seems to do very well across the companies. Not getting to much into details, outperformance of the long-term-oriented organizations is expressed in very important economic measures, to mention average revenue and earnings, economic profit, market capitalization or new jobs creation.
Future-orientation (and strategic planning based on long-term vision) and often the agreement for the resignation from immediate, short-term profits may be difficult and meets stakeholder’s objections. From the other hand the speed and scale of global changes, environmental challenges (including growing scarcity of natural resources and climate change) require new business models and greater flexibility in order to manage the future challenges. It also requires new view at the economic measures for tangible and intangible assets and new look at natural resources and the rationale of homo oeconomicus. It highlights the problem of measurement and assessment of transformations and changes, since emergent and novel phenomena can rarely be the subject of the assessment of existing historical models and variables, in the words of Riel Miller (2015) If the goal is transformation then the kinds of changes that define a ‘successful outcome’ cannot be fully described using yesterday’s metrics.
So, can foresight be a remedy for the short-termism of companies and assist economists in building welfare and sustainable economic development through explaining trends and new economic paradigms? Looks like the first steps are still before us: finding a common language, conceptual apparatus and mutual understanding of methodologies. But definitely these are the steps worth taking. At the end of the day we all have a common goals and look in the same direction – the future.
The future is one of many possibilities and these possibilities range greatly in scope and outcome. The changes in technology that are predicted to occur over the next 30 years could have a profound effect on the way work is performed, food production, and the environment. However, as with all periods of great advancement that have occurred in human history, there are many possible outcomes. For purposes of simplicity, these can be divided into positive outcomes, negative outcomes, or neutral outcomes. Here is what each outcome could possibly look like.
Probability 60% Abundance And Hope
The greatest possible outcome is the improvement of the human condition. Historically human civilization has trended upward with lifespans increasing, education improving, greater freedoms, personal earnings increasing, and deaths due to widespread violence decreasing. Now, this is not to say civilization’s advancements haven’t had periods of difficulty, war, strife, and the occasional setbacks but taken as a whole things tend to get better in ways that can be hard to see in the moment. The next several decades are certainly ones with great potential. Advancements in fields such as artificial intelligence, automation, and the medical fields have the potential to have profound effects on not only how we work and live but also on how long we live and the level of comfort in which we live. Solving highly important issues such as world hunger are a possibility and looking to past achievements (such as the elimination of certain diseases) there are signs that such things are achievable again in the future.
Probability 30% Dystopia And Societal Collapse
Not all thoughts about the future are hopeful ones. Looking through human history even very powerful civilizations have fallen (Western Rome and the Achaemenid Empire are two such historical examples). No matter where or when the key factors that cause civilizational decline are various types of common ‘stress events’ related to the economy, rule of law, strength of the government, wartime concerns, population density, and so on. Not everyone views technological advancements as beneficial and see several ways they could have a negative impact on society. Common examples include automation decreasing the availability of work without anything to fill this new employment gap, governments using technology to spy on or control their citizens, technology driving wealth inequality to levels that destroy societal bonds, and the always popular AI takeover which has been around for a very long time but is increasingly popular due to AI advancing as a field of study. Certainly, scepticism is healthy and bad outcomes are certainly possible. However, by being aware of these possibilities preventative measures can be taken to prevent them from occurring or limiting their impact when avoidance is not realistically possible.
Probability 10% Business As Usual
The last of the three possible outcomes is also the least dynamic. Things go on much like they always have with the same highs, lows, successes, failures, problems, and solutions. The idea being that the issues humanity faces now will endure despite technological advances and that issues such as famine and disease will find new ways to trouble us. While not impossible the idea is flawed in its very premise hence its low probability. It relies on the end of history concept in that humanity endures but nothing changes because we’ve reached an endpoint in the development of the systems that guide human civilizations. History to this point shows humans tend not to operate in this way and continually try to innovate and experiment with things with many people driven by this need to innovate.
With the sheer number of variables that will affect what the future brings predicting with 100 percent undeniable certainty what will happen is an impossibility. Anyone saying they unequivocally know the exact outcome of future events is either lying, sure of themselves to an unhealthy degree or trying to sell you something. In the end, technology will advance and new breakthroughs will be made. How these discoveries are used depends on input from people from several different walks of life and in several different professions both public and private. The possibilities for both a better future and dystopia are there but through careful judgment and a pragmatic future-minded worldview, the odds favour humanities continued advancement.
J’ai le plaisir de présenter depuis 2014 des chroniques du futur dans le revue RH&M. Ces chroniques ont été dédiées en 2014, à l’exploration des contours de la Grande Transition à travers nos attitudes face au changement : les zones aveugles, la simplexité, la worldview et la confiance en l’avenir.
Vous pouvez retrouver, en cette rentrée les deux dernières chroniques du futures 2014 sous la forme d’article LinkedIn. Ci-après la quatrième et dernière chronique du Futur 2014.
De la confiance en l’avenir – Ou la présence des éléphants noirs
Pour franchir la Transition, nous avons besoin de simplexité face à la complexité croissante, de sens face à l’apparente incohérence, de récits pour changer de paradigme. Mais aussi —surtout— d’une nouvelle confiance en l’avenir.
L’ampleur de la Transition qui nous entoure interpelle notre capacité à changer (Chroniques n°2, n°53). Changer de regard sur le monde pour nous forger des interprétations plus proches de la réalité actuelle (Chroniques n°3, n°54). Changer de regard sur nous-mêmes pour affronter notre peur du changement (Chroniques n°1, n°52). Mais il nous faut, aussi, changer d’état d’esprit vis-à-vis du futur.
Business as usual
Le microcosme français — moins de 1% de la population mondiale— semble s’être enfermé dans une vision de l’avenir blasée, si étroite qu’elle en fige la dynamique même. L’avenir ne serait ainsi plus qu’un éternel recommencement, “more of the same” (plus de la même chose) ou “business as usual” (tout comme d’habitude). La préservation de nos acquis, l’enracinement dans l’histoire, la crispation sur des futilités sont autant de symptômes d’une société qui refuse de considérer le futur avec bienveillance.
Derrière cette peur manifeste du changement, se niche, profondément enfoui, un manque de confiance en l’avenir qui laisse perplexe. Car il nous renvoie en fait à un manque de confiance en nous-mêmes, nous, ce peuple français jugé si manifestement arrogant par les autres cultures. Est-ce parce que, sans l’intervention américaine, nous aurions perdu la Seconde Guerre Mondiale ? Mais les Britanniques aussi, et leur appétence pour l’avenir est demeurée intacte. Est-ce parce que l’existentialisme a si massivement supplanté l’humanisme ? Mais en Allemagne aussi, et leur avancée vers le futur est continue. Parce que nous serions Latins ? Les Italiens aussi, mais ils embrassent le futur. D’où vient alors cette frilosité d’une culture qui semble vouloir arrêter sa course évolutive vers l’avenir ?
Des éléphants noirs…
L’expression “éléphant noir” résulte de la conjonction de deux expressions anglo-saxonnes : “un éléphant est assis dans la pièce” —qui signifie que tout le monde voit l’éléphant mais fait comme s’il n’existait pas (the elephant sitting in the room)— et “un cygne noir” — qui désigne un événement extrêmement improbable mais à très fort impact (black swan). Elle qualifie un événement extrêmement probable, largement annoncé, mais que l’on choisit délibérément d’ignorer. A l’inverse d’une zone aveugle (cf. Chroniques du futur n°1, n°52) qui nous empêche de voir ce qui existe, nous voyons bien l’éléphant noir, mais nous décidons de ne pas en tenir compte.
Parmi les exemples les plus frappants : l’éducation dont le contenu n’est plus adapté aux besoins actuels, le changement climatique qui devrait imposer de nouvelles pratiques, l’automatisation qui menace les “cols blancs”, la marchandisation de la monnaie qui a atteint ses limites. Mais rien ne change vraiment : on ignore les éléphants noirs assis au milieu de notre monde.
Cependant jamais la période n’a été aussi propice aux changements. Un monde en transition, tel que le nôtre, est riche en Volatilité, Uncertitude, Complexité et Ambiguïté (VUCA). Une telle fluidité, bien que chaotique, favorise les dynamiques de changement : les opportunités sont aussi nombreuses que les risques. Mais nous ne les voyons pas parce que, tel un gros nuage sombre, l’éléphant noir n’évoque que la menace d’un orage, et non la pluie bénéfique. On croise les doigts en attendant qu’il passe, espérant que le choc du changement aura lieu ailleurs, dans l’espace (autres pays) ou dans le temps (générations futures).
Il est temps de se resaisir. Déjà, outre-atlantique, le concept de “temps postnormaux” (postnormal times) a fait son apparition. Il pose que, pour nous frayer un chemin à travers la complexité (la situation en Syrie par ex.), le chaos (la crise financière mondiale résultant de celle des subprimes américaines) et les contradictions (telles que le développement générant une inégalité croissante entre riches et pauvres), nous devons donner non seulement du sens au monde qui nous entoure, mais un sens positif. La carte devient nécessairement fausse dans un monde de plus en plus étrange : seule la boussole compte, éthique, prospective, humaniste ; la boussole qui nous indique le cap à suivre.
De la littérature utopique nous ne retenons généralement que les dystopies, ces scénarios-catastrophes qui nous conduisent à l’enfer sur Terre, ou, plus radicalement aujourd’hui, à la disparition de l’espèce humaine. Nous serions fort avisés de faire plutôt porter les programmes scolaires de littérature sur les eutopies, ces lendemains qui chantent que nos technologies et nos savoirs mettent plus que jamais à notre portée… si nous voulons bien nous donner la peine de les construire, plutôt que de nous lamenter sur notre sort.
The world is rapidly urbanizing. The United Nations predicts that the number of people living in cities could double by 2050 — to 6.5 billion.
To accommodate growing populations, cities like Paris, New York, and Tokyo are building more housing and public resources, including parks, schools, and subways, as part of large redevelopment plans.
These cities will likely look very different in the coming decades. Take a look at some of the biggest urban projects under construction below.
Shanghai, China — Todtown
Set to be complete by 2020, Todtown is a new mixed-use development in Shanghai’s Minhang District.
The development will feature 1,000 apartment units, a 1.3 million-square-foot shopping mall, an additional 580,000 square feet of retail, 1.5 million square feet of office space, and a 53,000-square-foot cultural center, according to InHabitat. Todtown will also incorporate lots of greenery, from green roofs to mini parks scattered throughout.
The master plan was created by Chicago-based architecture firm Goettsch Partners and Hong Kong-based studio Lead 8.
East of downtown Cairo, New Cairo Capital will be a 270-square-mile hub with 21 new residential districts — enough housing for five million people.
The development is being financed largely by Chinese developers. (The China Fortune Land Development Company, for instance, put down $20 billion for the project in late 2016, according to CNN.)
New Cairo Capital will also feature 1,250 mosques and churches, a 5,000-seat conference center, nearly 2,000 schools and colleges, over 600 medical facilities, and what is projected to be the world’s largest park.
Egypt Housing Minister Mostafa Madbouly told the BBC that the project would cost $45 billion and be complete by 2022. Construction began in 2015.
Paris, France — Europa City
In 2016, Paris began building an 8.6-million-square-foot mixed-use development, called Europa City, north of downtown.
Designed by Danish architecture firm Bjarke Ingels Group (the company behind Google’s California headquarters), Europa City promises housing, shops, and restaurants, though the exact numbers of each are not confirmed yet. The development is also slated to include plazas, an artificial ski slope, open walkways, a golf system, and a new transit system.
Triangle de Gonesse, the suburb where it will be located, is still largely rural. But according to Europa City’s developers, the goal of the $3.4 billion project is to connect the area with urban Paris and reduce congestion downtown.
Construction started in 2016 and is expected to wrap up by 2024.
Istanbul, Turkey — New City Istanbul
New City Istanbul is a development that re-imagines the 8,000-year-old river city.
In April 2016, the Metropolitan Municipality Council approved the plan to build approximately 50,000 residences in seven towers on the few remaining large slots of land near Istanbul’s center, local news outlet The Daily Sabah reported. The 93.6 million-square-foot area was once a military zone.
The development will also feature a shopping center, a 6,200-space underground parking garage, a 26.9-million-square-foot park, a movie theater, an ice rink, and an airport that’s being billed as the world’s largest.
The exact timeline and cost for the project has not been disclosed yet, but construction began in late 2016. The airport alone, set to open in 2018, has attracted over $6 billion in funding.
New York City, USA — The World Trade Center site
Since the September 11 attacks in 2001, New York City has been working to redevelop the 16-acre Manhattan site where the Twin Towers and surrounding buildings stood.
As of July 2017, much of the project has been completed, including 1 World Trade Center (also known as the Freedom Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the city), 4 World Trade Center, 7 World Trade Center, a new transit hub, the 9/11 memorial and museum, a mall, and a park. Three more towers, a small church, and a performing arts center are still in the works. Construction is set to be finished by 2020.
São Paulo, Brazil: The city’s new master plan
In 2014, São Paulo unveiled its new master plan, which will dramatically change the city over the next two decades.
The plan calls for more people-oriented development, including new housing, bike lanes, dedicated bus lanes, and a reduction in the number of existing parking spaces.
As Next City notes, the city currently faces a housing shortage of up to 500,000 units. Approximately 1.2 million São Paulo residents live in favelas — concrete-and-iron shantytowns — or abandoned buildings downtown, called cortices.
According to the new master plan, the city plans to build 717,000 new residential units, 240,000 of which will be designated as affordable, by 2030. The Centro de Acçao Social por Música, which was completed in 2015, was one of the first buildings included in the plan to open. The four-story community center includes a bus stop, playing field, urban farm, terrace, and performance hall.
Tokyo, Japan: Shibuya Station Area Redevelopment
Tokyo is preparing for the 2020 Summer Olympics, which has spurred a number of redevelopment projects in the city. Citywide, at least 45 new skyscrapers will be constructed by 2020 — a 50% increase in high-rises over the next three years, according to Bloomberg.
Seven skyscrapers will be part of the Shibuya Station Area Redevelopmentproject: Six will be used for offices and retail, and one will be a 32-story condo building. The plan also calls for a redeveloped “Shibuya River,” a narrow pedestrian walkway that will feature new shops and greenery when it opens in early 2018.
London, England: The Battersea Power Station developmentA rendering of Apple’s new UK headquarters, part of the Battersea Power Station Development.Battersea Power Station
The renovation of the Battersea Power Station — the iconic building featured on the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1977 album “Animals” — is at the center of a larger mega-development in London’s Nine Elms neighborhood.
The estimated $16.5 billion (£13 billion) project will include new residential and commercial complexes, including apartments, hotels, and offices. Construction is slated to proceed in seven phases — the first began in 2014 and the last is expected to finish in 2025.
Spanning over 8 million square feet, the construction site for the Battersea Power Station development is the largest in London in 30 years, according to Dave Twohig, chief development officer at Battersea Power Station Development Company.
Apple, the complex’s anchor tenant, will move its London headquarters to the former power station in 2021. The company is expected to take up 40% of the building’s available office space.
In the jungles of Costa Rica, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.
July 9, 20179:00 pm
Peering beyond scientific reticence.
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.
Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.
The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.
Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines). Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”
But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.
In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.
The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*
The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.
Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.
II. Heat Death
The bahraining of New York.
Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, like panting dogs. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for large portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem; in the jungles of Costa Rica, for instance, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.
Climate-change skeptics point out that the planet has warmed and cooled many times before, but the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history. At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually. This century, and especially in the tropics, the pain points will pinch much more quickly even than an increase of seven degrees. The key factor is something called wet-bulb temperature, which is a term of measurement as home-laboratory-kit as it sounds: the heat registered on a thermometer wrapped in a damp sock as it’s swung around in the air (since the moisture evaporates from a sock more quickly in dry air, this single number reflects both heat and humidity). At present, most regions reach a wet-bulb maximum of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius; the true red line for habitability is 35 degrees. What is called heat stress comes much sooner.
Actually, we’re about there already. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still. By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Air-conditioning can help but will ultimately only add to the carbon problem; plus, the climate-controlled malls of the Arab emirates aside, it is not remotely plausible to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the world, many of them also the poorest. And indeed, the crisis will be most dramatic across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where in 2015 the heat index registered temperatures as high as 163 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.
It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks. Of course, heat stress promises to pummel us in places other than our kidneys, too. As I type that sentence, in the California desert in mid-June, it is 121 degrees outside my door. It is not a record high.
III. The End of Food
Praying for cornfields in the tundra.
Climates differ and plants vary, but the basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. Some estimates run as high as 15 or even 17 percent. Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them. And proteins are worse: It takes 16 calories of grain to produce just a single calorie of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent its life polluting the climate with methane farts.
Pollyannaish plant physiologists will point out that the cereal-crop math applies only to those regions already at peak growing temperature, and they are right — theoretically, a warmer climate will make it easier to grow corn in Greenland. But as the pathbreaking work by Rosamond Naylor and David Battisti has shown, the tropics are already too hot to efficiently grow grain, and those places where grain is produced today are already at optimal growing temperature — which means even a small warming will push them down the slope of declining productivity. And you can’t easily move croplands north a few hundred miles, because yields in places like remote Canada and Russia are limited by the quality of soil there; it takes many centuries for the planet to produce optimally fertile dirt.
Drought might be an even bigger problem than heat, with some of the world’s most arable land turning quickly to desert. Precipitation is notoriously hard to model, yet predictions for later this century are basically unanimous: unprecedented droughts nearly everywhere food is today produced. By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American dust bowl ever was. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East; some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, Africa, and South America; and the breadbasket regions of China. None of these places, which today supply much of the world’s food, will be reliable sources of any. As for the original dust bowl: The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which “dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains” and may have been responsible for the death of the Anasazi civilization.
Remember, we do not live in a world without hunger as it is. Far from it: Most estimates put the number of undernourished at 800 million globally. In case you haven’t heard, this spring has already brought an unprecedented quadruple famine to Africa and the Middle East; the U.N. has warned that separate starvation events in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen could kill 20 million this year alone.
IV. Climate Plagues
What happens when the bubonic ice melts?
Rock, in the right spot, is a record of planetary history, eras as long as millions of years flattened by the forces of geological time into strata with amplitudes of just inches, or just an inch, or even less. Ice works that way, too, as a climate ledger, but it is also frozen history, some of which can be reanimated when unfrozen. There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years — in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them. Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice.
The Arctic also stores terrifying bugs from more recent times. In Alaska, already, researchers have discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected as many as 500 million and killed as many as 100 million — about 5 percent of the world’s population and almost six times as many as had died in the world war for which the pandemic served as a kind of gruesome capstone. As the BBC reported in May, scientists suspect smallpox and the bubonic plague are trapped in Siberian ice, too — an abridged history of devastating human sickness, left out like egg salad in the Arctic sun.
Experts caution that many of these organisms won’t actually survive the thaw and point to the fastidious lab conditions under which they have already reanimated several of them — the 32,000-year-old “extremophile” bacteria revived in 2005, an 8 million-year-old bug brought back to life in 2007, the 3.5 million–year–old one a Russian scientist self-injected just out of curiosity — to suggest that those are necessary conditions for the return of such ancient plagues. But already last year, a boy was killed and 20 others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria at least 75 years earlier; 2,000 present-day reindeer were infected, too, carrying and spreading the disease beyond the tundra.
What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming. The first effect is geographical. Before the early-modern period, when adventuring sailboats accelerated the mixing of peoples and their bugs, human provinciality was a guard against pandemic. Today, even with globalization and the enormous intermingling of human populations, our ecosystems are mostly stable, and this functions as another limit, but global warming will scramble those ecosystems and help disease trespass those limits as surely as Cortés did. You don’t worry much about dengue or malaria if you are living in Maine or France. But as the tropics creep northward and mosquitoes migrate with them, you will. You didn’t much worry about Zika a couple of years ago, either.
As it happens, Zika may also be a good model of the second worrying effect — disease mutation. One reason you hadn’t heard about Zika until recently is that it had been trapped in Uganda; another is that it did not, until recently, appear to cause birth defects. Scientists still don’t entirely understand what happened, or what they missed. But there are things we do know for sure about how climate affects some diseases: Malaria, for instance, thrives in hotter regions not just because the mosquitoes that carry it do, too, but because for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces ten times faster. Which is one reason that the World Bank estimates that by 2050, 5.2 billion people will be reckoning with it.
V. Unbreathable Air
A rolling death smog that suffocates millions.
Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.
Other stuff in the hotter air is even scarier, with small increases in pollution capable of shortening life spans by ten years. The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected. By 2090, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level; one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors). Which does make you think again about the autism epidemic in West Hollywood.
Already, more than 10,000 people die each day from the small particles emitted from fossil-fuel burning; each year, 339,000 people die from wildfire smoke, in part because climate change has extended forest-fire season (in the U.S., it’s increased by 78 days since 1970). By 2050, according to the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires will be twice as destructive as they are today; in some places, the area burned could grow fivefold. What worries people even more is the effect that would have on emissions, especially when the fires ravage forests arising out of peat. Peatland fires in Indonesia in 1997, for instance, added to the global CO2 release by up to 40 percent, and more burning only means more warming only means more burning. There is also the terrifying possibility that rain forests like the Amazon, which in 2010 suffered its second “hundred-year drought” in the space of five years, could dry out enough to become vulnerable to these kinds of devastating, rolling forest fires — which would not only expel enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere but also shrink the size of the forest. That is especially bad because the Amazon alone provides 20 percent of our oxygen.
Then there are the more familiar forms of pollution. In 2013, melting Arctic ice remodeled Asian weather patterns, depriving industrial China of the natural ventilation systems it had come to depend on, which blanketed much of the country’s north in an unbreathable smog. Literally unbreathable. A metric called the Air Quality Index categorizes the risks and tops out at the 301-to-500 range, warning of “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly” and, for all others, “serious risk of respiratory effects”; at that level, “everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” The Chinese “airpocalypse” of 2013 peaked at what would have been an Air Quality Index of over 800. That year, smog was responsible for a third of all deaths in the country.
VI. Perpetual War
The violence baked into heat.
Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria. They want you to know that while climate change did produce a drought that contributed to civil war, it is not exactly fair to saythat the conflict is the result of warming; next door, for instance, Lebanon suffered the same crop failures. But researchers like Marshall Burke and Solomon Hsiang have managed to quantify some of the non-obvious relationships between temperature and violence: For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. In climate science, nothing is simple, but the arithmetic is harrowing: A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.
This is one reason that, as nearly every climate scientist I spoke to pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change: The drowning of all American Navy bases by sea-level rise is trouble enough, but being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles. Of course, it’s not just Syria where climate has contributed to conflict. Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming — a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.
What accounts for the relationship between climate and conflict? Some of it comes down to agriculture and economics; a lot has to do with forced migration, already at a record high, with at least 65 million displaced people wandering the planet right now. But there is also the simple fact of individual irritability. Heat increases municipal crime rates, and swearing on social media, and the likelihood that a major-league pitcher, coming to the mound after his teammate has been hit by a pitch, will hit an opposing batter in retaliation. And the arrival of air-conditioning in the developed world, in the middle of the past century, did little to solve the problem of the summer crime wave.
VII. Permanent Economic Collapse
Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world.
The murmuring mantra of global neoliberalism, which prevailed between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the Great Recession, is that economic growth would save us from anything and everything.
But in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves. After we’ve burned all the fossil fuels, these scholars suggest, perhaps we will return to a “steady state” global economy. Of course, that onetime injection has a devastating long-term cost: climate change.
The most exciting research on the economics of warming has also come from Hsiang and his colleagues, who are not historians of fossil capitalism but who offer some very bleak analysis of their own: Every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2 percent of GDP (an enormous number, considering we count growth in the low single digits as “strong”). This is the sterling work in the field, and their median projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labor).
Tracing the shape of the probability curve is even scarier: There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100, they say, and a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline. By comparison, the Great Recession lowered global GDP by about 6 percent, in a onetime shock; Hsiang and his colleagues estimate a one-in-eight chance of an ongoing and irreversible effect by the end of the century that is eight times worse.
The scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend, but you can start by imagining what the world would look like today with an economy half as big, which would produce only half as much value, generating only half as much to offer the workers of the world. It makes the grounding of flights out of heat-stricken Phoenix last month seem like pathetically small economic potatoes. And, among other things, it makes the idea of postponing government action on reducing emissions and relying solely on growth and technology to solve the problem an absurd business calculation.
Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.
VIII. Poisoned Oceans
Sulfide burps off the skeleton coast.
That the sea will become a killer is a given. Barring a radical reduction of emissions, we will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century. A third of the world’s major cities are on the coast, not to mention its power plants, ports, navy bases, farmlands, fisheries, river deltas, marshlands, and rice-paddy empires, and even those above ten feet will flood much more easily, and much more regularly, if the water gets that high. At least 600 million people live within ten meters of sea level today.
But the drowning of those homelands is just the start. At present, more than a third of the world’s carbon is sucked up by the oceans — thank God, or else we’d have that much more warming already. But the result is what’s called “ocean acidification,” which, on its own, may add a half a degree to warming this century. It is also already burning through the planet’s water basins — you may remember these as the place where life arose in the first place. You have probably heard of “coral bleaching” — that is, coral dying — which is very bad news, because reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food for half a billion people. Ocean acidification will fry fish populations directly, too, though scientists aren’t yet sure how to predict the effects on the stuff we haul out of the ocean to eat; they do know that in acid waters, oysters and mussels will struggle to grow their shells, and that when the pH of human blood drops as much as the oceans’ pH has over the past generation, it induces seizures, comas, and sudden death.
That isn’t all that ocean acidification can do. Carbon absorption can initiate a feedback loop in which underoxygenated waters breed different kinds of microbes that turn the water still more “anoxic,” first in deep ocean “dead zones,” then gradually up toward the surface. There, the small fish die out, unable to breathe, which means oxygen-eating bacteria thrive, and the feedback loop doubles back. This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the “Skeleton Coast.” The name originally referred to the detritus of the whaling industry, but today it’s more apt than ever. Hydrogen sulfide is so toxic that evolution has trained us to recognize the tiniest, safest traces of it, which is why our noses are so exquisitely skilled at registering flatulence. Hydrogen sulfide is also the thing that finally did us in that time 97 percent of all life on Earth died, once all the feedback loops had been triggered and the circulating jet streams of a warmed ocean ground to a halt — it’s the planet’s preferred gas for a natural holocaust. Gradually, the ocean’s dead zones spread, killing off marine species that had dominated the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and the gas the inert waters gave off into the atmosphere poisoned everything on land. Plants, too. It was millions of years before the oceans recovered.
IX. The Great Filter
Our present eeriness cannot last.
So why can’t we see it? In his recent book-length essay The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction — why we don’t seem able to imagine climate catastrophe, and why we haven’t yet had a spate of novels in the genre he basically imagines into half-existence and names “the environmental uncanny.” “Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ or ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ ” he writes. “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’ ” His answer: Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.
Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size. Humans used to watch the weather to prophesy the future; going forward, we will see in its wrath the vengeance of the past. Early naturalists talked often about “deep time” — the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. What lies in store for us is more like what the Victorian anthropologists identified as “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience, described by Aboriginal Australians, of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea — a feeling of history happening all at once.
It is. Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries — a helpful perspective, in a way, since it is the carbon-burning processes that began in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent. Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime. My father’s, for instance: born in 1938, among his first memories the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic Air Force of the propaganda films that followed, films that doubled as advertisements for imperial-American industrial might; and among his last memories the coverage of the desperate signing of the Paris climate accords on cable news, ten weeks before he died of lung cancer last July. Or my mother’s: born in 1945, to German Jews fleeing the smokestacks through which their relatives were incinerated, now enjoying her 72nd year in an American commodity paradise, a paradise supported by the supply chains of an industrialized developing world. She has been smoking for 57 of those years, unfiltered.
Or the scientists’. Some of the men who first identified a changing climate (and given the generation, those who became famous were men) are still alive; a few are even still working. Wally Broecker is 84 years old and drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory across the Hudson every day from the Upper West Side. Like most of those who first raised the alarm, he believes that no amount of emissions reduction alone can meaningfully help avoid disaster. Instead, he puts his faith in carbon capture — untested technology to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which Broecker estimates will cost at least several trillion dollars — and various forms of “geoengineering,” the catchall name for a variety of moon-shot technologies far-fetched enough that many climate scientists prefer to regard them as dreams, or nightmares, from science fiction. He is especially focused on what’s called the aerosol approach — dispersing so much sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that when it converts to sulfuric acid, it will cloud a fifth of the horizon and reflect back 2 percent of the sun’s rays, buying the planet at least a little wiggle room, heat-wise. “Of course, that would make our sunsets very red, would bleach the sky, would make more acid rain,” he says. “But you have to look at the magnitude of the problem. You got to watch that you don’t say the giant problem shouldn’t be solved because the solution causes some smaller problems.” He won’t be around to see that, he told me. “But in your lifetime …”
Jim Hansen is another member of this godfather generation. Born in 1941, he became a climatologist at the University of Iowa, developed the groundbreaking “Zero Model” for projecting climate change, and later became the head of climate research at NASA, only to leave under pressure when, while still a federal employee, he filed a lawsuit against the federal government charging inaction on warming (along the way he got arrested a few times for protesting, too). The lawsuit, which is brought by a collective called Our Children’s Trust and is often described as “kids versus climate change,” is built on an appeal to the equal-protection clause, namely, that in failing to take action on warming, the government is violating it by imposing massive costs on future generations; it is scheduled to be heard this winter in Oregon district court. Hansen has recently given up on solving the climate problem with a carbon tax alone, which had been his preferred approach, and has set about calculating the total cost of the additional measure of extracting carbon from the atmosphere.
Hansen began his career studying Venus, which was once a very Earth-like planet with plenty of life-supporting water before runaway climate change rapidly transformed it into an arid and uninhabitable sphere enveloped in an unbreathable gas; he switched to studying our planet by 30, wondering why he should be squinting across the solar system to explore rapid environmental change when he could see it all around him on the planet he was standing on. “When we wrote our first paper on this, in 1981,” he told me, “I remember saying to one of my co-authors, ‘This is going to be very interesting. Sometime during our careers, we’re going to see these things beginning to happen.’ ”
Several of the scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as the solution to Fermi’s famous paradox, which asks, If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer, they suggested, is that the natural life span of a civilization may be only several thousand years, and the life span of an industrial civilization perhaps only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another. Peter Ward, a charismatic paleontologist among those responsible for discovering that the planet’s mass extinctions were caused by greenhouse gas, calls this the “Great Filter”: “Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly,” he told me. “If you look at planet Earth, the filtering we’ve had in the past has been in these mass extinctions.” The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.
And yet, improbably, Ward is an optimist. So are Broecker and Hansen and many of the other scientists I spoke to. We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.
It is not easy to know how much to be reassured by that bleak certainty, and how much to wonder whether it is another form of delusion; for global warming to work as parable, of course, someone needs to survive to tell the story. The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do. Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. The planet is not used to being provoked like this, and climate systems designed to give feedback over centuries or millennia prevent us — even those who may be watching closely — from fully imagining the damage done already to the planet. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.
*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
*This article has been updated to provide context for the recent news reports about revisions to a satellite data set,to more accurately reflect the rate of warming during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, to clarify a reference to Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World, and to make clear that James Hansen still supports a carbon-tax based approach to emissions.
03 de junio 2017 , 12:00 a.m. (El TIEMPO http://m.eltiempo.com/opinion/columnistas/adriana-la-rotta/reescribir-el-futuro-imaginar-el-futuro-94966)
El pasado no lo vamos a cambiar, pero sí podemos torcerle el brazo al pesimismo.
Un texto reciente de Martin Seligman, un investigador de la Universidad de Pennsylvania a quien se lo conoce como el padre de la psicología positiva, me ha parecido muy revelador. Es un ensayo corto –basado en décadas de estudios– según el cual entre las cosas que separan a los humanos de los animales está algo que la comunidad científica no ha estudiado lo suficiente: nuestra capacidad de contemplar el futuro. De acuerdo con Seligman y otros de sus colegas, existe la percepción de que los individuos gastamos enormes cantidades de tiempo pensando y lidiando con el pasado. Pero lo que la ciencia está descubriendo es que en realidad pasamos mucho tiempo pensando en el futuro y, específicamente, imaginándonos el futuro.
La parte que me pareció más intrigante de la propuesta de Seligman, que está dirigida a otros psicólogos pero también a gobiernos y a diseñadores de políticas públicas, es que hay que mirar menos el pasado de las personas y enfocarse más en la visión distorsionada que algunas, o muchas de ellas, tienen de su propio futuro.
Quienes han sufrido traumas, escribe Seligman, tienen una perspectiva desalentadora del futuro, y esa perspectiva es la causa de sus problemas, no los traumas que sufrieron. En otras palabras, quienes se imaginan un futuro con muchos riesgos y pocos escenarios positivos son propensos a la ansiedad, y no al contrario, como normalmente se piensa. Lo genial de esta teoría es que significa que uno puede intervenir en el futuro, en lugar de seguir atribuyéndoles al pasado y al presente, sobre los cuales uno no tiene ningún control, un poder desmesurado.
Lo que la ciencia está descubriendo es que en realidad pasamos mucho tiempo pensando en el futuro y, específicamente, imaginándonos el futuro.
Aquí me voy a permitir una nota personal que explica seguramente por qué la teoría de Martin Seligman me parece válida e importante a nivel individual y especialmente a nivel colectivo. Yo perdí a mi madre cuando era niña, y no puedo decir que ese episodio haya determinado mi futuro, por más traumático que haya sido. Lo que sí me creó fue un reflejo involuntario, un sesgo pesimista y a menudo risible que hace que cuando contemplo el futuro no vea el horizonte soleado y prometedor, sino los negros nubarrones que amenazan convertirse en terrible tormenta. Una gran amiga lo define como la capacidad infalible de encontrar el punto negro en la sábana blanca. El problema no es el pasado. El problema es la incapacidad de imaginarse un futuro mejor.
Ahora bien, ¿es posible que ese fenómeno que aqueja a individuos que han pasado por experiencias dolorosas se extienda a toda una sociedad o a todo un país? Francamente, no veo por qué no sería así.
Más de cinco décadas de trauma han dejado en Colombia no apenas cicatrices, sino heridas que siguen abiertas. Recuperar la memoria, procesar lo ocurrido, encontrar justicia y reparación son todos aspectos importantes para avanzar. Pero ¿acaso esa idea de futuro catastrófico que se percibe en el ánimo colectivo y que amenaza con arreciar a medida que se calienta la campaña presidencial no es justamente eso: una idea producto de nuestra incapacidad de imaginarnos un futuro mejor?
El pasado no lo vamos a cambiar, pero sí podemos torcerle el brazo al pesimismo, admitiendo que existe un sesgo que casi con seguridad distorsiona lo que vemos por delante. Se trata de reescribir el futuro, haciendo que nuestra imaginación colectiva que hoy está poblada de peligros también les abra espacio a los escenarios positivos.
Como a cualquier investigador, a Martin Seligman le han salido contradictores que ponen en duda sus hallazgos y los tildan de autoayuda. Aunque así fuera, en todo caso me parece que es el tipo de ayuda que estamos necesitando.
ADRIANA LA ROTTA
Tomado de http://m.eltiempo.com/opinion/columnistas/adriana-la-rotta/reescribir-el-futuro-imaginar-el-futuro-94966
La expansión urbana, la demanda de producción agrícola, la necesidad de evolución en la gestión política y el cambio climático configuran un momento clave en el avance de los países latinoamericanos que dependen como nunca del agua. Lo explicó Sergio Bitar, ingeniero y ex ministro chileno, en el ciclo de conferencias “Agua y metrópolis” organizado por la Fundación We Are Water y Casa Amèrica Catalunya.
“Latinoamérica tiene grandes desafíos y enormes potencialidades, pero todo depende del agua. Ésta es la máxima prioridad para afrontar el futuro”, así comenzó la charla “La acción política en la crisis del agua en Latinoamérica” impartida por Sergio Bitar dentro del ciclo de conferencias Agua y metrópolis, organizado por la Fundación We Are Water y Casa Amèrica Catalunya que se celebró el pasado 4 de mayo en el Roca Barcelona Gallery. El ingeniero y político chileno, ex ministro de Minería y Educación respectivamente bajo los gobiernos de Salvador Allende y Michelle Bachelet, es el director del programa Tendencias Globales y el Futuro de América Latina del Inter-American Dialogue, y presidente de la Fundación por la Democracia.
Bitar es uno de principales promotores latinoamericanos de estrategias compartidas entre el sector público y privado para garantizar el derecho al agua y su uso eficiente. Mostró la situación actual de Latinoamérica ante las grandes tendencias socioeconómicas, como son el advenimiento de nuevas tecnologías y el poder incuestionable de los recursos naturales como generadores de riqueza. Estos factores coexisten con el enorme y desigual crecimiento demográfico en el mundo, la evolución imparable de las grandes ciudades, la amenaza del cambio climático y el inevitable empoderamiento ciudadano, que es un factor clave para el éxito de cualquier estrategia sostenible.
Sergio Bitar, durante la conferencia, en el Roca Barcelona Gallery.
Latinoamérica depende como nunca del agua
El ex ministro chileno expuso con claridad cuáles son los desafíos de gobernabilidad, gestión y financiación a los que se enfrentan los países latinoamericanos, y la importancia de lograr la participación ciudadana, especialmente la de los pequeños agricultores que son claves respecto al agua.
El primero es el alto nivel de urbanización que alcanza el 80%, el más alto del mundo, y genera problemas de gestión del agua en las grandes ciudades: “México, Sao Paulo, Río y Lima han tenido recientemente graves problemas de escasez, siendo ciudades que se sitúan en países de un enorme potencial hídrico, como por ejemplo la zona amazónica de Perú y Brasil. En Chile, por ejemplo, tenemos las zonas del sur que tienen 1.000 veces más agua por habitante que las del norte. El agua está muy mal distribuida en Latinoamérica”.
En segundo lugar, Bitar señaló la especial situación de Latinoamérica en un mercado mundial de alimentos que bascula hacia el Pacífico a causa del constante incremento de la demanda de China, India y el resto de economías con clases medias emergentes. “Los productos agrícolas son grandes consumidores de agua – comentó -, pero si no hay mejora de la productividad, ¿de dónde sacaremos el agua si la demanda aumenta como está previsto? Latinoamérica tiene que hacer un esfuerzo enorme en la gestión y gobernabilidad del agua, en el uso eficiente de las tierras de cultivo y en biotecnología para afrontar este nuevo mercado”.
Bitar, que el pasado año recibió el premio “Ingeniero 2016” otorgado por el Colegio de Ingenieros de Chile, entró de lleno en la problemática de su país, que se enfrenta, como el resto de Latinoamérica, a la gran amenaza del cambio climático. El calentamiento se manifiesta de una forma especialmente notable en la cordillera andina: “Estamos experimentando una subida de las temperaturas que ha provocado que la isoterma 0º haya ascendido hasta los 3.000 metros de altura, por lo que ha desaparecido la reserva de nieve que abastecía a las ciudades de forma gradual con el deshielo; y el agua, que antes descendía en días, ahora lo hace en horas cuando llueve, provocando avenidas muy violentas que nos obligan a rediseñar los puentes y las canalizaciones”.
El cambio climático, amenaza directamente a Chile con sequías e inundaciones, y es uno de los factores que mayor incertidumbre provoca para lograr los objetivos económicos al comprometer el uso del agua e incrementar los fenómenos violentos. “Hemos constituido un equipo de investigación sobre desastres naturales – comenta Bitar -. Chile es un país muy avanzado en cuanto a desastres sísmicos, pero los aluviones son nuevos para nosotros, así como los incendios forestales: tuvimos el pasado febrero uno de los mayores incendios del planeta, que calcinó 600.000 ha de bosques. Tenemos que avanzar mucho más en prevención”.
Cambios constitucionales e institucionales imprescindibles
Para que Chile pueda seguir avanzando, Bitar considera como acciones prioritarias un cambio constitucional e institucional, una mejora en la productividad respecto al agua, y la inversión en obras e investigación. Citó algunos proyectos como el de un trasvase del agua sobrante de los ríos del sur a las zonas áridas del norte, y otros de desalinización por energía solar. También señaló la importancia de los proyectos de reciclaje del agua que serán determinantes en toda Centroamérica y Sudamérica.
El país latinoamericano se encuentra, según Bitar, en un momento clave respecto al agua, después del proceso de privatización realizado durante la pasada dictadura: “El agua es un derecho humano que el Estado y la sociedad tienen que garantizar. Ahora, en Chile, nos preocupamos por este problema que antes nadie consideraba: el Estado entrega este derecho como una concesión renovable y el debate que tenemos es complejo: ¿Qué condiciones deben ponerse para las concesiones; y qué atribuciones tiene el Estado para priorizar el consumo humano en caso de crisis? Estamos trabajando en ello y no es fácil, pues muchas veces los derechos que se entregan superan el agua disponible”.
El experto chileno señaló que, como en España, existe una gran dispersión institucional en el tema del agua en Chile: “El país tiene 101 cuencas y necesidades que provienen de diferentes sectores: la minería, la industria, la agricultura… ¿Quién decide? ¿Quién coordina? Es preciso un cambio institucional para coordinar las múltiples voces que intervienen en la determinación de las necesidades del agua”.
Bitar finalizó señalando la importancia de la concienciación ciudadana en todos los procesos del agua: “Es imprescindible que los ciudadanos sepan que el agua es un derecho humano, sepan de la importancia del agua para su casa para la agricultura y para el desarrollo de la sociedad en la que viven. Sólo así podremos seguir investigando y encontrando nuevas soluciones”.