Climate change: Teaching our unknowable future

Students on the MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance chatting outside the Grantham Institute
Students on Imperial’s MSc Climate Change, Management and Finance

Grantham Institute Lecturer Dr Joeri Rogelj says when it comes to climate change education, ‘stories about the future’ help people to come to terms with uncertain outcomes, and consistently receive great feedback from students.

The impacts of climate change are happening now and our daily news is inundated with stories of record-breaking weather events and their destructive effects on people’s lives around the globe. Understanding what to expect in this changing world, including how climate change can be halted, adapted to, or potentially even undone, is becoming ever more important. In a lecture series for Imperial’s MSc in Climate Change Management and Finance we focus on one of these questions – “What are the options available to society to halt climate change?” – a topic referred to as climate change mitigation.

A key challenge when teaching climate change mitigation is that our society’s future path, and by extension the climate change it causes and is exposed to because of its activities, depends to a very large degree on choices and decisions made over the coming years and decades. Our future is deeply uncertain, and it is a challenge to accurately describe the severity of the climate crisis and the path we’re currently on. For our students, this needs to be balanced with the empowering insights of how our choices today can change this course for the better. That’s why we use scenarios, which are a key tool for exploring various divergent and unknowable futures that have long been applied by researchers.

Scenarios are said to be ‘stories that happened in the future. They describe an internally consistent picture of how the future might evolve using a set of assumptions that we hold today, like the pace of population growth, the availability and costs of certain technologies, or economic development and inequality. They are not predictions or forecasts, but should be compelling, even if in some cases unlikely. They are tools that allow us to explore the infinite space of possible futures in a way that is graspable for humans. This makes them a useful teaching tool to explore the available options for limiting global warming to safe levels.

Road leading to the horizon in the desert or similar with the word future and an arrow

Strategies for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change are manifold. They can focus on the ‘supply side’, changing the way we produce energy, food and products; or alternatively, the ‘demand side’, changing the amount or in some cases type of energy, food, and products we use. Any sensible climate change mitigation strategy will arguably need both. However, the latter – demand-side strategies – lower society’s overall footprint on the planet. They have also been shown to help achieve global sustainable development goals like the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

Understanding the interplay between these various strategies is essential. As such, we give students hands-on scenario development practice. With a simple hybrid online and offline spreadsheet tool, initially developed by the former UK Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC), we encourage students to explore scenarios that can limit warming in line with the Paris Agreement, and consider the underlying assumptions, as well as the limitations. In a group-based exercise, students are challenged to discuss and critique the strengths and weaknesses of various mitigation strategies, considering their ramifications for other aspects of society, and developing coherent thinking about societal preferences and choices. Finally, each student is asked to select a scenario aspect that interests them in particular and reflect on this in an individual essay.

Time and again, this exercise receives enthusiastic feedback from students. It is commended for providing deep and unexpected insights that go well beyond what can be achieved from default text-book engagement with this topic. Students appreciate that, using scenarios, they can dig deep into a topic while maintaining an understanding of the bigger picture. This strengthens our conviction that hands-on scenario experience is essential to understand the landscape of climate change mitigation options, and allows us to capture a range of futures larger than we can possibly imagine in acceptable depth.

Read more about how different futures analysis methods can be used to better understand how our rapidly changing world in our briefing: Using futures analysis to develop resilient climate change mitigation strategies

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