Last month a committee of UN climate specialists released a new report tracking the global efforts to meet the goals of the 2015 Paris Agreement, at which 150 countries signed a document and committed to a reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. The average temperature on Earth will invariably rise, and now our efforts are focused on achieving an increase below 2ºC by 2100, and no more than that. This is the ‘damage reduction policy’ global nations are adopting. In this new report, the conclusions weren't exactly optimistic: The global emissions of CO2 have risen by 1% in 2017 compared to the previous year, heading in the opposite direction of what was originally proposed. Expectations aren't being met, and now they say we should triple our efforts to reach the original goal.
It's a matter of fact that the most powerful economies in the world - the group called G20 - hold accountability for around 80% of such emissions, which is the result of economic production and consumption, and intrinsically connected to climate change. We’re talking about the food industry, urban mobility, single use consumer goods or the waste displacement. There are a lot of causes for climate change, but all of them are related to the way we do economics. So what does the future hold for our fair planet?
First of all, let's take a step back and demystify the notion of future predictions. Future thinking is about handling contextual data from the present to speculate on what could happen as time goes by. The timeline that spans farthest away from us, is the more difficult to foresee. You can still estimate an outcome if everything in the system keeps working linearly (following the same previous patterns). Otherwise, you can’t predict the state of the system in advance. These are the basics of “Chaos Theory”, made famous by the Butterfly Effect and its allegory that says “a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can produce a tornado in Texas”. It defines sensitivity to initial conditions.
That's why the UN specialists got alarmed with this apparently "small" increase of 1% in CO2 emissions: The consequential damage could be bigger than we can expect today. If the initial conditions are constantly changing - for the worse – how reliable are future visions that emerge from these projections? Are we drastically underestimating the impact?
In the last ten to twenty years the “future” subject has been on the rise also, with a myriad of predictions popping up: About 65% of the jobs our kids will have haven’t been invented yet. Until 2020 the VR/AR market will be valued at 150B. The IoT market should be valued at 14.5T in the same year. In 2022 humans will land on Mars and by 2030 about 40% of businesses will disappear, then in 2050 68% of what we call "humans" will live in urban areas and by the end of the century our species might have changed their name, probably to something like "cyborgs".
Those are some of the far futures imagined today by optimistic human beings using the technology currently available. The only certainty that we have about those predictions, however, is that they can - and will - eventually fail, if we consider the predicted outcomes of climate change. In 2013 a study was released saying that in 2020 the first big natural disasters will hit the tropics, the "rest" of the world will be increasingly affected until 2047. Quoting William Gibson: “the future catastrophe is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet”. We are talking about different futures here, ones that embrace all the progress of technological connectivity and economic growth, and others that seem to fall in unpreparedness for a change that has been compared to the power of a nuclear disaster.
I would say that being aware of such information is both a blessing and curse, it all depends on how you act on such knowledge. In an unprecedented time in history, humanity is able to foresee the probability of a series of events in the future. Having such information could be enough to prevent certain disasters happening, unless we act with pessimism and are paralyzed by such predictions.
As a designer and futurologist working with information technology, I can't take the future for granted, as something fixed and irreversible. It’s not. The more possible future scenarios we see, the more alternative realities at present we can create. Many alternative solutions have already been developed that could successfully bring humanity into the future: Circular and sharing economies are concepts that aim to bring a new perspective on consumption, thus impacting manufacturing; IoT and Open Source Data combined could help us to have smart cities with data-driven policies and a more intelligent use of resources, like Uber, Lyft and Ford tried recently, as well as the city of Barcelona; solar power grids can decentralize the access to electricity, like Chile did some years ago. We can count many such examples of innovation popping up around us, which are signals of alternative futures, constantly reshaping predictions as more and more people join the movement to make the world a better place for everyone to live.
It’s up to us to choose the world of tomorrow, which as stated by Mr. Bowie, “belongs to those who can hear it coming”.