The largest European invasion since World War II is dominating the news. The focus of concern is, very properly, for the people in the country being invaded. But with an event of this magnitude, it is reasonable to ask what it means for already existing global crises – including the climate crisis.
A set of narratives of possible futures, the Shared Socioeconomic Pathways (SSPs), can help with that. These five scenarios – built by an international team of scientists for input into climate models – are stories about the future told in order to inform current decision-making. They describe the paths our world may take over the next century and how that could affect climate action.
I worked on the team that created what some might call the most pessimistic of these scenarios: SSP3. which was titled “Regional rivalry”. It starts with, “A resurgent nationalism, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts…”
That certainly sounds relevant to our times. If it comes to fruition, we found that this scenario would be “challenging” for both climate mitigation and adaptation. The reasoning is that inwardly focused policies driven by security concerns will tend to pull resources away from education, human health, well-being and the climate.
I would argue that aspects of SSP3 are worryingly present around the world. But that does not mean that climate action is off the table. After all, there were ongoing nationalist movements, concerns about competitiveness and security, and regional conflicts before Russia invaded Ukraine. We are arguably just as much in SSP5, which starts with, “Driven by the economic success of industrialized and emerging economies, this world places increasing faith in competitive markets, innovation and participatory societies to produce rapid technological progress and development of human capital as the path to sustainable development.” And while I would argue that as a world we are very far from SSP1, titled “Sustainability”, the elements of that narrative are not completely absent.
In the scenario spirit, I would say that we could end up in any SSP. If trends today are looking like SSP3, then we might be in for a rough time trying to address the climate crisis. The message that SSP3 delivers is that action on climate is likely to face extraordinarily stiff competition for policy and popular attention, and strategies and solutions that work in a more supportive environment might work poorly under SSP3. But to be effective, strategies to address the climate challenge must be robust in the face of an uncertain future. We must plan for SSP3, but also for SSP5 or SSP1.
These scenarios are also just one part of a broader toolkit that includes Representative Concentration Pathways (RCPs), which model various trajectories of greenhouse gas concentrations, dependent on how much GHG the world emits. Some RCPs – such as those that limit warming to 1.5°C – are not possible under a SSP3 scenario. But the world also doesn’t fit neatly into any scenario. Instead, the scenarios help us prepare for climate action in a constantly changing world.
Let us press forward with the knowledge that a changing climate has no respect for human policy agendas. There is work to be done and we must do it, whatever the future may bring.