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t least since I was an undergrad in the late 1970s, exponential growth curves have been used to illustrate the uncertain future of human society and its relationship to the earth. Population, use of oil, rate of extinctions, rate of water usage, and more recently greenhouse gas emissions as measured by carbon dioxide, have all been thus illustrated (e.g. Steffen et al. 2011: figures 1, 3). We were taught, and have taught our students, that the fossil fuel age must necessarily end because the resources were non-renewable. We did not know what they would be replaced with, nor when it would happen, but the curves have always been presented as signals of impending scarcity – of food, energy or land, fuelled by population growth.
But it now looks to be abundance, not scarcity that we must address first, and in our own lifetimes rather than an unimaginable future time. The symbolic threshold of 400ppm is a poignant reminder that we are well past the point where climate change response can be a planned, gradualist transition. It is much more likely that profound and unwanted change in the next few years (perhaps not even decades) will make a mockery of current policies on climate change and other issues. Our challenge is not how to make scarce resources last longer, but how to keep the most problematic carbonaceous resources in the ground.
The evidence is that we need to keep 60-80% of the fossil fuel reserves already listed on world stock exchanges in the ground to have a chance of avoiding global warming of 2o C (Carbon Tracker, 2013; see also McKibben, 2012). This is called the ‘unburnable carbon scenario’. Pricing in the risk to current investments of these ‘stranded assets’ (coal, oil and gas) would lead to a new financial crisis.
Think keeping the coal in the ground is not going to happen and business as usual is more likely? (Remember, many scholars think it is already too late to avoid 2o C, due to the lag effects of CO2already in the atmosphere.) Then we are on track for 4-6o C of warming with an increase in extreme events. Do you want a global financial crisis forced by climate change, or a global financial crisis forced by climate change? It is impossible to know which event or process would tip the global economy over the threshold, but candidates must surely include the collapse of the insurance industry (ABC, 2012). There are profound challenges here for the whole of society, as Gilding (2012) and McKibben (2010) have recently argued.
So what are we scholars doing with our own version of abundance – the abundance of opportunity and responsibility afforded to us? And what are the particular challenges for social science researchers? Where and how can we be most useful? The ground is shifting very rapidly – it is not long since adaptation was considered taboo (Pielke et al. 2007) in climate change policy because it implied defeatism against the possibility of mitigation.
At least some of us should be thinking systematically about worst-case scenarios, examining how the economy as we know it may unravel, and what the social implications may be. (Recognising that for much of the world’s population, scarcity, catastrophe and the sudden transformation of the world as they know it have long been here.) We are generally more comfortable with historical or contemporary analysis, which can be tested against evidence, than with imagining future scenarios. But I think at least a few of us need to be doing scholarship over the horizon. The point is not prediction, but a series of ‘what ifs?’
In the process, we need to imagine how academia might/must extricate itself from the fossil-fuel economy. (I wrote the first draft of this piece 30,000 feet above the iron ore deposits of Western Australia, travelling between remote field sites and a conference far from home, in a typical example of time-constrained academic mobility.) There are no easy answers, and academic conferences and exchanges are a microcosm of broader economies that currently depend on the mobility of air travel (see blog discussions by Kevin Anderson and Rachel Macrorie). Australian academics are big travellers, so bear a big responsibility, but we are also acutely conscious that any dimunition in international interactions will reinforce existing axes of academic power around the Anglo-American core. Such solidification is unlikely to be the best way to flush out the necessary new ideas and practices.