The Workshop on Describing Socioeconomic Futures for Climate Change Research and Assessment was organized in response to increasing recognition by the international research community working to analyze the consequences of climate change that improved socioeconomic scenarios are needed to understand climate change vulnerabilities and adaptive capacity. The need for improved analysis of feedbacks between human and climate systems was one of the themes that emerged from an international workshop organized by the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change to consider lessons learned about analysis of climate change vulnerability, impacts, and adaptation from the experience of Working Group II in the Fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessment (National Research Council, 2009b). The need is pressing, both in relation to the IPCC’s future tasks and to the research communities working on projecting and considering the long-term impacts of climate change.
The workshop was structured to combine invited presentations and discussions among the participants. The workshop, held on February 4-5, 2010, drew people from a wide variety of disciplines and international perspectives. The workshop agenda and a list of participants appear in Appendix A, and biographical sketches of panel members and staff appear in Appendix B.
PLAN OF THE REPORT
This report is a summary of the presentations at the workshop and the discussions flowing from the presentations during the sessions outlined in the agenda. It is important to be specific about its nature: the report documents the information presented in the workshop presentations and discussions. The report is confined to the material presented by the workshop speakers and participants. Neither the workshop nor this summary is intended as a comprehensive review of what is known about the topic, although it is a general reflection of the literature. The presentations and discussions were limited by the time available for the workshop.
Although this report was prepared by the panel, it does not represent findings or recommendations that can be attributed to the panel members. The report summarizes views expressed by workshop participants, and the panel is responsible only for its overall quality and accuracy as a record of what transpired at the workshop. Also, the workshop was not designed to generate consensus conclusions or recommendations but focused instead on the identification of ideas, themes, and considerations that contribute to understanding the topic.
Thomas Wilbanks, chair of NRC’s Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change, welcomed the participants on behalf of the committee and the Climate Research Committee, which jointly planned and organized the workshop. He pointed out the importance of getting the science right for the next assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He noted that publication of the first peer-reviewed publication on representative concentration pathways (RCPs) was scheduled for February 11 in Nature (Moss et al., 2010).1
WORKSHOP OBJECTIVES, CONCEPTS, AND DEFINITIONS
Richard H. Moss
Richard Moss, chair of the Panel on Socioeconomic Scenarios for Climate Change Impact and Response Assessments, the organizing panel, described the workshop agenda and objectives. He emphasized that what will matter in the future is not only how much climate changes, but also how socioeconomic futures develop. As an example, he described a World Wildlife Fund project in Amazonia, intended to identify refugia2 for protected species. He said the project had to consider changes in both climate and local socioeconomic drivers (e.g., changes in settlements, infrastructure, livestock production) and the interactions of all these factors. Socioeconomic scenarios were not readily available. He noted that important cross-scale effects need to be taken into account, citing the example of how wildlife habitats are affected by global markets, national policy, local changes, and changes in habitats and livelihoods.
Moss said that the workshop would examine how well scenarios used in climate change research reflect fundamental understanding of socioeconomic processes and change. People need to distinguish what is known from what is unknown and what is unknowable and also to characterize the level of confidence. He noted that there are many tools for analysis under uncertainty, one of which is scenarios.
Moss defined scenarios as plausible descriptions of how specific aspects of the future might unfold. Climate research uses many kinds of scenarios (socioeconomic, emissions, climate, environmental, vulnerability, etc.). He emphasized that scenarios are not predictions. He noted that synthesis requires coordination and that scenarios have a big role to play in coordinating different kinds of analysis.
Moss identified four objectives for the workshop:
assessing the state of the art/science in describing possible futures (using the best social science knowledge in ways that meet the needs of stakeholders);
supporting the IPCC and other assessments by advancing the framework for creating new scenarios and by identifying research needs and next steps;
thinking about the “drivers” of both emissions/mitigation and vulnerability/adaptation, including, in the case of vulnerability, the drivers of exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity; and
promoting dialogue across research communities.
Moss noted the need for common definitions of certain terms but acknowledged that the research community has not yet coalesced around a single vocabulary for this area. For example, he noted that the terms “narrative” and “story line” both refer to detailed descriptions of the sequence of events that provide the logic for a quantitative scenario.
ADVANCING THE STATE OF SCIENCE FOR PROJECTING SOCIOECONOMIC FUTURES
Thomas J. Wilbanks
Thomas Wilbanks spoke about the importance of good descriptions of socioeconomic futures. Such descriptions are needed to integrate with climate projections on the same time scales. For example, the RCP report (Moss et al., 2008) called for a library of socioeconomic scenarios to go with climate scenarios. In the IPCC Fourth Assessment process, developing countries made strong calls for socioeconomic scenarios. Integrated assessment models (IAMs) project greenhouse gas emissions, which earth system models use as inputs to their climate projections.3 These in turn are inputs to impact, adaptation, and vulnerability (IAV) analyses, which in turn feed back into emissions. Thus, the scientific communities that do IAM and IAV both have strong interest in improving the scientific base for descriptions of the socioeconomic future.
The scientific basis for the scenarios generated for the IPCC Special Report on Emissions Scenarios and for IAMs was developed from early work at the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and the work at the National Academy of Sciences for the report Our Common Journey (National Academy of Sciences, 1999). But many scientists question the basis of this work. For example, the core social sciences are generally skeptical of efforts to make socioeconomic projections far into the future. Wilbanks discussed an effort, in which he participated, to estimate coastal populations at risk from climate change in 2080. Such populations will depend on demographic and economic changes, as well as risk management responses in the interim. He said that the science and art of long-term socioeconomic projections are not equivalent to those of climate scenarios. Some of the reasons are that very little investment has been made in such work, that there are so many variables to analyze, and that there are no professional rewards for social scientists who try to do this kind of work. Consequently, the estimates used are based on very simple assumptions. Wilbanks said that projections are fairly commonly
made as far into the future as 2050, including some subnational ones. Economic projections are being made to 2050 and even beyond. Up to 2050, they are based on qualitative scenarios of economic change. But beyond several decades, projection has been more in the domain of futurism than science—based on idea generation (e.g., Coates et al., 1997). Many social scientists question the quality of projections beyond 2050.
Wilbanks said that responses to the limited state of the science have included development of rich narrative “story lines,” such as were created for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and for some economic projections to 2050; describing alternative futures of interest and working back from them with quantitative scenarios; and using participatory analytic-deliberative processes to generate qualitative descriptions of futures.
Wilbanks identified four key questions for the workshop:
What does the community need in order to generate mid- and long-term projections?
What is the current state of the science/art for such descriptions of the future?
How might the state of the field be improved, both in the short term as a basis for the IPCC Fifth Assessment, and in the longer term?
What suggestions can be offered for near-term action?