One potential future

What might the future look like for the young people of today? This is a case study I’m putting together to help them think about what might happen. (Those who came to my Redcliffe seminar in March will have seen an earlier version of it.) It’ll normally be presented alongside some of the factual evidence, such as the WRI infographics mentioned in a recent post, but this is aimed at bringing things more alive. There’s an associated powerpoint presentation which I’ll put on my schools site when finished. Footnotes are there more for the teachers to show where my ideas came from.

It is 2038. George was born in a small town on the Norfolk coast in 2000 where his father owned a small car dealership. He had a fairly typical childhood, enjoying particularly roadtrips round Europe on family holidays. While not the most academic student, he worked hard at school and got three reasonable A levels. He struggled to find a job and ended up working for his dad as a salesman.

He met and married Alice, a nurse, and the two of them got a first floor flat together. Which turned out to be fortunate a couple of years later when the town flooded during persistent winter rains. This was only the beginning, though: in 2032, which came to be known as “The Weird Summer”, weeks of gales and storms combined with strong sea surges left hundreds of square miles of East Anglia under water.[1]

It was weather elsewhere that caused the world finally to take notice about the reality of climate change though. An unusually strong monsoon displaced millions in Bangladesh[2], whereas much of the US suffered record high temperatures and little rain,[3] causing the failure of the wheat harvest. The rains also failed across much of east Africa for the third year in a row, with an estimated 4 million dead.[4] After the news one night featured a mass grave in what had become the Ugandan desert alongside reports of the findings of the IPCC’s eighth report and warnings that after a period of slowdown, the temperature was beginning to rise quickly again.[5] George and Alice sat up half the night crying. They’d always been taught climate change was real, but it had only just hit home how real it was.

The world soon after agreed a new climate treaty, finally binding on all countries, and the UK elected a radical Green-led coalition, after voters gave up on the major parties’ failed attempts to preserve “business as usual”. The incoming Prime Minister’s first act was to move her official residence from Downing Street to a smallholding on a hill so she could keep tending her pigs, and her government has become known for its honesty about the difficulties facing the country, channelling a famous predecessor when she announced “This is not the end of our sustainability crisis. It is not even the beginning of the end, but we can hope that it is the end of the beginning.” Campaigns have been launched to encourage people to think seriously about energy/resource usage and educate them how to do so.

It was too late for George’s town and job though. One decision the government took was that the cost of repairing and raising sea defences was just too much: the town was abandoned to the marsh soon after.[6] George and Alice moved across the country to Devon, but the bottom had fallen out of the car sales business: oil and energy prices had risen for years[7], pushing the price of petrol, food and everything else up, and many people – including George and Alice – began to find they couldn’t afford to run a car.

George got a new job, doing admin work for a consortium of schools in Exeter. He’d perhaps rather be doing something more practical, but doesn’t have the skills or the time and money to retrain. He spends the weekend gardening in the back garden, but more often than not chatting to the neighbours over the fence: one positive thing about this new life is that there’s a genuine feeling of “all in it together”. They’ve teamed up to put solar panels on their shared roofs (couldn’t have afforded it on their own), talk together about the old days, about holidays abroad, electronic games, being able to go down the shops and buy things without thinking about the cost too much. But there’s anger too at their parents and grandparents’ generations: they knew what might come and yet did so little to prepare for it.

He still misses not seeing his family, but at least George and Alice are better off than many: he looks at the kids at the school gates, many recent migrants having to abandon home countries where little grows any more, often in old clothes, reliant on the food bank and charity. He and Alice have never had children, and in some sense they’re glad: would they want them to grow up in this world?

Then one day he hears laughter and looks out of the window. Some visitors are teaching the children how to plant vegetables, and they seem to be really enjoying it. Curious, he asks around, and finds it’s members of a local church running a project they call “Project Eden”. They chat, and tell him about various schemes they have to help the community, in collaboration with the city’s mosque. George is intrigued and wonders about going along next Sunday: what might he find if he goes along?

Questions for discussion:

  1. Put yourself in George’s position. How do you feel about the way your life is going?
  2. Why is George angry about his parents’ generation? Is he right? Have they acted ethically?
  3. What kinds of things are the church and mosque likely to be doing to support their community?
  4. What might George have done differently had he seen this future? How could his parents, his school and others have helped him?
  5. Does this story change how you plan to live your own life? Why or why not?

 

 

[1] IPCC Working Groups 2 Summary for Policy Makers: table 1. Europe. High confidence of flooding in coastal areas and river basins from extreme precipitation and sea level rise, medium risk 2030-2040.

[2] IPCC WG2 SPM: table 1. Medium confidence, medium risk (for Asia).

[3] IPCC WG2 SPM: table 1. High confidence, high risk for North America. SW and California have had drought problems in 2013-4.

[4] IPCC WG2 SPM: table 1, Compounded stress on water resources facing significant strain from overexploitation and degradation at present and increased demand in the future, with drought stress exacerbated in drought-prone regions of Africa (high confidence), medium risk for 2030-2040. East Africa is already suffering drought and erratic weather.

[5] Recent reports (2014) suggest that the reason temperature rises have been lower than expected since about 2000 is that the deep oceans are absorbing heat as part of natural cycles of about 60-70 years, but when the cycles reverse, this heat will come out again (perhaps in 15 years, but this is uncertain).

[6] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/parts-of-east-anglia-could-be-abandoned-to-the-sea-forever-after–recent-floods-9084145.html discusses abandoning land in 2014.

[7] Following current trends: IEA World Energy Outlook gives an estimated price for oil of $128 per barrel for 2035 (inflation adjusted), compared to about $95 currently, but with risks it might go higher. There is considerable uncertainty about both oil prices and supply, and some commentators accuse the oil industry of being excessively optimistic to increase company valuations.

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