The Juneau World Affairs Council invited Jeni and I to speak at its 2011 summit on the Politics of Global Climate Change last month. During the opening session on Thursday, November 10, ecologist Dr. Terry Chapin and biologist Dr. Brendan Kelly of the National Science Foundation set the stage, presenting the current state of climate science. Other panelists, Dr. Patrick Michaels (of the Cato Institute) and Dr. Syun-Ichi Akasofu of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, presented minority viewpoints.  Jeni and I took notes, and e-mailed back and forth with David Battisti for his take on some of the information presented. In particular, contrary to Michaels’s and Akasofu’s message, the global average temperature has not increased linearly in the past 200 years. Temperature increases for the past 150 years, the limit of the observation record, are shown in the table below.

(Source: World Meteorological Organization.) Later that night, David explained: “So a lot of what you see in the first 50 years of [the above plot] is natural variability. From 1900 to 2000, however, co2 started increasing in a really big way. This [increase] is responsible for much of the trend of the 20th century. Note there is a little extra warming in the 1950s and a stall in the 1960–1970s. This could be natural variability (for example, a warm period in the 1950s and a cold period in the 1960s), or it could be increasing aerosols—it is impossible to say for sure. But the overall temperature increase of 0.85C from 1900 to 2000 cannot be explained without increasing CO2. Turning it around, IF you increase CO2 by the observed amount and take into account aerosol changes, you get a temperature trend that is consistent with that observed.”

“Do not lose sight of the fact that the observed temperature trend over the past century is consistent with what the models say, and [the temperature increase] is much smaller than what the models say will happen this century, even if you take the wimpiest climate model and the most unrealistically low emission profiles,” he said.

Although the science of climate change is absolutely the starting point for debate, it’s only a starting point. All four scientists on the panel agreed that climate change is happening, even though they disputed the cause and the pace of trends. Where scientists do not have expertise is in deciding what to do about it, said Dr. Kelly.

Borrowing from Stephen Scheinder, the opportunity cost of ignoring climate change may be akin to a patient who finds a tumor on his lung but waits for it to grow big enough to support conclusive evidence that it’s cancer before having surgery to remove it.

At heart, making decisions about climate change comes down to value judgments: How do we value our lives? Other people? The planet? The future? On Friday, Jeni and I continued the conversation in this vein. We ran a 3.5-hour workshop titled: ‘Climate change and Social and Economic Justice moderated by Linda Kruger of the U.S. Forest Service PNW Station. The purpose of our session was two-fold: First, we provided participants with an overview of climate justice, the human story behind the climate crisis. We shared our 5-part framework for climate justice and spoke about existing and innovative legal and policy structures for providing remedies for climate-induced harms. Second, we facilitated a scenario-thinking workshop to help participants imagine and rehearse responses to life in Juneau in 2040 based on predicted future warming trends.

By the end of our session together, participants experienced an abbreviated scenario planning exercise for their own community in Juneau. Tools for future thinking, such as scenario planning, are incredibly important for inspiring change that resonates and incorporates a community’s future vision for itself.

As Terry Chapin put it during the opening session, the past is no prologue: “We can’t go back. The best reference state is future projections…. The worst that can happen is that we will be better prepared for the extreme events that will eventually occur.”

The challenge for communities, of course, is to come up with a vision for the future. What process should a community follow to create it? Whose vision is it, exactly? What if the vision requires a long time to fulfill and its basic tenets change over time? What if consensus leads to the vision with the lowest common denominator? (A participant mentioned to me after our session that several years ago Juneau conducted a scenario planning exercise around issues relating to tourism, where common ground was not aspirational at all but “what can you live with?”) Who’s responsible for representing the community’s vision? How does that person represent it honestly given his or her own desired outcomes? These issues are timeless and won’t go away. In fact, climate change will likely exacerbate them.

If scenario thinking has a role to play in assisting communities faced with a warmer future, its value isn’t in predicting the future or in finding new fixes to generation-old struggles within a community. Or is it? The tool isn’t enough, perhaps. But the challenge is that climate change changes everything, and old ways of seeing problems and of working them out may no longer be relevant or even helpful. Scenario thinking’s most promising features include its ability to gather people in one room who wouldn’t otherwise engage with each other, and to paint a vivid picture of multiple plausible futures that communities can rehearse now.

The focal question that we asked our Juneau participants to consider was this: Taking global average IPCC climate predictions for 2040 as a given, what can Juneau do to protect and improve the lives of people living here over the next 3 decades? General characteristics of life in Juneau in 2040 may include an approximate 2.5 degree Celsius rise in temperature. This may translate into: warmer and wetter conditions, particularly in fall and winter; warming ocean temperatures affecting the southeast Alaska fisheries; changing hydrological cycles including surface water flooding in winter (due to increased run-off) and less spring run-off—affecting human water sources, the road infrastructure, hydropower, and salmon; impacts on transportation that render supply shipments less reliable; local or global species extinction if climate changes outpace the ability for species to adapt; continued retreat of the Juneau Icefield; and economic costs of responses to climate impacts likely increasing over time. (Sources: Alaska Regional Climate Projections, Scenarios Network for Alaska Planning (January, 2010) and Climate Change: Predicted Impacts on Juneau (April, 2007).

We next asked people to brainstorm drivers of social change in the Juneau community. We solicited responses to changes in five broad categories (realizing that most of the drivers cut across issue-areas): social, technological, environmental, political, environmental, and economic. Here’s how people responded (click on the image to enlarge):


The circled responses distinguish key uncertainties from predetermined forces of change. Key uncertainties are the most highly uncertain to occur and will have the most impact on the community. Once the group identified and circled key uncertainties, they individually voted for the top key uncertainty affecting Juneau in 2040 the most. After voting, we tallied responses, and plotted the two top uncertainties along the x and y axes of a matrix grid. This grid would define four plausible futures for Juneau in 2040 (again, for the purposes of the exercise, taking a 2.5 degrees C temperature increase as a given). The top two uncertainties the group identified were: 1) political vision and 2) forest health.

Two extremes arose from the exercise. First, under the Green Brain scenario, Juneau became a world leader in enlightened forestry, winning a version of the Nobel Prize for its pioneering work in celebrating, protecting, and championing its model forests as learning laboratories. Competitions awarded prizes for innovation, and the world’s leaders came for tours. The university launched a forest resources innovation center, attracting experts from all over the world. The people of the town even helped pay for the center because it was a source of pride and importance for the community.

At the other end of the spectrum, under the Treeless in Juneau (a pun on Sleepless in Seattle) scenario, forestland was auctioned off to the highest bidder, and young people did not return home. Culturally the community fell apart under apathetic political leadership that ignored Juneau’s fundamental connection to the surrounding landscape—the true source of wealth and connection powering peoples’ lives. The community lost out—disempowered and insecure about its future.

At the end of the session, the value of rehearsing the future felt futile to some who found the local community powerless to respond to global change. Others valued the educational process of learning about climate impacts at a local level and contributing their input. Others enjoyed the simplification scenario thinking offers to a complex set of issues. Yet others noted the challenge of planning for climate futures while simultaneously acknowledging our society’s relative comfort level with thirty-year plans, a 30-year mortgage as the classic example. Many commented on who was in the room (or more precisely, who wasn’t): most of the 40 participants were retired; few young people engaged in issues about the community’s future. The aging population seemed one of Juneau’s best assets and one of its weakest links.