Climate change is one of the most urgent future–and present–issues to consider in any foresight project. It will continue to be a major driver of change over the coming decades, and as such it can serve as the foundation for powerful forecasts or provocative scenarios. For example, in 2014, IFTF published a scenario of a future in which mega droughts drove up the price of water to unthinkable highs, and then brought that scenario to life with an artifact from the future called “The Future Cost of Water.”
These types of harrowing, Mad Max futures are everywhere. Dystopia is a popular trope in climate futures. And understandably so: climate change is a terrifying threat to our wellbeing. But in order to create a non-dystopian future, it’s first necessary to imagine it—not a simple task. As Rebecca Solnit said, “people have always been good at imagining the end of the world, which is much easier to picture than the strange sidelong paths of change in a world without end.” There’s a pressing need for positive climate futures, but it can be daunting to take on the challenge of creating them, especially when it feels like the fate of the world depends on it.
In 2021, IFTF introduced our Climate Positive Organizations work, which was focused on how future organizations cannot only survive in a climate-changed world, but actually contribute to creating a better future of carbon sequestration, resilience, and positive effects. It drew together perspectives on society, technology, collective climate efforts, behavioral transformation, a climate-positive economy, and more, in order to explore the complexity of climate futures. In order to start making sense out of this complexity, it can be useful to take three basic steps:
1. Include a climate lens in every futures project
2. Actively seek out major mindset shifts about how the future might be different
3. Mix hope with pragmatic optimism
A first step to creating climate positive futures is simply to recognize the need for a climate lens in every foresight project. Climate can no longer be avoided when thinking about any aspect of the future, however seemingly unrelated. William Gibson, the science fiction author, put it best: “all imagined futures lacking recognition of anthropogenic climate-change will increasingly seem absurdly shortsighted.” By including a climate lens, you can use existing foresight methodologies to explore both desirable and undesirable futures, and from those insights, determine the actions you must take today to move towards resilient, desirable futures. The alternative futures method, for example, enables you to imagine a wide array of possibilities. By including climate change as a driver in every scenario, you’ll explore detrimental aspects of a climate-collapsed future, as well as opportunities in a transformed positive climate future.
More intentional methods to develop climate-positive futures require being open to rethinking entire systems. Those that created the climate crisis are unlikely to be the ones that will fix it. In the words of IFTF researcher Ilana Lipsett, “climate positive futures will require shifting the narrative of where climate leadership is coming from.” That means that in addition to every foresight project including a climate lens, that lens should purposefully include and center perspectives from young people, indigenous communities, Black and Brown communities, poor people, and other marginalized people who will experience the worst effects of climate change. There are many people focused on building climate-positive futures, and bringing in a wider variety of perspectives than those put forth by powerful institutions will help clarify the possibility space of the future. The goal of foresight, after all, is not perfect accuracy in predicting the future, but rather getting a clearer picture of all the different ways the future could plausibly develop, and then understanding what agency you have in getting closer to the ways you prefer.
You can also take a very human-level approach to developing more nuanced climate futures—breaking out of a simple “good-bad” dichotomy and envisioning climate futures that are specifically strange, proud, bittersweet, confusing, galvanizing, compassionate, or any number of other modes. Panu Pikhala, a Finnish professor who researches climate emotions, has developed a taxonomy of human emotional reactions to climate change that sheds light on the complexity of what’s driving individuals. After all, the future is made up of the decisions that we make as individual people. Try applying these emotional categories to forecasts or scenarios—how might the future look different when groups of people are driven by one group of emotions versus another? What future factors would cause which groups to feel one set of emotions? How do these various emotions contribute to people’s resistance to change? IFTF’s foresight tools Find Future Me and Explore Future Feelings are both good frameworks to bring these emotional categories to.
Finally, climate positive futures demand a hopeful and even playful mindset. ASU’s Center for Science and the Imagination exemplifies this approach through a collaboration of scientists, artists, and researchers who create climate positive stories, illustrated postcards, and other media. The Solar Punk genre gives authors and artists the space to push the boundaries of imagining positive futures. And at IFTF, Director of Game Research + Development Jane McGonigal has created Urgent Optimists, where members practice developing realistic and hopeful perspectives on the future through gameful methods. By giving people a space to practice existing in positive futures, they are more able to consider action, as opposed to being paralyzed by the overwhelming current reality. Thinking about the future in light of climate change is daunting, but by doing the hard work of bringing hope to climate forecasts, we can begin to develop shared visions of climate positive futures.
IFTF now offers its expertise to help organizations accelerate their climate positive strategy. Click here to find out more.