Campaigners, researchers and commentators demanding action on climate change have a tendency to err on the side of catastrophe when discussing what the world might look like in the future.
Greta Thunberg's famous statement, "I don't want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic," is an obvious example. Even that three-word mantra 'save the planet' is positively febrile, since there is nothing in any scientific literature to suggest the planet needs saving.
So it should come as no surprise that the UK government's weather and climate centre, the Met Office, is seriously kicking around some terrifying scenarios for the future. The Met Office, in conjunction with a group of other research bodies, has come up with five Shared Socioeconomic Pathways for Climate Research and Policy (UK-SSPs).
These are a UK-specific version of the global scenarios used in assessments by the United Nations' climate change body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and described as "five different storylines of future socioeconomic circumstances, explaining how the global economy and society might evolve over the next 80 years". The project website explains that "the global SSPs are independent of climate change and climate change policy" - in other words, "they do not consider the potential impact climate change has on societal and economic choices".
Rather, they are "coupled with a set of future climate scenarios, the Representative Concentration Pathways" to allow researchers to see "how feasible it would be to achieve different levels of climate change mitigation, and what challenges to climate change mitigation and adaptation might exist".
These UK-specific scenarios have actually been around since last summer, so it's not entirely clear why the British press has picked up on them now. But some of them would make decent backstories for dystopian movies.
Take SSP3, titled 'Regional Rivalry'. To cut a long story short, the UK falls out catastrophically with the rest of the world, nationalist leaders take over, there is a crackdown on environmentalist groups, the local environment gets screwed up, incomes fall and, eventually, functioning government in the four nations of the UK - having gone their separate ways - collapses. By the end of the 21st century, "Because of past investments in military and defence, but without an effective central government, different military groups (militias, criminal groups, etc.) rise to de facto power and compete for control and natural resources, creating their own feudal semi-independent micro-states with their own laws and means to enforce them. People accept severe restrictions on freedom in exchange for employment and protection."
What? In short, the UK, after centuries of developing democratic political structures, a wealthy economy and extensive infrastructure descends into a condition more like present-day Afghanistan. Yet apparently intelligent people think this is a scenario worth taking into account when analysing the possibilities for climate change impacts.
Compare this to SSP1, titled 'Sustainability'. In this one, environmental problems and natural disasters lead people to work together for a more sustainable society. "Society becomes more egalitarian, with all individuals actively contributing to the sustainability agenda. A UK-wide green alliance is established across countries and delivers the policies and technologies that maximise sustainability. Collaboration domestically and internationally plays a key role in the green alliance, ensuring technologies, ideas and projects are shared to gain mutual benefits. By 2100, the UK becomes a fully functional circular economy."
If the 'Regional Rivalry' scenario is a dystopia, the 'Sustainability' scenario is an eco-warrior's wet dream.
Still, it's not all bad news. There's another scenario, SSP5, titled 'Fossil-fuelled Development'. In this one, public support for green taxation falls and people carry on using fossil fuels. Shale gas, extracted using fracking, takes off, leading to lower prices for energy and wider economic development, particularly in the north of England where the biggest supplies of shale gas are found. Soon, the UK's north-south economic divide disappears. "Technological solutions are used to counter the impacts of large-scale environmental degradation. Large increases in population lead to rapidly expanding 'city-states' and massive urban sprawl."
This, for greenies, is another dystopia. Personally, I think it sounds pretty good. We're all better off, but with some localised environmental problems to contend with. It's basically suburban America. For the kind of liberal lefties that tend to do environmental research, living in spacious, relatively well-off suburbs is their idea of hell. For most people, especially those with families, a comfortable suburban life may well be ideal.
Whether this kind of scenario-building is particularly helpful for understanding climate change is a matter for debate. But the fact that these are the visions of the future produced by environmental research bodies tells us a lot about the people who are employed there.
For example, that 'regional rivalry' scenario isn't about climate change at all. Really, it's about Brexit, with a decent side-order of Donald Trump. Torn away from the bosom of the European Union, these academics think a plausible scenario for the future is the UK divorced from the rest of the world and going to hell in a handcart. Never mind that Brexit has proven to be a mere bump in the road, economically, or that the major problems which afflict the UK economy are shared with every other developed economy: declining productivity, a lack of innovation and businesses held back by a mountain of regulation - including all those green taxes and levies that are helping to keep energy prices higher than they otherwise would be.
Underpinning these scenarios is the view that smart people - like academic researchers - should be running society and this whole democracy business is downright dangerous. How dare people complain about high energy bills or want to drive, fly and eat meat? Society should be run by technocrats (hence the love for the EU) who will make life harder for us all for our own good.
In that sense, this scenario-generating exercise is extremely useful. Whenever we see scare stories about the future - like the UK government's latest climate-change assessment, published this week - we should remember these scenarios, remind ourselves what kind of people are doing this state-sponsored speculation, and be very, very sceptical about their claims.