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“Thinking About Tomorrows”: Scenarios, Global Environmental Politics, and Social Science Scholarship
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Unlike many environmental scientists (and Fleetwood Mac), most social scientists do not think yesterday has gone and do not much want to think about tomorrow—at least not in their work. Yet, debate and analysis about global environmental change are often discussions about tomorrow. For example, discussions about climate change rely on projections of the future: of future greenhouse gas emissions, of future population growth, of future changes in energy use, of future technological innovation, and of future biophysical impacts.

Those who grapple with the challenge of “thinking about tomorrow” do so by producing scenarios. Scenarios are commonly defined as “plausible, challenging and relevant stories about how the future might unfold.”1 Environmental change scenarios generally combine quantitative biophysical models and qualitative storylines of social and political trends. They are also explicitly interventionist. Scenario analyses are commissioned with the stated goal of aiding decision-makers in envisioning, understanding, and planning for the future.

Many engage in “futurizing.” In the climate change arena, the Nobel Prizewinning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the US Global Change Research Program, and the UK Climate Impacts Programme have all generated multiple scenarios envisioning potential climate futures.2 The IPCC scenarios have been used further in settings as varied as the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment’s (MEA) projections of changes in global ecosystem services3 and the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Climate Choices campaign which seeks to mobilize regional climate action in the United States.4 Moreover, climate scenarios are just one example of what has become a ubiquitous knowledge product in global (and local) environmental politics.5

At stake in scenario efforts are choices about present-day realities and future possibilities. Every scenario embeds a unique set of social relations, making visible some options and hiding others. For example, the IPCC greenhouse gas emissions scenarios have been challenged as based on overly optimistic assumptions regarding future transformation of energy infrastructure.6 Others have shown that by focusing on national emissions, the IPCC scenarios obscure the differential burdens of climate change distributed by socio-economic class.7 Yet, despite the prevalence and high stakes of scenario efforts in climate and other global environmental change arenas, systematic analysis of the political and social aspects and impacts of scenarios is in its early stages.8 Social science has yet to offer an analysis of why scenarios have become so common in environmental politics. Nor have scenario exercises become a focus of research for those interested in the relationship of politics and policy making to scientific and technical knowledge (and its production) or vice versa. Even basic questions of scenario audience and utility remain unanswered. Well known scenarios such as those developed by the IPCC and the MEA simultaneously seem to be widely used by actors and for analyses for which they were not explicitly designed and seem to not be significantly shaping global policymaking to date. This alone might be of interest to those trying to understand the creation of “usable” scientific and technical knowledge for policymaking and other types of decisions.

Our goal here is three-fold: to demonstrate the ubiquity of scenarios in environmental politics; to document the relative absence of social science scholarship in an otherwise burgeoning area of research; and, most importantly, to lay out a series of research questions on the emergence, effects, and effectiveness of scenarios of interest to global and comparative environmental politics researchers.

The Prevalence of Scenarios in Environmental Politics

A survey of current global environmental issues, from biodiversity to climate change to water security, reveals the popularity of scenarios as tools used to strategize about the future. As Table 1 illustrates, scenarios are part of the research programs for each issue area that animates global environmental politics. Among these, the IPCC’s Special Report on Emissions Scenarios, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, and the United Nations Environment Program’s periodic Global Environmental Outlook (GEO) assessments rank as the most prominent global environmental scenarios of the past decade;9 yet they are simply leading examples of a widely employed informational product (and potential decision support tool) in global environmental governance.

Global environmental scenarios moreover capture only one sub-set of this burgeoning field. Scenarios are prevalent at regional, national, and sub...