The Ancient, Rediscovered art of Scenario Planning

Scenario planning is my favorite thing I learned about in a Master of Climate Change (MCC) program at the University of Waterloo. Hands down. I learned about it in an Adaptation class, shortly after deciding I was on ‘team mitigation’ in the ‘Team Edward’ vs ‘Team Jacob’ sort of debate that engulfs graduate students studying climate change. We MCC students face this choice during our studies: are you team mitigation (reducing emissions) or team adaptation (adapting to a changed climate)? Some join team mitigation. The rest join team adaptation. No one is right. We need both, either is good.

The Team Edward vs Team Jacob comparison (from Twilight, in case you missed the 2000s) is not made to make light of the mitigation vs adaptation debate. But it works as a comparison because, in both cases, whichever option you choose is a good option. In picking either Edward or Jacob, you get different brands of a hot, mildly dangerous, immortal, devoted, monster boyfriend. Winning. In either mitigation or adaptation, you get solutions and action on climate change. Yay. In both cases, both choices are a win-win, whichever you choose. But yes, I am team mitigation, primarily because if you mitigate climate change really, really well, then there is less adaptation you have to do in the long-term. In theory. However, our track-record on mitigation thus far is not great and adaptive planning is also an excellent idea at this point to save as many vulnerable people around the world as possible. If we don’t manage proper mitigation, there will be a lot of adaptation to do. Yet, despite my allegiance to team mitigation, I reserve the right to flip-flop and declare scenario planning, part of the adaptation cannon, the best thing since sliced bread.

What is scenario planning? Well, it’s… um… creative writing. Narrative plotting, essentially. The art of writing really, really detailed and well-thought out sci-fi fan-fiction. You pick a point in the future (2100, for example), think of a couple different versions of the that point in the future (usually as simple as good and bad) and work out all the decisions and actions that would have to happen to get there. You make assumptions and follow a logical path to a potential future. Write everything out, and presto, you have a climate change scenario! Which is useful to have, as climate change is a problem that will either get worse or not get worse over the next several hundred years, scenario planning is an excellent way to figure out what we need to do about climate change now, and over the next few decades, to reach a better scenario. Check out this helpful chart to get an idea of the process:

Backcasting and Scenario Planning What is Backcasting | Backcast Partners

Here’s the funny part though. Shell Oil sort-of reinvented the idea of using sci-fi fan-fiction narratives as a business strategy with a totally straight face. Yes, Shell was among the first to have a team of people plan for as many possible futures as they could reasonably foresee. This turned out to be a smart idea, as Shell was in the midst of the oil crisis and wanted to ensure their company could continue to succeed no matter what happened in the crisis. And hey, it worked. Of course, scenario planning pre-dates Shell, which still has think-tanks on this now. To go waaaaay back, the Battle of Marathon (490 BC) is an excellent example of scenario planning, where Athenian generals concluded the only plausible scenario for holding off the invading Persian forces was to wait for them to invade and hold them off in an advantageous location, surround the Persian forces, and force them to retreat back to their ships. But Shell can take the credit for reshaping it into a business strategy and branding scenario planning into something that is taught in University classes about climate change.

The irony of learning a business trick created by a fossil fuel company at climate change school was not lost on me. But at the same time, it is a great way to look at climate change. Or problems in general. Where do you want to see humanity’s future? Or your own future? Where do you currently see it heading? What are the decisions and actions that create the disparities between where things are going and where you want to go? What could shift the current trajectory to a better one? By comparing future scenarios and looking into what drives them, it is easy to see what needs to be done to reduce the impacts of climate change.

And if anyone from Shell is reading yes, hell yes I will accept a salary to write sci-fi climate change fan-fiction for you. I had no idea that was a career option. Where do I sign?

(Postscript) Yeah, yeah. Shell is responsible for a substantial amount of greenhouse gas emissions and heading off to do climate change work for Shell is akin to going to the Dark Side in the climate community. But Shell will have to change their tune if they want to have a business by the end of the century. Their own scenarios from their own think tanks say as much. With a few more climate scientists on their team annoying the hell out of them, they could be whipped in to shape that much faster. A ‘we don’t negotiate with terrorists’ mentality is profoundly unhelpful here (it’s profoundly unhelpful all the time, really). I’ll negotiate with anyone if it means a better future climate for the planet. Even Shell.

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