Climate change is wrought with jargon, concepts that are very hard to summarize in plain English, and lots adjacent fields like ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmentalism’ that muddy the waters further and can make climate change seem like an incoherent, abstract, and overwhelming mess. But there’s one interesting linguistic slight-of-hand that climate scientists pulled off to impress how dire climate change is and how likely we are to suffer a climate catastrophe. That trick revolves around the phrase ‘Business as Usual’ and how it is applied to climate change.
The ‘Business as Usual’ climate change scenario, known in the climate community as RCP8.5, was also the worst-case scenario where the human race faced +5 degrees of planetary warming, ruinous climate disasters, and resource depletion; likely resulting in mass death and starvation, possibly to a planet nearly devoid of life. Business as usual, RCP8.5, meant powering our civilization the way we did in the 2010s for the rest of time until it killed us off. A frightening idea, to be sure, but also kind of nonsense. Because why would we stranded in the technology and mentality of a single decade forever? Wouldn’t things change no matter what, by the very nature of time passing? While ‘Business as Usual’ helped make the worst-case climate scenario very clear and well known, the core concept of ‘Business as Usual’ is a deeply flawed when extended over any timeframe longer than a year or two.
Because ‘Business as Usual’ means that how things are operating right now, November 12th, 2022, at time of writing, will continue indefinitely. The idea that we will continue to experience population growth, fossil fuel development, inequality, democratic backsliding, food production, and so on, at current pace for however long you’d like to imagine into the future. While this can be a useful thought experiment to test the strength of contemporary trends, any ‘Business as Usual’ projection is likely to be entirely wrong and based on so many bizarre assumptions that any long-term ‘Business as Usual’ projection is essentially worthless. Things are not going to continue as they are now forever. That’s not how civilization works.
Technology, means of production, energy sources, cultural values, population levels, and means of communication all change. All the time. Political leaders leave office one way or another. Progress is made and some things regress. In the long term, there is no such thing as business as usual for the human race in the long term; we are constantly developing new standards and ways of doing things. We’ve shifted from hunter-gatherer lifestyles a million years ago to a digitized capitalist society now, with lots of steps in between. Simply put, there is no ‘Business as Usual’ across human history, because business keeps changing. The ‘Business as Usual’ RCP8.5 scenario is inherently flawed because it assumes that the human race will never change, that prices will never change, and that global politics will stagnate forever. A profoundly unlikely idea, which is why RCP8.5 was never especially likely, despite being labeled the ‘Business as Usual’ scenario.
A comparison I like to draw is this: it is 1880 and you decide to start a business in transportation. You want to plan for the future and guarantee your success. However, you inexplicably decide to use a ‘Business as Usual’ scenario where things will just progress at their current rates forever, not accounting for new technology or changing trends. Would you look to the newly emerging automobile as the future of transportation? Probably not. Instead, you would look to horses and stagecoaches, which by a ‘Business as Usual’ methodology, will only become increasingly in demand as the population grows. The demand for horses can only go up, so you crunch the numbers and decide North America will need roughly ten million horses over the next century for labour, warfare, and transportation. You invest. You breed horses. In your version of the future, you win capitalism and become an icon.
Except that ‘Business as Usual’ is about to change dramatically as the combustion engine grows more and more widespread, and the age of the stagecoach, horse-drawn-plow, and cavalry decline. The world changes, and the people who couldn’t foresee or embrace that kind of change are left in the dust.
Looking at RCP8.5 as humanity’s climate future has a similar issue at its core. Thing are going to change as oil and natural gas grow increasingly expensive and the costs of renewables, heat pumps, and alternative fuels plummet. Newer, younger political leaders are markedly more concerned with climate change than older politicians. Which is not to say we can be assured of a prosperous climate future, but any vision of the future that assumes ‘Business as Usual’ isn’t seriously trying to imagine the future and extrapolate trends.
Climate change is highly likely to upend any concept of ‘Business as Usual’ from the last thirty years because the concept that the human race can impact the climate globally though our actions is quite new and requires a major shift. We are not, I repeat, are not headed for RCP8.5 and the world is not going to stagnate to the apocalypse. We’re going to develop new things, forge new agreements, and find new methods to find new ways to do business, and I hope, avoid the worst of climate change.