Thinking out of the box on climate change

7 November, 2013 by (comments)
climate scenario blog

© Neil Palmer

Picture this. Floods in the Mekong Delta brew trouble in Southeast Asia, as agricultural land is submerged. Suddenly, private sector investment sparks mass buying of agricultural land – and what follows is a decline in critical biodiversity, combined with wildlife smuggling as poor farmers struggle to make a living from dwindling natural resources. Then climate change kicks in.

Sea levels rise, and a drastic flood triggers migration, with refugee camps springing up along the borders, putting stress on regional coordination and national relationships. Welcome to 2050. Well, luckily, this is only one of four scenarios projecting what 2050 could look like, using a new modeling system which maps multiple socio-economic trajectories impacting food security in the region.

In this scenario of Southeast Asia – developed as part of the “Scenarios for Future Food Security, Environments and Livelihoods in Southeast Asia” workshop organized by the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security and The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Economics and policy Innovations for Climate-Smart Agriculture (EPIC) program* – unregulated markets forces rule.

There is enforced regional collaboration, agricultural investment is unbalanced, with high private investment in business and research, and high land degradation due to land use change. It’s not a very attractive prospect.

Yet if there’s one thing the whole process of using scenario modeling shows, it’s not so much unattractive future prospects that matter – but how you work back from them – that counts. What if next year, a tsunami was to hit the region? “The people who develop these models don’t have any more of a sense of the future than we do – they could just invent the scenarios,” said Keith Wiebe, an IFPRI economist behind the IMPACT model, designed to examine alternative futures for global food supply.

“The stories have to come from the people who know – [so the scenarios] can be plugged into the models to see what we get. What has been interesting to me is that it’s okay if the scenario is not realistic – it’s useful to prepare for that.” In a world of flux, where policies have to be effective, feasible – and flexible – looking at the worst scenario could throw up the best possible defenses.

From a generalized projection of 2050, much of the process of building a resilient scenario model is in documenting robust analyses of change factors – and bringing all the rich detail formed during discussions on what factors might shape the future, back into the scenarios in a structured way.

By day two of the scenario-building process, “People have started thinking in a really systematic way about an imaginary future in 2050 and what this means for our scenarios,” said modeler Benjamin Stuch. “I’ve noticed a real shift in how people are thinking, from their personal experience, sector or national level to looking at the bigger picture.”

Where it might have seemed impossible to imagine collaboration between two particular countries for example, the scenarios remove any current conceptual boundaries. As ICRAF Researcher Elisabeth Simelton, explains: “It opens up so many possible areas of discussion, keeping the conversation neutral – politically, socially.” Because when you’re just imagining the future, what have you got to lose?

Head of the Faculty of Engineering at the National University of Laos, Khamfeuane Sioudom, said the process of framing future scenarios and considering how to respond to them has been very useful in the Southeast Asian context: “We can take this process back for processing practically in our countries,” he said.

Read more about this process here.  

*This post was modified on November 18th to include The Food and Agriculture Organization’s Economics and policy Innovations for Climate-Smart Agriculture (EPIC) program as organizers as well as supporters of the workshop. 

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