I’ve just finished reading a little tract by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway called “The Collapse of Western Civilisation: a View from the Future”. Not a very cheery title! And a deeply depressing take on where we are today in terms of both politics and the science of climate change.

And that’s obviously quite a stark contrast for me in terms of the underlying hopefulness of “The World We Made”!

So I thought it might be interesting to do a “compare and contrast” analysis, explaining why Naomi Oreskes (a very eminent historian and brilliant analyst of the contemporary phenomenon of climate change denial) and Jonathon Porritt have ended up in such different places – starting from where we are today!

Jonathon Porritt’s take on the world (by 2050) Naomi Oreskes’s take on the world (by 2073)
Humankind as a whole just about makes it – as in avoiding cataclysmic, irreversible climate change. Humankind definitely doesn’t make it, after a period of 20 years (2073 to 2093) during which western civilisation precipitately collapses.
The average temperature increase by 2050 is indeed in excess of 2⁰C, but runaway feedback loops in the climate have been largely avoided. The average temperature increase by 2050 reaches 3.9⁰C, unleashing fearsome feedback loops in every corner of the planet. The mass release of methane across the Arctic pushes the average temperature increase up to 11⁰C  by the end of the century.
Climate scientists often struggle to get across a convincing case for action in the teeth of extraordinary intransigence from both the political system and contemporary media. “Those in what we might call ‘active denial’ insisted that the extreme weather events reflected natural variability. Those in ‘passive denial’ continued life as they’d been living it, unconvinced that a compelling justification existed for broad changes in industry and infrastructure.”
Climate shocks get worse and worse, with surprising speed and intensity. But just in time, the frog wakes up to the fact that the water it is in is getting frighteningly hot, and rapidly exits the beaker. Climate shocks become more frequent, more traumatic, more destabilising – but never quite to the extent that they induce profound political transformation. In other words, the frog duly boils to death.
However, politicians and scientists alike come to recognise climate change for the “existential threat” that it is, and accept the need for a lower burden of proof and for more holistic ways of thinking about the evidence and potential solutions. Despite strong voices advocating transformational change, “western scientists built an intellectual culture based on the premise that it was worse to fool oneself into believing that something did not exist than not to believe in something that did”.
In other words, knowledge (belatedly and very late in the day) does translate into appropriate political action. “Knowledge did not translate into power.”
The shale gas / oil bonanza hits its peak far earlier than certain “experts” predict, driving fossil fuel prices ever higher so that the combination of efficiency, renewables, energy storage and smart grids can compete in markets all around the world without any public subsidy. The shale gas / oil bonanza goes on well into the 2030s, making it all but impossible to stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere within the necessary timeframe.
The “Renewables Boom” kicks in big-time from around 2016 onwards. High levels of public acceptability, plus an increasing emphasis on community schemes, make it impossible for politicians to block this revolution any longer. “In the US, bills were passed on both the state and federal level to restrict the development and use of other forms of renewable energy, and to inhibit the sale of electric cars, maintaining the lock that fossil fuel companies had on energy production and use.”
Nuclear power makes little if any contribution to a low-carbon world. Ditto.
A combination of factors give rise to the “great famine” in 2025, causing the death of tens of millions of people. But we learn from this horror story – and the move to a genuinely sustainable agriculture starts in earnest at that point. “In the northern hemisphere summer of 2041, unprecedented heatwaves scorched the planet, destroying food crops around the globe. Panic ensued, with food riots in virtually every city.”
China becomes a key player in promoting the low-carbon economy. Driven by concerns about local air pollution in cities (and growing public anger), the cleantech revolution kicks in much faster than anyone anticipated. “China took steps to control its population and convert its economy to non-carbon based energy sources. These efforts were little noticed and less emulated in the west, but had other nations followed China’s lead, the history recounted here might have been very different.”
Population is a critical issue throughout this period, and we all pay a heavy price for the fact that it was disregarded for decades. Ditto.
The Republican Party in the US regains its faith in “good governance” and its confidence in the scientific method. It also wakes up to the threat from China in terms of competition for the multi-trillion dollar cleantech sector. Tea Party “absolutism” takes an ever firmer hold, leading to “the National Stability Protection Act of 2025, which led to the conviction and imprisonment of more than 300 scientists for “endangering the safety and wellbeing of the general public with unduly alarming threats”. By exaggerating the threat, it was argued, scientists were preventing the economic development essential for coping with climate change”.
The spirit of the Enlightenment (reflected in science, progressive religion and humanitarian solidarity, particularly amongst young people) wins out over ignorance, denial and the vested interests of the hyper-rich. “A shadow of ignorance and denial has fallen over people who considered themselves children of the Enlightenment. It is for this reason that we now know this era as the Period of the Penumbra”.
Limited geo-engineering (to remove CO2 from the atmosphere) starts in the mid-2020s. Over time, it makes a big difference, albeit at a massive financial cost. In other words, “late lessons from early warnings” were absorbed just in time. “The International Aerosol Injection Climate Engineering Project began to inject sub-micrometer size sulphate particles into the stratosphere in 2052. These were expected to reduce mean global temperature by 0.1⁰C  annually from 2059 to 2079.”
But it’s much too late.
Politicians succeeded in breaking free of the incumbent power brokers in the fossil fuel and CO2-intensive industries, ushering in a period of sustained growth off the back of a massive, global cleantech revolution. Politicians remain enslaved by the “carbon-combustion complex”, dependent on their financial contributions throughout the first half of the century. “They also corrupted democratic process through bribery and extortion and distorted the marketplace through a variety of processes.”
A succession of political uprisings (starting in 2018 amongst young people all around the world) finally succeed in curbing the power of the hyper-rich. Free market fundamentalism remained dominant right through until the collapse of many countries in the 2040s. “A second Gilded Age reproduced concentrations of power and capital not seen since the nineteenth century, with some of the accumulated capital used to finance think-tanks that further promoted neo-liberal views”.
Many democracies are still very fragile in 2050, but there is a sense that governments are in a better position to fashion new “contracts” with their citizenry, and to build a more resilient and genuinely sustainable way of life through to the end of the century. “The development that the neo-liberals most dreaded – centralised government and loss of personal choice – was rendered essential by the very policies that they had put in place.”