Life in a climate-changing world: what role for the UN?

Fri, 20/08/10

How will climate change affect the lives of ordinary people in low-income countries? How will this affect the nature of the UN's work? What might the UN look like in 2030? Unsurprisingly, there are no straightforward answers to these questions. But it's becoming clearer that in addition to the significant environmental impacts, climate change will have major - and perhaps unsettling - political, economic, social and psychological repercussions.

A new report supported by the UK government, The future climate for development, explores some of the radical changes we could see out to 2030 as a result of climate change, looking specifically at how low-income countries – so often neglected in this debate - might respond.

Informed by the insights of more than 100 development and climate change experts from around the world, it contains four scenarios – descriptions of different plausible futures – to provide a structured way of working through the uncertainties of a climate changing world.

The scenarios, which are brought to life in four short animations, each highlight a different set of challenges and opportunities that low-income countries could face by the year 2030.

One scenario, ‘Reversal of Fortunes’, describes a world which is belatedly attempting to radically decarbonise its economy. Such is the drive (and the desperation) to take carbon out of the atmosphere that in this world the UN sets up UNOG – the United Nations Office for Geoengineering, to coordinate the myriad efforts from around the world.

Another scenario, ‘Age of Opportunity’, paints a more positive picture of 2030. Huge sums of development assistance have, in most low-income countries, triggered a virtuous circle of investment, energy security, business opportunities and community empowerment. In many countries political power has devolved, and cities are often quite separate entities: in this scenario Lagos sends its own delegation to the UN, separate from Nigeria.

In ‘Coping Alone’ a world reeling from the shock of oil at $400 a barrel focuses on regional solutions. In the final scenario, ‘The Greater Good’ climate change is subsumed into a broader debate about resource use.

These scenarios are not predictions – and certainly, none of them is likely to ‘come true’. But that’s not the point. Used for strategic planning purposes, scenarios are a means of asking important ‘what if’ questions about the future, and therefore provide a means of ‘stress-testing’ current policies. These radically different possible futures can also spark ideas for new ways of working.

So, what might the UN look like in 2030? How could it be achieving its organizational mission? What new challenges and opportunities will it face in being a sustainable organization? And will today’s strategies hold true in a climate-change world? These are pretty big questions, but using scenarios to think through what kind of world it might be faced with is a useful first step towards crafting the answers. 

- The future climate for development was produced by Forum for the Future and supported by the UK’s Department for International Development.