Shell Looks Into Crystal Ball. IPCC Reflects Back

by Eric Ellman

For forty years, Royal Dutch Shell has committed significant intellectual resources to forecasting the future.  Multiple futures, that is, in the form of alternative scenarios presented as if each had an equal chance to unfold as time reels forward. They make particularly fascinating reading this week, just when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has released its first report on how to mitigate climate change since 2007.

The IPCC report is generated by the world’s top scientists.  Their fifth compendium in 26 years adds to voluminous research confirming that the Earth is heating up dangerously and that we’re running out of time to respond.   Shell’s scenarios – written by a team of economists and energy experts – herald an approaching fork in the road too.  Their messaging might have a better chance to get through.

A recent Shell scenario called “Scramble” envisions a world where economic growth is paramount, resources are limited, and efforts to stem climate change come as too little, too late.  “Blueprint” suggests an alternative where private and public sectors make concessions, implement carbon markets, and create a more sustainable world.  Each scenario is laid out with nuanced consideration of political, technological and economic factors that suggest a historian recounting events as if they had already unfolded, giving you the sense that either one has an equal chance to be our future.  Which path do we take? The world’s largest corporation is going to profit either way, so we might as well listen.

Cultural cognition – which says that people’s beliefs are shaped more by values than scientific understanding – suggests that Shell’s fork-in-the-road message is more likely to get the attention of those who have previously dismissed climate change than this week’s IPCC report.  When the leaders of a company with 92,000 employees in 70 countries quietly advocate for a need to tax the carbon they themselves produce, what self-respecting talk show host will dispute them?

If those who’ve scorned the IPCC until now take a look at Shell’s projections, they’ll see more in common than a tax on carbon.  They’ll see shared concern for the world’s cities, and how business as usual threatens to lock in energy consumption patterns that neither Shell nor anyone else is prepared to satisfy. 

How do you meet the energy needs of “a new city of one million people, every week, for decades,” as Scenario team leader Jeremy Bentham intones?   For the first time, the IPCC Assessment Report includes a chapter on Human Settlements, Infrastructure, and Spatial Planning, to address those questions.  Rajendra Pachauri, Chairman of the IPCC, and Karen Seto, Coordinating Lead Author of its new chapter on urbanization will be at the Fifth Annual Conference of Yale Climate and Energy Institute on Thursday to share their blueprint for an orderly transition to a carbon-reduced lifestyle, an alternative to a scramble for dwindling resources and ad hoc responses to climate disturbance that Shell warns of.