Storytelling can help us imagine different versions of our shared future. For example, Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Ministry for the Future describes a world where an oppressive heatwave in India – bearing uncanny resemblance to recent events – spurs unprecedented action on climate change. In that storyline, climate damages result in societal tipping points, leading to transformation.

Though fictional, the book raises a very real question: Can the human capacity to imagine alternate climate futures actually help generate new, more hopeful realities?

Research suggests it can. A new study out of Utrecht University in the Netherlands demonstrates how one idea of an acceptable climate future, even if it is once viewed as unrealistic, can gain traction and eventually guide real-world climate policy commitments.  

In particular, the researchers studied the shift from the acceptability of a 2°C future to the emergence of the 1.5°C goal as the new guardrail for global climate action. Through roughly two dozen interviews and careful study of United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) documents, they identified shifts in the emissions scenarios that modelers produced for IPCC reports, leading to the landmark Special Report on 1.5°C.

The scientific validation that IPCC’s report brought to the 1.5°C goal is proving influential in shaping international climate commitments. The study authors track how small island nations helped move the idea of a 1.5°C future to the center of global negotiations, and then trace why modelers examined previously unexplored combinations of technology, policy, and social behavior to envision how that 1.5°C goal could be attained.

Current climate events can make it challenging to remain hopeful. That is where the human capacity for imagination can play an important role. What is the future we would like to imagine for our children? The Utrecht University researchers indicated that shifting the collective imagination is possible, influencing climate action to realize those possibilities.

A 2°C future or a 1.5°C future? An idea takes hold

Earth’s atmosphere has already warmed about 1.2°C above pre-industrial levels, and we are already witnessing immense human suffering and biodiversity loss. Though a half a degree difference might sound small, compared to limiting warming to 1.5°C by the end of the century, warming of 2°C would result in much greater loss. As just one example, compared to a 1.5°C world, a 2°C climate would have 1.7 billion more people suffering through severe heatwaves at least once every five years.

The Utrecht researchers note that the idea of limiting warming to 1.5°C as an urgent climate imperative made its first appearance on the global stage at the 15th Conference of the Parties (COP), in Copenhagen in 2009. The Alliance of Small Island States (AOSIS) argued that a 2°C limit was unacceptable given that the resulting sea-level rise would destroy their countries, and they urged governments to commit to a 1.5°C target.

In the non-binding Copenhagen Accord agreed to at the end of the meeting, governments pledged to act to limit warming to “no more than 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.” However, as a concession to AOSIS and other less-developed countries that shared their concerns, the accord also included a reference “to consider” limiting the temperature increase to less than 1.5°C. Nevertheless, most countries continued to view 2°C as the guiding limit, and the 2°C goal was formally agreed upon the next year at COP16.

As a next step, AOSIS launched a High Ambition Coalition (HAC) in 2015, and successfully rallied NGOs and more than 100 countries to push for a 1.5°C target at the next COP in Paris. The coalition did succeed in making a 1.5°C target a focus of the negotiations. Though the language of the resulting Paris Agreement was a compromise, it nonetheless reflected the collective imagination of the HAC and the group’s work to bring other countries along.

In the Paris Agreement, signatories committed to: “Holding the increase in the global average temperature to well below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels.” This language formalized a 1.5°C goal in global climate agreements for the very first time.

But the reconsideration of a global temperature threshold also raised the question of how to achieve this target. In the agreement, the UNFCCC invited the IPCC to produce a report on 1.5°C to assess both impacts and mitigation pathways – a move that proved highly consequential for galvanizing the global climate movement, validating 1.5°C, and motivating new commitments to the Paris Agreement.

Shifts in the science to reflect evolving ideas

The IPCC leans heavily on outputs from integrated assessment models (IAMs) to identify pathways to reduce emissions. When connected with climate models, they can show a projected global temperature rise based on a set of climate and energy policies and practices. As the study’s lead author, Lisette van Beek, explained in an email exchange:

“IAMs use historic trends to understand how interactions between our economic and climate system may develop in the future. This makes them useful for policymakers to understand the effects of different policy pathways towards the Paris goals. Yet this also means they tend to focus on what seems plausible and politically acceptable in the present.”

Prior to the Paris Climate Agreement, the IAM community largely considered the 1.5°C pathway “unrealistic,” the Utrecht researchers note, and so IPCC reports did not include IAM pathways reaching a 1.5ºC target. But with a new 1.5ºC target formally adopted in the Paris Agreement, and at the request of the UNFCCC to assess pathways to reach that goal, IAM modelers needed to consider new avenues to limit warming to 1.5ºC.

As an initial response, modelers incorporated more negative emissions technologies (NETs) into the emissions pathways – for instance, carbon capture and sequestration – to reduce emissions beyond what clean energy transitions would provide (see Phase 1 in the diagram below).

Overview of the sequence of science-policy interactions around the IPCC SR1.5 between 2015 and 2020 through which the 1.5 °C goal increasingly gained traction. (Source: Lisette van Beek, Jeroen Oomen, Maarten Hajer, Peter Pelzer, Detlef van Vuuren, Navigating the political: An analysis of political calibration of integrated assessment modelling in light of the 1.5 °C goal, Environmental Science & Policy, Volume 133, 2022, Pages 193-202.)

But civil society organizations and other experts pushed back on the idea of leaning on NETs to limit warming to 1.5ºC. Some argued that more reliance on NETs ignores other solutions, while others expressed concerns that some NETs, like bioenergy carbon capture and sequestration, could adversely affect food supplies, ecosystems, or global equity.

This feedback led IAM modelers to “expand their range of mitigation options” to include low energy demand, low material consumption, and a transition to more climate-sensitive diets – avenues that had not been previously considered. The resulting new “Low Energy Demand Scenario” relied more on low-carbon lifestyle changes rather than on NETs. The Low Energy Demand Scenario was featured as one of the four illustrative pathways in the IPCC’s Special Report’s Summary for Policymakers, the most influential read section of the IPCC’s reports.

As the Utrecht researchers point out, the very fact that this scenario was even considered is a consequence of what the authors call the “political calibration” that occurs between the realms of science and policy. This is not a criticism of the scientific integrity of the Special Report, but instead shows how even scientific understanding of how to solve climate change reflects the beliefs and priorities of the communities that produce (and commission) them.

As human imagination expands, so does the range of available future possibilities to consider.

A new guardrail for climate action

When released in October 2018, the IPCC’s Special Report on 1.5ºC was extensively covered by media. The emissions pathways featured in the report, along with the discussion of losses in a 2°C world compared to those in a 1.5°C world, showed that swiftly cutting emissions to limit warming to 1.5°C was both urgent and more possible than previously imagined.

Several factors helped the Special Report become, in the words of one person interviewed for the Utrecht research, “the most important report the IPCC ever produced.” First, the report had a clear and simple message that “imprinted the necessity to reach ‘net-zero in 2050’ on governments.” Second, the report was eagerly anticipated by advocates who were poised to amplify its messages to their respective governments, including the growing Fridays for Future movement led by Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg. And third, the report was released against a backdrop of intensifying climate disasters.

Reimagining a more optimistic approach to our climate future

Kim Stanley Robinson’s more recent brainchild is “The Climate Imagination Project,” hosted at The Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. It “seeks to inspire a wave of narratives about what positive climate futures might look like for communities around the world. Our goal is to curate and share amazing new stories about what success might look like, and to invite people to imagine their own climate futures.”

Lisette van Beek says she sees value in this kind of project and in more dialogue among storytellers and modelers. “Climate fiction writers are much more competent [than modelers] in envisioning radically different post-fossil societies and the cultural shifts that might lead us there,” she wrote in an email. “Interaction between modelling and storytelling could be fruitful, as modelers could attach numbers to such imaginative exercise and give them authority.”

The Utrecht research showcases how climate research can adapt and bring detail and rigor to this kind of creative thinking and help preview actions needed to translate imagination into reality. Further reconfiguring how societies design and employ modeling tools to project future climate changes may also be needed. For example, climate models have not accounted for changes in human behavior, though early efforts to do so show some fascinating results.

Prior to 2018, a 2°C world was considered an acceptable goal. But at the 2021 climate meeting in Glasgow, the 1.5°C target dominated negotiations and helped shape commitments. The recent Utrecht research unveils critical moments in this evolution, pointing out how even our modeling studies reflect our beliefs about our climate future.

With the 1.5°C target elevated as a global goal, we are still not on track to reach it. To do so will require much more imaginative thinking, in dialogue with the sciences, to spur the acceptance and adoption of less harmful ways of living together as a species.

James Arnott, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Aspen Global Change Institute, and Sarah Spengeman, Ph.D. is Deputy Director of Communications with Energy Innovation LLC.