IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

2.4 Characterising the future

2.4.1 Why and how do we characterise future conditions?

Evaluations of future climate change impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability require assumptions, whether explicit or implicit, about how future socio-economic and biophysical conditions will develop. The literature on methods of characterising the future has grown in tandem with the literature on CCIAV, but these methods have not been defined consistently across different research communities. Box 2.1 presents a consistent typology of characterisations that expands on the definitions presented in the TAR (Carter et al., 2001), for the purpose of clarifying the use of this terminology in this chapter. Although they may overlap, different types of characterisations of the future can be usefully distinguished in terms of their plausibility and ascription of likelihood, on the one hand, and the comprehensiveness of their representation, on the other (see Box 2.1 for definitions). Since the TAR, comprehensiveness has increased and ascriptions of likelihood have become more common. The following sections make use of the typology in Box 2.1 to address notable advances in methods of characterising the future.

Box 2.1. Definitions of future characterisations

Figure 2.4 illustrates the relationships among the categories of future characterisations most commonly used in CCIAV studies. Because definitions vary across different fields, we present a single consistent typology for use in this chapter. Categories are distinguished according to comprehensiveness and plausibility.

Comprehensiveness indicates the degree to which a characterisation of the future captures the various aspects of the socio-economic/biophysical system it aims to represent. Secondarily, it indicates the detail with which any single element is characterised.

Figure 2.4

Figure 2.4. Characterisations of the future.

Plausibility is a subjective measure of whether a characterisation of the future is possible. Implausible futures are assumed to have zero or negligible likelihood. Plausible futures can be further distinguished by whether a specific likelihood is ascribed or not.

Artificial experiment. A characterisation of the future constructed without regard to plausibility (and hence often implausible) that follows a coherent logic in order to study a process or communicate an insight. Artificial experiments range in comprehensiveness from simple thought experiments to detailed integrated modelling studies.

Sensitivity analysis. Sensitivity analyses employ characterisations that involve arbitrary or graduated adjustments of one or several variables relative to a reference case. These adjustments may be plausible (e.g., changes are of a realistic magnitude) or implausible (e.g., interactions between the adjusted variables are ignored), but the main aim is to explore model sensitivity to inputs, and possibly uncertainty in outputs.

Analogues. Analogues are based on recorded conditions that are considered to adequately represent future conditions in a study region.These records can be of past conditions (temporal analogues) or from another region (spatial analogues). Their selection is guided by information from sources such as AOGCMs; they are used to generate detailed scenarios which could not be realistically obtained by other means. Analogues are plausible in that they reflect a real situation, but may be implausible because no two places or periods of time are identical in all respects.

Scenarios. A scenario is a coherent, internally consistent, and plausible description of a possible future state of the world (IPCC, 1994; Naki´cenovi´c et al., 2000; Raskin et al., 2005). Scenarios are not predictions or forecasts (which indicate outcomes considered most likely), but are alternative images without ascribed likelihoods of how the future might unfold. They may be qualitative, quantitative, or both. An overarching logic often relates several components of a scenario, for example a storyline and/or projections of particular elements of a system. Exploratory (or descriptive) scenarios describe the future according to known processes of change, or as extrapolations of past trends (Carter et al., 2001). Normative (or prescriptive) scenarios describe a pre-specified future, either optimistic, pessimistic, or neutral (Alcamo, 2001), and a set of actions that might be required to achieve (or avoid) it. Such scenarios are often developed using an inverse modelling approach, by defining constraints and then diagnosing plausible combinations of the underlying conditions that satisfy those constraints (see Naki´cenovi´c et al., 2007).

Storylines. Storylines are qualitative, internally consistent narratives of how the future may evolve. They describe the principal trends in socio-political-economic drivers of change and the relationships between these drivers. Storylines may be stand-alone, but more often underpin quantitative projections of future change that, together with the storyline, constitute a scenario.

Projection. A projection is generally regarded as any description of the future and the pathway leading to it. However, here we define a projection as a model-derived estimate of future conditions related to one element of an integrated system (e.g., an emission, a climate, or an economic growth projection). Projections are generally less comprehensive than scenarios, even if the projected element is influenced by other elements. In addition, projections may be probabilistic, while scenarios do not ascribe likelihoods.

Probabilistic futures. Futures with ascribed likelihoods are probabilistic. The degree to which the future is characterised in probabilistic terms can vary widely. For example, conditional probabilistic futures are subject to specific and stated assumptions about how underlying assumptions are to be represented. Assigned probabilities may also be imprecise or qualitative.