Two Climate Futures, As Seen From Space

Two futures — one dark, one bright

We have two choices regarding climate change. Either we change, or the climate does. This choice will lead to two very different worlds, which are visualized here.

In the GIF above you can see two futures, one red, one blue. In the red scenario we’ve just carried on, burning the Earth around us. In the blue future we have collectively pursued an aggressive climate policy. They’re two completely different worlds, especially where I live.


In the red future¹ the Earth’s temperature has risen 2.6°–4.8°. In this future the global south is so damaged that you can see it from space. Or more specifically, you won’t see us, because our economies would have been so badly hit.

This visualization shows economic activity as night lights. A healthy economy can be seen from space. In the red scenario, the global south will go dark.


In the blue future², humanity has changed our energy system and economies in time. We have limited warming to 0.3°-1.7°. In this future you can see lots of economic activity from space. My country, for example, exists.

This second future is important to me because I live in the south, on that little island south of India. I would like my grandkids future to be bright.

Hello From The Other Side

Here’s the same view of the other side of the world.


In this second image the red future shows much of South America and Africa knocked out. Rising temperatures, sea levels and unpredictable weather will push them down into recession and instability. Also note that the global north, the perpetrators of climate change, remains relatively fine.


In the blue future, however, South America and Africa are able to grow and thrive, sustainably.

Here’s another way of looking at it. Flatter and perhaps simpler.

As you can see, the poor countries suffer and the rich get away with it. Which sounds like most of history, but nevermind. There are clear winners and losers with climate change, which I have discussed at greater length here (with another GIF). Some countries will see their GDPs plummet, others will be fine.

America, Europe, Russia, and China have gotten the benefits of pollution and fossil fuels. Which is perhaps why they are pretending the problem doesn’t exist. Or asking for timid solutions. Because they’re making money off it, and someone else is paying.
It is the brown and black countries of the global south — the ones that are just lifting their heads after centuries of colonialism — that will see their environments, agriculture, lands and ways of life destroyed from afar. (Climate Winners And Losers In Two Maps)

This climate injustice is great, and it makes my blood boil. We in the south didn’t start the fire, but it will burn us the worst.

As I said, we have two choices. Either we change or the climate does. If we do nothing we end up in the red future, wherein much of the population of the world is young, hot and trapped in the global south by racist borders. Needless to say, I would be pissed, as would a lot of people.

In the blue future, however, a lot of sacrifice and hard work could leave a livable and stable world for our grandchildren. This is an existential choice, but unfortunately my grandchildren don’t exist yet, and old men seem determined to take this Earth with them when they die.

But we shouldn’t let them do that. The future can be bright for all of us, but we have to see the light right now. Summer is coming. Be aware, be prepared, and fight for a better future now.


These GIFs are based on the excellent research of Burke, Hsiang, & Miguel, as published in Nature, 2015. I’ll let them explain it:

[Our] findings are used in a simulation of future nightlights, as seen from space, since richer economies tend to glow brighter. A hotter world is a more unequal world, with the north benefitting and tropical economies declining. A cooler world leads to more equitable global growth, offering regions like Africa the chance to “catch up”.

There is a lot of work in that paper and the science around climate change is of course very clear. And if not, just look around you. Every year is the hottest ever, especially where I am (in Sri Lanka). As Greta Thunberg says, we need to unite behind the science and take action.

¹RCP 2.6 is a climate scenario involving ‘business as usual’
²RCP 8.5 is a climate scenario with aggressive policy changes