Through a glass, darkly

Foggy window illustrates that we cannot see the future in detail, but we can see an outline.

Predicting the Future

At a recent church service the minister giving the sermon said that every preacher has his or her favorite verse from the Bible that they come back to time and time again. I believe that he is correct. In the context of this blog the passage that I keep going back to is from 1 Corinthians 13,12.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

(Scholars tell us that the word “glass” — implying a window that we look through — may be a misleading translation. In biblical times they did not have glass mirrors with a metal backing, as we do. Their mirrors were made of copper. The metal surface was generally uneven, so the mirror rarely provided an exact image.)

The point of the passage is that the apostle Paul is telling us that, in spite of his immense spiritual insights, even he cannot forecast the future in detail. But he can see an outline as to what might happen. He is not totally blind.

Take a look at the image at the head of this post. We are looking through a fogged-up window. At first all that we see is a blur. But take a closer look. There are some railings (or maybe a window frame), and a river and hills in the distance. We cannot see the details but we can see an outline — and the harder we look the more we see. We see through a glass darkly. So it is with our view of the future in an Age of Limits. We cannot predict what will happen in detail, and when we make predictions they often turn out to be wrong. But we have a general sense as where we may be heading.

Another problem to do with predicting the future is selecting the time frame. When talking about the future we first have to determine what we mean by “the future”? Is it tomorrow, a week from now, five years away or a generation out? The further away it is, the less accurate our predictions will be. We can say with confidence that tomorrow will be much like today, and that the world five years from now will not be too different from what we see now (assuming no major calamity such as war). But, beyond that, the future looks increasingly hazy. In fact, the only statement that we can make with confidence is that all predictions that we make will turn out to be wrong. After all, who would have predicted as little as ten years ago the impact that social media and mobile phones have already had on the lives of billions of people?

Climate change is particularly difficult to forecast because it is not an event, it is a process. It started in the 1960s, gained traction in the 1970s and has gained traction ever since. This means that, by definition, we cannot prevent climate change from occurring  — we are too late for that. The best we can do is slow its pace and/or mitigate the consequences. Failing that, we are forced into an adaptation mode.

IPCC Report

IPCC Report Global Warming

The recently published report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (1) does, however, give us a handle as to what will happen, and when it will happen. This report was prepared for the United Nations and, as such, is authoritative. The scientific findings in the main report are summarized in a 34-page “Summary for Policy Makers,” which was approved by all representatives from 195 nations, including the U.S.

The report is technical, lengthy and not always an easy read, but here are some of its key findings.

Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. (high confidence)

Warming from anthropogenic emissions from the pre-industrial period to the present will persist for centuries to millennia and will continue to cause further long-term changes in the climate system, such as sea level rise, with associated impacts (high confidence), but these emissions alone are unlikely to cause global warming of 1.5°C (medium confidence)

These two quotations note that emissions that have taken place in the past will continue to have a major impact. However, if we could stop all emissions now we would not reach a critical stage.

Pathways limiting global warming to 1.5°C with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems (high confidence). 

This paragraph, and others like it, have been criticized for being too hopeful. They do not spell out the magnitude of the changes that are required, and the enormous impact that such changes would have. The “rapid and far-reaching transitions” that the report alludes to mean that we, as a society, would have to stop using fossil fuels within the next decade or so. Realistically, this is not going to happen. Even if the will to take such action were present, the economic impact on people’s lives would be devastating.

The Impact

Reports such as the one just cited make for rather dry reading. In order to understand where climate changes are taking us it is useful to read articles by writers such as Wallace-Wells (2) and Bendell (3). They provide rather scary insights as to what the future may look like.

Through the Glass, Darkly

To summarize:

  • Actions that we have taken so far will increase global temperatures by 1.5°C. This is baked into the pie. The impact of a 1.5 °C increase is very serious, but does not drive us over a tipping point (that phrase is not included in the report but it probably should be).
  • In order to keep temperature increases to 1.5°C we would have to cut fossil-fuel use by half in less than 15 years and eliminate it almost entirely in 30 years. This means no home, business, or industry heated by gas or oil; no vehicles powered by diesel or gasoline; all coal and gas power plants shuttered; the petrochemical industry converted wholesale to green chemistry; and heavy industry like steel and aluminum production either using carbon-free energy sources or employing technology to capture CO2 emissions and permanently store it.
  • Cutting the use of fossil fuels in such a drastic manner would, of course, lead to a massive economic recession, and suffering for billions of people. Hence no nation is taking such drastic actions, or even coming close.
  • If we do not take drastic action then, by the year 2050 it will be too late to change course.

Let’s return to the Corinthians quotation that started this post. When we look through our fogged-up window we see that climate change is going to have massive impact on society one way or another. Either we, as a society that includes all the countries of the world, take drastic actions that will radically reduce our standard of living and that will disproportionately affect those at the bottom of the economic scale. Or we do nothing and then face the consequences of environmental destruction, which in turn could well lead to economic collapse. The outline is becoming clearer and clearer. And it is not a pretty sight.


(1) Global Warming of 1.5°C. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. January 2019.(2) Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth. New York Magazine July 2017.
(3) Bendell, Jem. Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy. July 2018.

Author: Ian Sutton

Ian Sutton is a chemical engineer who has worked in the chemical, refining and offshore oil and gas industries. He is the author of many books, ebooks and videos.

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