Principal Investigator

At a Glance

A new academic field, Destiny Studies, should be created to foster coherent thinking about future time and the planetary vulnerabilities that will constrain what we are able to do. Today, when we make decisions that affect future generations, we are inconsistent and not guided by general principles. Notably, we are confused about future time—for example, we have difficulty distinguishing 500-year and 50-year time frames. Climate change and its solutions make particularly stringent demands on thinking about the future and are ripe for Destiny Studies.


Research Highlight

Many of us spend a lot of time thinking about the future well beyond our lifetimes. Yet when we make decisions that affect future generations, we are inconsistent and not guided by general principles. Notably, we are confused about future time. We find it hard to separate the far future (say 500 years from now) from 50 years from now. Five hundred years ahead, we have almost no idea what people will be like, but we are pretty sure that people’s needs and capabilities in 50 years will resemble ours. A new academic field could help us think coherently about future time and the planetary vulnerabilities that will constrain what we are able to do. This discipline might be called Destiny Studies.

Sea level rise is a particularly dramatic example of the challenge of coping with future time. Sea level rose 120 meters to its current level as Earth emerged from the last ice age, and it then was uncharacteristically constant over the past 5,000 years. Now sea level rise is resuming. A complete melting of the Greenland ice sheet would yield seven meters of sea level rise, and a similar rise is at stake from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

For the sake of argument, suppose we knew that ahead there would be one meter of sea level rise per century, continuing for many centuries. The impact of one, two, four, and eight meters of sea level rise on Florida and the Gulf Coast is seen in Figure 3.3.1. For such a future, the corresponding dates would be 2100, 2200, 2400, and 2800, respectively. Destiny Studies asks: How much do we care, and should we care, about a southern Florida that is underwater in the year 2500? Does it matter that our descendants 500 years from now might be far more or far less prepared to deal with sea level rise—or much like us? Does it matter that we cannot know how they will perceive their obligations to generations that are in their future?

Long-term storage of waste is another subject in need of Destiny Studies. In a quest for ethically responsible nuclear waste disposal, policymakers soon after World War II sought to establish an operative time frame. They drew on the half-lives of isotopes—notably, the half-life of plutonium 239, which is 24,100 years. The standards that emerged, in essence, invoke a human being living close to a disposal site 24,100 years from now, farming and eating and drinking much as today, who is to be protected from getting cancer from leaking radiation. There are very few other domains where present actions are circumscribed by obligations of such durability. With hindsight, hubris was at work. For every proposed disposal site, a red team seems always able to come up with leakage mechanisms that the blue team can’t reject, when the time frame for near-perfect storage is many millennia.

Figure 3.3.1. Changes in the southeast US coastline with sea level rise. Source: T. Knutson, Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, NOAA.

Public opinion is unlikely to allow a rollback of nuclear waste management standards. However, it is not too late to avoid excessive stringency in new areas. An important example is the emerging standards for the leakage of stored carbon dioxide (CO2) associated with CO2 capture and storage (CCS). Right now, the dominant view seems to be that the rate of leakage from these reservoirs must be fixed now so as to assure that if someday enormous volumes of CO2 are stored, leakage will create negligible climate change. Rules so demanding may well lead to another stalemate. As with nuclear waste, the concepts of iteration with experience and progressive tightening are missing from the discourse.

Unburnable carbon is a third vexatious problem in need of help from Destiny Studies. Not long ago “Peak Oil” was promoted by academics, who asserted that nearly half of the world’s conventional oil had already been produced and that a slow, steady decline in production inevitably lay ahead. A public hungry for reassuring news about climate change inferred that the end was near for all fossil fuel, and that the world would be rescued from climate change by physical depletion. The recent commercialization of shale gas and shale oil has largely brought this wishful thinking to a close, as it becomes more widely understood that commercially attractive fossil fuels are abundant, rather than scarce. To address climate change, successive generations of human beings will need to leave most of these hydrocarbons underground.

Hans-Holger Rogner estimates that 80,000 billion tons of CO2 would be created by burning all of the world’s oil, natural gas, and coal resources, both conventional and unconventional—an amount equal to 2,000 years of emissions at today’s rate and also more than 25 times larger than the 3,000 billion tons of CO2 in the atmosphere right now.1 Methane hydrates, also known as “clathrates” (ice crystals with methane molecules in their interstices), account for more than half of Rogner’s estimate. Clathrates can exist within only narrow ranges of temperatures and pressures, but such ranges are found in the Arctic onshore beneath the permafrost and on the boundaries of continents just below the sea floor. Pilot projects to extract clathrates are already underway in Japan and India.

The carbon budget measures the total quantity of carbon in fossil fuel that will be extracted, ever. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports connect the carbon budget to the rise in the ultimate rise in the Earth’s average surface temperature. They find an approximately linear relationship and associate each 1,600 billion tons of CO2 emissions with each Celsius degree of warming, out to 3oC. The 1,600 billion tons of CO2 already emitted will bring one degree of warming, and budgets of 3,200 and 4,800 billion tons of CO2 of total emissions (past and future) will bring two and three degrees of warming, respectively. The two panels in Figure 3.3.2 show examples of these budgets. The future emissions of the two-degree trajectory are 2% of Rogner’s 80,000 billion tons of CO2; for three-degrees, these emissions are 4%.

The emissions scenario in Panel A —which depicts cutting global CO2 emissions in half in 40 years— is representative of what is required to meet the demanding two-degree target promoted at the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris last December. The extra four decades in Panel B relative to Panel A produce an additional whole degree of surface temperature rise in exchange for a calmer transition out of fossil fuels. Even the Panel B trajectory, however, affects exploration for new fossil fuels, because the strategic decisions by governments and companies, such as whether to develop resources in the Arctic—and whether to develop clathrates—entail commitments to emissions many decades from now.

Some of the questions implicit in carbon budgets are profound and nasty: From which countries should fuels be extracted and in which countries should they be consumed? When? For what purposes? In each case, who judges? Over the next 50 years, constraining “unburnable” fossil fuel will occupy center-stage.

Our endowment of plentiful fossil fuel is just one of a class of temptations that could lead human beings to burst our planet’s seams by producing and consuming too much of a good thing. More kids, more meat, more leisure travel—all are problematic. Problems of abundance will be grist for the mill of Destiny Studies.

Figure 3.3.2. Representative CO2 emissions trajectories consistent with two-degree and three-degree temperature targets. The dark triangles are an adequate abstraction of emissions to date. Panel A models the two-degree rise; it has no plateau at all and it mimics Peak Oil—we’re halfway done. Panel B (“three degrees”) adds a brief, 40-year plateau at today’s emissions rate.

Iteration is a likely theme of Destiny Studies. How scared human beings will become of climate change will depend on what the Earth tells us about itself, decade by decade. Right now, the best and the worst outcomes 50 years from now that are consistent with climate science are very different. Gradually, during the coming 50 years, the Earth will give us clues about its variability and its feedback loops, such as those involving clouds, ice, and forests—provided that climate science flourishes. How can iteration be built into human institutions that govern future behavior so that new knowledge is taken into account?

Our collective afterlife is yet another problem suited for Destiny Studies. Sam Scheffler, a professor of philosophy at New York University and the author of Death and the Afterlife, asks how important it is for humanity to continue and answers that it is very important. He observes that human life derives much of its meaning from being embedded in a “thriving ongoing exercise,” and that “humanity itself as an ongoing project provides the implicit frame of reference for most of our judgments about what matters.” Our connectedness to future generations “staves off nihilism.” We do not want to live forever; but we want the human project of which we are a part to endure.2 Scheffler’s book plowed new ground in philosophy—evidence that Destiny Studies is a project that has hardly begun.



  1. Rogner, H.-H., F. Barthel, M. Cabrera, A. Faaij, M. Giroux, D. Hall, V. Kagramanian, S. Kononov, T. Lefevre, R. Moreira, R. Nötstaller, P. Odell, and M. Taylor, 2000. In World Energy Assessment: Energy and the Challenge of Sustainability, United Nations Development Programme, New York, 149.
  2. Scheffler, S., 2013. Death and the Afterlife. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 59-69.