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Climate emergency – energy generation

September 4, 2019
Image by PIRO4D from Pixabay 

In previous posts we’ve looked at the impacts of global heating assuming we don’t do enough to mitigate it.  We’re now going to look at some of the technological solutions, first in the area of energy generation. 

Getting to “net zero” carbon emissions means drastically reducing the use of fossil fuels in energy generation, because that sector represents 25% of emissions.  In BP’s 2019 Energy Report, their Chief Economist concluded: “There is a growing mismatch between societal demands for action on climate change and the actual pace of progress, with energy demand and carbon emissions growing at their fastest rate for years. The world is on an unsustainable path.”

Fortunately, substantial progress has been made in the use of renewables and the economics of these energy sources are improving rapidly. The challenge is creating the political will to implement them quickly enough. 

At the end of May the UK, for the first time since the Industrial Revolution, went 2 weeks without using any coal in its power systems. Wind and (to a much lesser extent) solar power are providing 30% of the UK’s power today and are forecast to be providing 70% by 2030. However, G20 countries generally have tripled coal power subsidies. The coal industry is increasingly unprofitable in comparison with renewables, so these subsidies are more about employment support – avoiding coal miners going out of work. The issue is socio-political rather than technological. 

Offshore wind projects have seen costs halve in just two years. BEIS estimates its costs as £106 per MWh; onshore is cheaper at £63 per MWh, cheaper than solar (£65) and all other sources. Again, the issues around expanding wind-power are socio-political rather than economic/technological. 

recent study found that maximizing onshore wind potential could enable Europe to generate 100 times more electricity than it currently does. That’s enough to cover energy demand for the entire world from now until 2050.   But that again omits consideration of practical, political constraints. 

Wind-power suffers from a number of drawbacks: wind variability, meaning that storage is needed; wind-shadow effects (adding new turbines reduces the performance of others); and local heating (wind turbines push warm air downwards). 

Despite growth in recent years, solar photovoltaics power is only a small proportion of energy generation – less than 1%. However, costs of solar are falling: in Europe, the price per MWh is expected to decline to between €40 and €60 in 2025 and further decrease to as low as €20 in 2050, making it among the cheapest sources of energy. Solar systems could grow to supply 5% of global electricity consumption in 2030, rising to 16% by 2050.  This would avoid the emission of 4 Gt of carbon dioxide annually. 

Solar also suffers from variability of supply, but innovative approaches are looking to address this.

  • Belgian scientists have combined solar panels with generating and storing hydrogen as a more efficient and cheaper solar energy storage system than batteries.
  •  Energy Vault is a venture that stores excess solar farm electricity by using giant cranes to lift and stack 35-metric-ton bricks, thus storing it as potential energy. When the energy is later needed, software tells the system to lower the bricks, and that spins generators to send electricity back into the grid. The system can respond within a millisecond. 
  • Malta is building a grid-scale energy storage technology that stores electricity from solar sources as heat inside large tanks of high temperature molten salt and as cold in large tanks of chilled liquid.

One of the oldest renewable energy sources, hydropower, is, ironically, itself being threatened by climate change.  Rivers that once ebbed and flowed with seasonal regularity have grown erratic. In Brazil, record drought triggered blackouts in 2015. In California, output from dams has swung wildly from year to year. And in Europe, Spanish utility giant Iberdrola SA’s hydro output reached a record high in 2016, then plunged 57% the following year. As one energy adviser put it: “The challenge is the future doesn’t look like the past.” Quite. 

Tidal power has its supporters too. Although the Government rejected subsidies for a tidal barrage in Swansea Bay, a private company is now planning to build it within 6 years. The predictability of the tides means it doesn’t have the storage challenges of wind and solar.  The Institution of Civil Engineers suggest that, because the Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world, tidal power in the Severn could produce a total of about 7% of the country’s energy needs. 

Geothermal energy is used in over 20 countries. The United States is the largest producer of geothermal energy in the world, and hosts the largest geothermal field, in California. The field is spread over 117 square kilometres and formed of 22 power plants, with an installed capacity of over 1.5GW.  The energy source is also prevalent in Iceland where it produces 25% of the country’s energy from five geothermal power plants. Geothermal energy does emit CO2(one-sixth of the produced by a natural gas plant) It has also been associated with other emissions like sulphur dioxide and hydrogen sulphide. 

Bioethanol fuel is mainly produced by the sugar fermentation process. Most bioethanol is produced from sugar cane (Brazil), molasses and corn (USA), but other starchy materials such as wheat, barley and rye are also suitable. It is a high-octane fuel, often blended with petrol to enhance performance. R&D activities focus on using lignocellulosic or woody materials, which are more abundant and less expensive than food crops and have a higher net energy balance. 

However, whilst the drive for clean energy is under way, and costs are reducing, coal and natural gas are here to stay for the foreseeable future. China’s more ambitious plans include building between 300 and 500 coal fired plants between now and 2030, for instance. The World Coal Association, whilst placing a new focus on carbon capture and “clean” coal technologies, makes the point that coal power is the quickest and cheapest way “to provide access to base load electricity and is a critical building block for development”. Coal is also political: both the United States and Australian administrations are firmly pro-coal because of a combination of sentimental and employment factors; “artisanal mining” (ie informal mining by individuals) is a vital part of economies around the developing world.

Alternatives to fossil fuels exist and so the goal of “net zero” emissions is achievable. The question is whether we want it enough to make the necessary changes. 

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal and Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at and/or browse our website at

Activism Is A Wake-Up Call for Your Board

August 29, 2019

Shareholder activism is on the rise and according to Lazards more investors are using activism as a tactic putting increasing pressure on boards to defend their strategy in the face of calls for change.

The activist will typically own less than 10% of the shares and needs to convince another 40% of shareholders that their planned business strategy is more attractive than that of the incumbent board, and will release pent up value. This is an enormous challenge; they must find and motivate the disillusioned from among the institutionally conservative and inherently inert. This is not impossible as they only need deal in expectation, trust and confidence rather than fact. A brighter tomorrow and higher dividend is a no-brainer to anyone seeking a better return on their investment.

Meanwhile the company board will be busy contacting all shareholders to secure support. Many of these will not have previously taken much interest in the strategy itself but will begin to once an activist criticises it and makes waves in the market. The smaller shareholders and proxy voting agencies will be bombarded with information to justify the current strategy, board composition, CEO competence and overall common sense of the status quo. The activist will be portrayed as an ‘asset stripper’, an out and out bad guy, a charlatan whose promises will turn to dust.

The activist need only expose a vein of latent dissatisfaction irrespective of its source, much as the Leave campaign did in the June 2016 referendum. The precise trigger for dissatisfaction doesn’t itself matter because it all hinges on a achieving a majority in a binary choice vote. The activist only need sow doubt and question trust, highlight poor decisions and timidity of action. It is relatively easy for them to show that the incumbent leadership could have performed better because there is always a ready example to support their hypothesis.

Conversely the board will be fighting for their existence and the CEO will want the Chair to wholeheartedly back him against possible defenestration. There will be a huge PR push to rally shareholder support and win a vote of confidence at the shareholder meeting – AGM or EGM. The current strategy will be defended using supporting evidence, selected and presented to demonstrate competence and capability. The status quo will be defended as the safest option for shareholders.

Who wins depends on winning hearts and minds through an effective campaign. The Cameron/Osborne faction on the Remain ticket failed to convince the country they had the right strategy, whereas the Johnson/Gove faction on the Leave ticket tapped into dissatisfaction and promised a brighter tomorrow. They didn’t have to be specific in how this would be achieved, they just tapped into a well of discontent. Conversely the activist shareholder does have to propose a different CEO or strategy, but they also tap into the well of disillusionment and dissatisfaction.

Why is activism increasingly being used as a tactic? It is a vehicle for achieving change that appeals to shareholder emotions like frustration and impotence. It is not restricted by the requirement for proof but lives off expectation and belief. It cuts to the very currency of reputation: character and trust. Once doubts are raised about competence and performance, their spread is contagious. The activist questions whether confidence in a board, once willingly given, is overdue for retraction. The activist has conducted their own due diligence and spotted an opportunity to release value. Invariably a hedge fund, the activist probably has a better understanding of risk than the incumbent board.

Written by Garry Honey, founder of Better Boards, CEO, Chiron Reputation Risk and SAMI Associate. Originally posted on Chiron Reputation Risk website 14th February 2019

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at browse our website at

Climate emergency – migration

August 21, 2019
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay 

We discussed the effects of global heating on the planet in recent posts. This time we focus on how climate change migration, both within and between countries, will bring new challenges and tensions to populations.

The UN International Organisation for Migration (IOM) produced a substantial “World Global Migration” report which suggested that in 2015 there were an estimated 244 million international migrants globally (3.3% of the world’s population) — an increase from an estimated 155 million people in 2000 (2.8%[1]). Climate change is not the only driver of migration – economic prosperity, inequality, demography, violence and conflict play their part. However, in 2016 (as in previous years), disasters triggered by climate and weather-related hazards, such as floods and storms, displaced nearly 5 times as many people as conflict and violence.  Of course, historically people have often been displaced by severe weather, but we can clearly identify an increase in such events.

Sea level rise, extreme weather, and erratic droughts or flood may displace large sums of people but in the eyes of global law they are not, as of now, “refugees” per se, and so do not have the same rights as those fleeing conflict. Populist reaction may force Western governments to resist them being given that status. 

The UK military think-tank, the Wavell Room, identified challenges in coping with those displaced by climate change.   The regional destabilisation caused by migrants (whether from climate change or conflict) creates a breakdown in law and order, and the emergence of criminal people traffickers exploiting vulnerable people in camps.  As an example, Pedro Sula, in Honduras, has an almost complete lack of state control and serves as a node for drug trafficking into the USA.  Similar situations in multiple cities across North Africa would pose a direct threat European security

States under pressure may look to Russia or China for support with arms and finance to maintain order in an increasingly stressed security environment. Climate refugees not only risk empowering repression, but also providing a pretext for the entrenchment of the West’s strategic competitors in Africa.  The UK will be faced with a strategic dilemma; to pursue a strategy based on international security by opposing Russian and Chinese interests, or to follow humanitarian instincts.

For domestic political reasons, and irrespective of the actual security threat, European nations will invest more resources into policies which keep climate refugees off the continent The Hungarian Government erected a wire fence on their border with Serbia in 2015. So it may even be that, just as the EU signed a deal with Turkey to restrict migration into Europe, it may seem appropriate to co-operate with China in diverting migrant flows.

Policy responses could be increasing funding for Frontex, the EU border agency, or providing support for national missions such as the Italian Operation Mare NostrumOperation Barkhane, the French anti- insurgent operation with 3,000 troops in Mali, may also serve as a model for how European nations might attempt to create stability in the Sahel. Stationing British troops in Africa may be a more effective way of reducing migration than more defensive and reactive policies. 

However, most climate migration will be within countries. The World Bank conducted a major piece of research into the likely patterns.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, which together represent 55 percent of the developing world’s population, something over 143 million people – or around 2.8 percent of the population of these three regions – could be forced to move to escape the “slow-onset” impacts of climate change (water stress, crop failure, sea level rise). “Rapid onset” events such as floods and hurricanes could significantly increase these numbers.  The poorest people and the poorest countries are the hardest hit, and their migration will likely overwhelm the infrastructure of destination areas.  Others, even more vulnerable, will be unable to move, trapped in increasingly unviable areas.

In all three regions, migration is projected primarily from coastal zones and also from rain-fed cropping areas, indicating that climate impacts on crop productivity in these regions may potentially disproportionately affect farming households. Migrants will gravitate towards cooler highland areas that will become even more densely populated.

In Sub-Saharan Africa some 86 million people may be internally displaced by 2050. In East Africa, migration hotspots include northern parts of the Ethiopian highlands; parts of western Uganda, southern Rwanda, and southern Malawi; and coastal stretches of Kenya and Tanzania. These hotspots reflect deteriorating water availability and crop yields in out-migration areas. In the coastal zone, declining land availability, reflecting sea level rise and storm surges, is also a factor. Migration is largely toward the south-eastern highlands of Ethiopia, the Lake Victoria basin, and the region near Lilongwe, Malawi.

By 2050, 40 million people may become climate migrants in South Asia. Migration will be substantial from the eastern and northern Bangladesh and the northern part of the Gangetic Plain, as well as some spots of the broader Gangetic Plain, the corridor from Delhi to Lahore, and even Mumbai. Migrants head to the Gangetic Plain and western Bangladesh. These areas begin to spread and intensify all over South Asia, with large migration destination areas seen throughout India’s regions, especially in the south. In Bangladesh migration will be predominantly from the east to the west.  

Latin America may see 17 million climate migrants. Mexico and Central America could potentially see dramatic increases in climate migration toward the end of the century, because of steadily worsening impacts for water availability and crop productivity. People will leave the hotter, lower-lying areas of Mexico and Guatemala and move toward climatically more favourable Central Plateau of Mexico and the highlands of Guatemala. People will also leave low-lying coastal areas along the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific coast of Guatemala. Some cities, such as Monterrey and Guadalajara in Mexico will see climate outmigration.  Rainfed cropping areas are likely to see declines in population as a result of climate out-migration. In contrast, pastoral and rangeland areas are likely to see increases.

Even in the US, by the end of the century, sea level rise alone could displace 13 million people including 6 million in Florida, according to one study. States including Louisiana, California, New York and New Jersey will have to grapple with hordes of residents seeking dry ground.

The World Bank argue that these internal migrations need not be a crisis. Migration can be a sensible climate change adaptation strategy if managed carefully and supported by good development policies and targeted investments. If, as well as reducing GHG emissions, countries integrate climate migration into national development plans and invest now to improve understanding of internal climate migration, many of the worst effects can be avoided.  It is hard to feel confident that these strategic actions will actually be taken. 

This is the last of our analyses of the impacts of the climate emergency. The next set of posts will look at some of the things we can do about it. 

[1] Definitions of economic, climate change and disaster/conflict migrants are difficult to make and vary between sources. 

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at and/or browse our website at

Should You Fear An Activist Shareholder?

August 15, 2019

How should you respond when an overseas hedge fund takes an active interest in your business? Many CEOs treat this as impertinence: an outsider questioning strategy and competence of the executive to make sound stewardship decisions. Activists believe shareholder return is hampered by a complacent board driven by risk aversion not value realisation. In short, activists have a higher risk appetite than the board: they see potential higher returns but they need to convince fellow shareholders new leadership will adopt a strategy to deliver higher shareholder value.

A typical activist is based in the US or Asia and views many UK companies as fertile ground for their investment fund. Activists have a different perspective on corporate risk to an incumbent board. An activist takes a long-term view of value creation despite a sometimes unwarranted reputation for impatience for short term gains. Many see the composition of a FTSE company board as part of the problem, too many like-minded individuals susceptible to groupthink or commitment escalation. The activist is less risk averse than the average UK board and prepared to take higher risk in order to reap the benefit of higher reward. It really does boil down to a difference in risk appetite.

What creates a difference in risk appetite? There are two key determinants, perception and attitude. Perception is whether you view risk as a threat or opportunity, attitude is whether you seek it or avoid it. If you view it as a threat you will prefer to avoid it, conversely if you view risk as opportunity you will prefer to seek it. Avoiders tend to sit on group boards whereas seekers tend to sit as fund managers. Compliance and governance regulations also nurture a risk avoidance culture, something behavioural economics confirms to be a common feature of decisions taken collectively by boards.

The activist shareholder is more comfortable viewing risk as opportunity and tends to view it within the context of strategy as opposed to governance and compliance. The activist recognises that both strategy and risk are estimated future outcomes, neither of which can deliver certainty:  strategy merely being future direction and risk being future uncertainty. A risk averse culture will never offer returns that a risk seeking one can. The former sees hazard and unfavourable outcomes whereas the latter sees opportunity and beneficial outcomes. Glass half full or half empty? ..or even Glass Lewis!

What do activist shareholders really want as a disruptor to the status quo? As investors they believe in the business and its true potential, it is unfair to assume they only wants to asset strip, make a ‘quick buck’ and exit, this is rarely the case today. The activists  wants to release value they feel is trapped by a complacent board, comfortable with a strategy that has not been challenged by any passive shareholder party, in short, a board afraid to make bold decisions and increase shareholder value.  They see hubris in corporate leadership content to justify weak performance through excuses about market forces or competitor activity but never prepared to acknowledge its own shortcomings and lack of enterprise. They need to secure a mandate for change.

Activists bring a new vision from overseas and with an attitude to risk that is refreshingly different. Their job is to make other shareholders doubt the trust they placed in the incumbent management team: to question fitness for purpose where that purpose is maximising shareholder return. Unfortunately some institutional shareholders refuse to share this view, either because they don’t want to admit they were wrong to trust the board, or it still retains their trust, or simply because their modest forecast returns are being met satisfactorily: ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ or more likely: ‘better the devil you know’. Not all shareholders are in it for the same thing and an activist cannot expect them all to share their view.

An activist taking interest is a wake-up call, an opportunity to invite endorsement of your strategy from major shareholders and secure their backing for your board. It is an opportunity not a threat.

Written by Garry Honey, founder of Better Boards, CEO, Chiron Reputation Risk and SAMI Associate. 

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at browse our website at

Climate emergency – extreme weather events

August 7, 2019

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay


It is hard for most people to envision how an additional 2°C of global heating might affect daily life – what’s wrong with a few nice summers?  Predicted sea-level rises happen over timescales so long that building better flood defences might be thought to be easy. 


But the average change in the climate manifests itself in greater variability in weather and more extreme weather events. Heatwaves and fires, floods and storm surges, droughts and water contamination are causing greater loss and damage. Of course, many weather extremes are the result of natural climate variability (including phenomena such as El Niño). Even if there were no anthropogenic changes in climate, a wide variety of natural weather and climate extremes would still occur.


The IPCC say that globally, since 1950, the length or number of warm spells or heatwaves has increased there have been more heavy rains, though there are strong regional and subregional variations in the trends. There has been a trend to more intense and longer droughts in southern Europe and West Africa, though central North America and northwesternAustralia the droughts have become less frequent, less intense, or shorter.


Looking forward the IPCC models suggest it is virtually certain there will be increases in the frequency and magnitude of warm daily temperature extremes and decreases in cold extremes. The length, frequency, and/or intensity of warm spells or heat waves will increase over most land areas. The frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy rainfalls will increase in the 21st century over many areas of the globe.


The UN warned that we are now seeing one climate crisis disaster each week, and argued for greater and immediate in plans for adaptation, as well as reducing emissions.  New standards for infrastructure, such as housing, road and rail networks, power and water supply networks are needed to make them resilient to more extreme conditions.


A Pentagon report reveals that more than two-thirds of operationally critical military installations are threatened by the effects of climate change over the next 20 years. The main impacts came from recurrent flooding, drought, and wildfires.  Examples include increased flooding at the Langley Air Force Base, drought conditions at several DoD bases in Washington DC damaging infrastructure, and wildfire at Vandenberg Air Force Base in southern California affecting space launch complexes. They were also concerned about effects around the world – for example recurrent flooding at the Naval Base in Guam is limiting capacity for a number of operations and activities including submarine squadrons.


Wildfires. In Northern Europe, between 20 and 200 times more area burned than normal, with fires raging as far north as the Arctic circle. Climate change is estimated to have lengthened fire seasons across a quarter of the world’s vegetated land surface. In the Western U.S., large fires are now almost seven times more likely to occur than three decades ago, forest areas burned have doubled since 1984. Also, as the world urbanises, the interface between fire areas and habitation increases, with greater risk to life and property.  The fires of 2017 and 2018 cost the insurance industry more than $15 billion each year, forcing reinsurers to reconsider their view of wildfire losses and raising the prospect of large numbers of homes becoming uninsurable.  Wildfires in the Arctic are at “unprecedented levels” with areas of Siberia, Alaska, Greenland and Canada engulfed in flames and smoke, and strong winds have made this year’s fires particularly bad.


Heatwaves. This July’s heatwave in Europe has set records in 3 countries, and is linked with several deaths. There are also the effects of variability of temperature increase locally. Temperature rises in many major cities would far exceed the global average of 2°C. A recent study suggested that, instead of just 2°C, Madrid’s temperature would rise by 6.4°C, London by 5.9°C and New York’s by 4°C.  London could suffer from the type of extreme drought that hit Barcelona in 2008, when it was forced to import drinking water from France at a cost of £20 million.


Monsoons. Nearly half the world’s population live in areas affected by monsoons. In India around 75% of rainfall occurs in the monsoon season, making any variation in its behaviour critical for agriculture, livelihood and basic survival.  Monsoons are triggered by a contrast in temperature between land masses and oceans, which triggers a reversal of wind patterns, causing an increase in precipitation. As temperatures increase as a result of climate change, monsoons are altered, and levels of rainfall are skewed. Monsoons are becoming more unpredictable and irregular, entering periods of reduced rainfall in certain regions, specifically southern Asian regions, and is projected to worsen in the future. In 2018, rainfall increased, causing floods and landslides.


Floods. The IPCC noted in its special report on extremes, it is increasingly clear that climate change “has detectably influenced” several of the variables that contribute to floods, such as rainfall and snowmelt. In other words, while our warming world may not induce floods directly, it exacerbates many of the factors that do.


Storms/hurricanes. Researchers in North Carolina examined hurricanes Floyd, Matthew and Florence and found that the probability of them occurring randomly in such a short period of time is just two per cent. Six out of the seven largest hurricanes since 1898 occurred in the last 20 years. This frequency is probably caused by “increased moisture carrying capacity of tropical cyclones due to the warming climate”.


Attribution. Despite the evidence of an increase in extreme weather events on average, a problem that climate scientists have always faced is saying whether any specific event is caused by global heating, rather than just being a natural outlier. This has left room for doubt to be sown in the minds of the public. To address this “attribution science” is developing new approaches. Increasing computer power, combined with a massive increase in data points, has enabled more sophisticated simulation modelling that can begin to show the direct effects of climate change. Many studies have shown that climate change has increased the scale of a weather event – eg greater rainfall in Hurricane Harvey.   But some have begun to show that a weather event would not have happened at all were it not for global heating. The World Weather Attribution project  has made real and significant advances in isolating the climate signal in the costly impacts of extreme events, in both developed and developing countries.


Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at and/or browse our website at

‘The Beautiful Ones’: Writing about the future: a conversation between O.M. Faure and David Lye

August 1, 2019

The Beautiful Ones

‘The Beautiful Ones’ trilogy comprising Chosen, Torn and United, was published on 15 June by O.M. Faure, a Principal of SAMI Consulting. Since publication it has become #1 in Dystopian Fiction, #1 in Action Adventure Travel, #1 in Political thrillers, #1 in Time Travel on the Amazon Best Seller lists.  We brought together O.M. Faure with David Lye, SAMI Fellow and Director, to talk about demographics, climate collapse and populism – and on bringing foresight into fiction. The discussion was moderated by SAMI Fellow Jonathan Blanchard Smith.

JBS: Olfa, David, welcome. Let’s start by talking about ‘The Beautiful Ones’.

OMF: It’s a series of novels written using real data, and scientific forecasts. My aim was to spark debate and propose ideas to the reader but I wanted to do it in the form of a thriller in order to make it easy to imagine that future, easy to digest the concepts and easy to relate emotionally to the issues that face us.

In ‘The Beautiful Ones’, the reader is plunged into 2081, and alongside the heroes, they discover a world with 14bn humans on earth. The global overpopulation has caused water and food shortages, and that future is starting to tip into civil unrest, coupled with environmental catastrophe.

JBS: And I note that Paul Ehrlich at Stanford has said “’The Beautiful Ones’ captures the human predicament through the overpopulation lens with fearless clarity”. David, what did you think?

DL: It’s a really interesting exercise in foresight. It raises many important issues: demographics, environmental catastrophe, populism and racial discrimination. It’s also a really good read, with believable and likeable lead characters

OMF: I chose to use the high variant of the United Nations population forecast because it’s more striking from a dramatic point of view, it makes it easier to see the issue.

I also picked two countries – Uganda and the US which are going to be among the nine most populated countries in the world, by 2080. The US, because of the ongoing curtailment of women’s fertility rights; and Uganda, because it is the smallest of the nine in land area and yet will have 209m people in a country the size of the UK, most of which is taken up by a lake. Fiction requires tension and by setting one of the novels in Uganda, I hoped to create an interesting dynamic that would evidence the friction points of high population growth on a relatively small territory.

Research was really important for the books: it showed that the highest population growth between now and 2080 will occur in Africa which will go from 1.2 billion to 4.7 billion inhabitants; whilst Asia still has significant population sizes, the growth is not as pronounced there. Asia will go from 4.3 billion to 6.8 billion and the other continents will remain at or below one billion.

It’s the overall, worldwide growth in human population that is concerning though. It raises questions about sustainability, food safety, climate-driven migration and its corollary: rampant racism. And of course, there’s the impact of huge additional human numbers which will worsen the climate crisis and threaten biodiversity.

My three regions have three different ways of dealing with the crisis: there is syncretism and blending in continental Europe which chooses to throw its doors open to immigration and to consciously limit the fertility of all its citizens. By contrast, in the post-Brexit 2081 UK, immigrants are no longer welcome and the state prevents people of colour from having children while encouraging white couples’ fertility, through legal and fiscal means. Finally, in the US, given current developments, I imagined a more violent future, harnessing technology and genetic engineering to keep down the population of people of colour through sterilisation or extermination

JBS: David, your view of demographics in the future is different from Olfa’s. Why?

DL: Looking at the UN projections at the median and low end; large parts of world population growth seem to be slowing or coming to a stop. Population is aging: by the time China reaches 1.4bn, its average age will go from 37 in 2030 to 46 in 2040, and the population is then projected to start shrinking.

I was very taken with ‘Empty Planet’ by Bricker and Ibbitson: they argue the UN forecasts are too high and pay inadequate weight to factors driving down population, including urbanisation; access to education for women and girls and access to opportunity in the jobs market.

What’s not in dispute is that Africa will be a crucible of population growth – from 800m in 2000 to 2bn plus in 2050 to the UN median figure of 4bn plus in 2100. Bricker and Ibbitson believe that population growth may tail off after 2050. In ‘Human Tide’, Paul Morland points out that populations surge with industrialisation and urbanisation, but then go into marked decline.

OMF: No-one knows what the future will look like – SAMI’s expertise is to propose scenarios, stemming from the same data points. Looking at the factors that David mentions, urbanisation only reduces population if it is accompanied by better infrastructure. In places where urbanisation is wild – such as the huge slums around Kampala – urbanisation won’t necessarily result in increased development and subsequently modify fertility patterns. On the contrary, research shows that this type of urban environment can retain rural fertility patterns.

David’s second point: education, is provided by religious institutions in certain countries and so you can have instances where education is offered yet only reinforces traditional fertility patterns. For instance, Uganda is a predominantly Christian country and the Roman Catholic Church is notoriously against birth control and abortion.

Finally, rising prosperity through development may be a myth – for instance, the rising prosperity in Africa is accompanied by a silent colonisation of Africa by China. So although on paper, the country appears wealthier and more developed, in reality, divisions in extremes of income continue and do not benefit those at the bottom of the scale.

DL: This is why foresight is fascinating. All these things are spot on, but we don’t know how this will play out. The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative focuses on roads, railways and power supplies, all of which Africa needs, not on the infrastructure of cities. And now, China is Africa’s biggest creditor, which implies development will take place in non-western ways, at least in some parts of Africa.

OMF: It needs to be the right infrastructure to impact development. Building a road from the oil rig to the airport may be good for the economy but it is building water pipes and schools and communication networks which will bring education, development and material change for the population that would in turn impact fertility. Development can only trigger the demographic transition if it is accompanied by the emergence of a middle class and the spreading of wealth to all layers of society.

DL: In our studies, I have been placing African countries into three groups: the failed states, where there is long-running conflict, with no immediate prospect of improvement; those experiencing rapid economic progress, such as Ghana and Senegal,; and the middle group which has the potential to go into the rapid development group but don’t, largely because of poor governance. This group is ripe for exploitation by the Chinese, or others who are willing to turn a blind eye to bad governance.

OMF: I want to be very clear that the points I make about overpopulation are not regional, they are global. This discussion should not just be about Africa. In the US for instance, there is a majority in power which doesn’t want women to have control over their own fertility. We live in a very pro-natalist society – women without children suffer stigma, there is a curtailment of women’s fertility rights; and worldwide, influencers actively reinforce the idea that a “proper” woman has children. But society doesn’t take stock of how many people there are in total on Earth. Each country, each religion, each economy that wishes to wield influence is only looking at their own population and trying to increase their weight and impact through their numbers. You need more believers to go from being a sect to being a religion, more citizens to pay for pensions or go to war, more consumers to prop up the continuous economic growth that capitalism requires.

As a result of this fragmented thinking, there is too little discussion on global overpopulation and its impact on the environment. Neither is there a real understanding of the different ways developed and developing countries’ growing populations have different impacts on the environment.

JBS: So you’re both coming from the same data, from the same direction, but getting very different results.

OMF: The thing that divides us is that you, David, are an optimist and I’m a pessimist. You see the data and foresee all the ways in which it will change for the better whereas I wrote the books specifically to showcase what will happen if we do nothing, if we just continue in the general direction we’re already going. I wanted to paint a picture of the consequences of inertia.

World population was consistently under a billion up to the middle of the 1800’s. See the graph – it’s practically perpendicular. No sign that this course is slowing down. This is clearly exponential growth.

OM:DL blog

DL: About natalism, you’re absolutely right. But what are governments going to do if they see their population declining? Whatever incentivisation schemes are tried don’t last very long. Enforcement rarely works. You show it well in ‘The Beautiful Ones’, where abortion is punished by death. Look at the US at the moment, where some states are seeking to effectively ban abortion. But government control measures are bound to provoke some response.

The environment is hugely important in your books. Malthus started this in 1798, which is where the population graph began to take off: he has been proven wrong time and again in his assertion that population growth is geometric and food growth arithmetic. But food production has increased geometrically. It’s the prospect of negative impacts of climate change that may bring Malthusian ideas back into play.

OMF: The food aspect is very interesting. You see it all over the natural world, when animal numbers expand to meet the available food, then the food runs out and the animal numbers crash.

The “Green Revolution” of the 1960s dramatically increased crop yield and averted the famines that would otherwise certainly have occurred. But, with our numbers continuing to grow exponentially, what will happen if another Green revolution doesn’t coma long to save us?

What strikes me though is that in all the conversations about overpopulation, people always say that there will be enough to sustain humans, so everything is fine. What about the impact of our huge numbers on our environments? On other species? As Sir David Attenborough says, “Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it is time to control the population to allow the survival of the environment.”

Every environmental issue is compounded by our numbers. Plastic straws, the Chinese switching from bicycles to cars, the consumption of meat by the rising middle classes all over the world: it is completely multiplied by there being so many of us.

DL: We certainly can’t go on like this ad infinitum.

JBS: We have an author and futurist here, and a foresight expert: let’s talk about the roles of fiction and foresight.

DL: Foresight is in part about developing compelling narratives: fiction is an extremely useful tool in foresight.

Fiction allows you to make moral judgements at all levels, whereas foresight as a scientific process allows for ethics but requires a standing back. Foresight needs to be objective, impartial, and scientific towards issues but it would be bad foresight not to recognise ethical issues.

OMF: I have always thought that the business scenarios which allow you to jump into the future person’s shoes are very powerful. So one day, I realised I could do something like the first-person scenarios that we use in projects for clients and just expand them.

I thought “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we put the foresight tool and methodology in the hands of individuals to allow them to make robust decisions for their personal lives,” and at that point, I realised that it would be best done through a novel.

DL: And of course this is happening: the Gates Foundation, the Half the Sky movement,  are all about women’s empowerment. Education, emancipation and empowerment of women is what we have to do: it seems to be self evident.

OMF: I agree there is progress. The “Good Club” is another example: It’s an association of philanthropists including Ted Turner, Warren Buffet and Oprah Winfrey which is looking into ways to reduce overpopulation while supporting development. Famous environmentalists are starting to speak up about human overpopulation as well: Sir David Attenborough, Dame Jane Goodall, Chris Packham just to name a few.

DL: if you give women and girls agency, the cumulative effect of their choices will result in a lower birth rate.

OMF: Quite right. We were talking earlier about government control of demographics. Fertility-control measures from governments are a slippery slope and inevitably when one speaks about overpopulation, there will be someone who will mention either war or epidemic being a “solution”. But those are morally wrong. There are no silver bullets when it comes to overpopulation. The solution is to start talking about the issue, to start explaining the impact of our species’ numbers on the planet, to allow this debate to even take place.

I am convinced that if people have freedom over their fertility decisions and if the impacts of overpopulation on our planet become clear, individuals will make their own choices in the privacy of their homes, without the need to involve governments. Certainly, it would be a decades-long process to shift the culture but I believe it’s feasible.

My books propose to the reader what happens when we do not get that freedom to choose our fertility, when we do not empower and educate women, when we do not support the economic growth of under-developed countries. I hope the reader will see what this dystopian future would look like and make their own choices about what to do today to prevent it.

JBS: Olfa, David, thank you.


The Beautiful Ones trilogy is comprised of Chosen, Tornand United. 

The books can be purchased from Amazon, Apple, Nook, Kobo, Barnes & Noble and Waterstones. For the links to the different retailers, just follow:

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References of books mentioned in the discussion

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at and/or browse our website at

Climate Emergency: feedback loops and tipping points

July 25, 2019

In the first two posts on the climate emergency, we covered projections of the impacts of global heating on sea and on land.  Obviously the modelling involved in producing these projections is complex and based on a number of assumptions, producing a range of likely outcomes.  But the most complex and uncertain areas of the views of the future are – as is the case for most foresight work – the non-linear effects of feedback loops and tipping points. Outcomes can spiral away from the central projection in very unpredictable ways, meaning that we have to consider a much wider range of scenarios for the future.


Image by Pexels from Pixabay

One of the more well-known climate emergency feedback loops is the “albedo effect”.  Albedo – or “whiteness” – is a measure of the reflectivity of a surface. The greater the reflectivity the less of the sun’s heat is absorbed in the planet and its atmosphere.  The underlying concern is that as global heating melts the ice caps, exposing the darker ocean surface to sunlight, the water warms up. This melts the ice from underneath, and humidity also increases; water vapour is a powerful greenhouse gas.  The seas that become exposed have lower reflectivity, absorbing more heat and accelerating the loss of ice in a vicious circle.

This effect is amplified because the Artic is warming twice as fast as the planet as a whole, and its temperature has already risen by 2°C since pre-industrial levels.

The issue isn’t quite that simple, because as the oceans absorb heat, levels of water vapour increase and more clouds appear. Clouds themselves will reflect heat away from the planet.  Deforestation increases albedo because topsoil is more reflective than forests. Burning wood creates black carbon in the atmosphere which if it settles on ice reduces albedo. Algae and other organisms that begin growing on the ice sheet again reduce reflectivity. It’s a complex dynamic mix of trends and forces.

There’s also an effect due to the amount of snow. Ice is darker than snow, and when there is fresh snow, you have a very bright reflective surface – that gives an opportunity for a geo-hack which we’ll discuss in another post.

A related “tipping point” – literally – is the collapse of Greenland and Antarctic ice-sheets. A major collapse would increase sea-levels substantially. If all of the Greenland ice were to melt, global sea levels could be expected to rise by about 25 feet. However, this would take hundreds of years at the current rates of melting. But predicting their behaviour is not straightforward – the Greenland ice-sheet is slipping much faster than expected over what should be unsuitable terrain .

Another feedback loop is melting permafrost releasing methane,one of the most dangerous greenhouse gases. In Northern Siberia last year the ground rose up to form 7,000 large bubbles of methane gasses rising into the empty spaces created by melting permafrost. The pressure is building up inside these bubbles and the gas could be released. The gas contains up to 1,000 times more methane and 25 times more carbon dioxide than the surrounding air.  The bursting of these bubbles will release even more gas into the atmosphere, causing more warming and melting permafrost.

Permafrost in the Canadian Arctic is thawing 70 years earlier than predicted. Rapid thawing could release vast quantities of heat-trapping gases, unleashing a feedback loop that would in turn fuel even faster temperature rises. “Thawing permafrost is one of the tipping points for climate breakdown and it’s happening before our very eyes,” said Jennifer Morgan, executive director of Greenpeace International.

As we pointed out last time, there is a massive amount of carbon locked in soils, which hold more carbon than the atmosphere and living vegetation combined. Brazil’s President Bolsanaro has reacted harshly to criticism about deforestation saying “The Amazon belongs to Brazil and European countries can mind their own business because they have already destroyed their own environment”. So the risks here increase exponentially.

Next time we’ll look at how the climate emergency is creating more extreme weather events.

Written by Huw Williams, SAMI Principal

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

SAMI Consulting was founded in 1989 by Shell and St Andrews University. They have undertaken scenario planning projects for a wide range of UK and international organisations. Their core skill is providing the link between futures research and strategy.

If you enjoyed this blog from SAMI Consulting, the home of scenario planning, please sign up for our monthly newsletter at and/or browse our website at

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