Podcast Episode 1.101

What could climate instability mean to you?

Since humans began settling down and building civilizations 10,000 years ago, the Earth’s climate has been relatively stable. But before that, the climate was more unstable – unpredictable – and humans were nomads, forced to follow the good climate for food and shelter. Today, the global average temperature is higher than it has ever been since the beginning of civilization. What does this mean for the future of human civilization? Could this mean a return to instability? Can we make civilization resilient to such dramatic changes in climate that we have never before experienced as a society?

Dr. Spencer Glendon of Probable Futures joins Climate Now to speak about his work to change how we think about, talk about, and plan for the future of society.


Spencer Glendon
Founder, Probable Futures


Spencer Glendon

Founder, Probable Futures

Spencer earned a B.S. in Industrial Engineering from Northwestern University and a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, where he focused on the history of urbanization and industrialization. He has extensive training and experience in finance, history, and languages and has worked and lived in Michigan, Chicago, Germany, Russia, China, and Boston.

For 18 years, Spencer was a Macroanalyst, Partner, and Director of Investment Research at Wellington Management, a firm with more than $1 trillion in client assets.

In 2017, Spencer began collaborating with scientists, business leaders, designers, technologists, and educators to research the effects of climate change and to share those findings publicly. This work helped underpin initiatives such as a first-of-its-kind partnership between Wellington Management and the Woodwell Climate Research Center, as well as McKinsey & Co.’s 2020 Climate Risk and Response report. Inspired by these collaborations, he founded Probable Futures in 2020 to help democratize climate science and build bridges between climate science and many other disciplines.

Hosted By:

James Lawler
Climate Now Host


James Lawler

Climate Now Host
James Lawler is the founder of Climate Now. James started Climate Now as a way to learn about climate change and our energy system. Climate Now’s mission is to distill and communicate the science of our changing climate, the technologies that could help us avoid a climate crisis, and the economic and policy pathways to achieve net zero emissions globally. James is also the founder of Osmosis Films, a creative studio.


James Lawler: [00:00:00] Welcome to Climate Now, the podcast that explores and explains the ideas, technologies, and the solutions that we’ll need to address the climate crisis and achieve a zero emissions future, I’m James Lawler. To sign up for our newsletter, which goes out every Tuesday morning with the link to the latest podcast episode, background information and relevant links, go to climatenow.com.

To get in touch with us you can email us at contact@climatenow.com. We love to hear from our listeners. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about what the impacts of the changing climate are likely to be in the short term. Say, in the time that it takes to pay off your mortgage or for your kids to finish school, how much hotter will it get in your state? Could bigger storms make your insurance go up?

My guest, Spencer Glendon, is working to answer questions like these. His platform, Probable Futures seeks to provide intuitive, practical tools for forecasting and [00:01:00] navigating the climate crisis. We’ll discuss how this platform works and how society can learn to deal with climate change, both in the future and today.

But first, it’s time for our news segment. This week in Climate News, and this week in Climate News, I’m joined by Dina Cappiello from RMI. Great to see you again.

Dina Capiello: It’s so nice to be here.

James Lawler: We’re gonna cover a couple things, but Dina, do you wanna jump in with the debt ceiling?

Dina Capiello: Yeah, totally. I mean, obviously since I reside in Washington, DC this was the big news in this town and had all, all of us at the edge of our seats there for a while, was whether we were gonna default as the US government on our loans and debts.

Despite the drama, Congress did come to a deal. And the reason why we’re talking about it on this show is because of course, when deals happen in Washington, lawmakers love to get all their little pet projects in there. And in this case, although there wasn’t a massive overhaul of permitting, which may be [00:02:00] required for expediting clean energy in this country, there was a streamlining of the National Environmental Policy Act, which is a landmark environmental statute that requires environmental review, that could speed up infrastructure projects.

So that wasn’t something that environmentalists wanted in the bill. They see it as a rollback and as a possible “give me” to fossil fuel infrastructure. And connected to that, the bill also basically ensures the building of a natural gas pipeline, a 6.6 billion pipeline called the Mountain Valley Pipeline, which will transport natural gas through Appalachia.

The good news is here, because of the hard work of the administration, there was really not a weakening of the massive inflation reduction act that was passed, which is the largest investment in climate in US history.

James Lawler: Do you think that this is just [00:03:00] like an unavoidable feature of the partisan politics and political environment in which we live?

Dina Capiello: No, it’s a great question, and why is it a great question? Because like the best intentions can go the way of politics. Right. And this is now in the realm of what you said, partisan politics. And when it comes to the energy transition, we are still in the messy middle. Right?

And there isn’t a, this is not gonna be a light switch where it’s like, one day we’re gonna have all fossil fuel and the predominant fossil fuel sources for energy and the next day have renewables. And so I think that there’s this like dancing act that is being driven by politics, but also is real.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm.

Dina Capiello: Because it has to be a transition and it has to be strategic. And it has to be measured. I mean, I’m gonna really show my age here, but when I read the news and, and heard the news on, um, NPR and those kind of outlets, I was thinking of like The Facts of Life theme[00:04:00] song, which is like, you know, you take the good, you take the bad, and there you have it, the facts of life. Like that kind of like pretty much sums up what we’re talking about here,

James Lawler: These are the facts of life related to the energy transition. So, Another story that we’ve been reading this week is about the lawsuit that Delta Airlines is facing.

It’s a class action lawsuit over their claims of carbon neutrality. They’ve run ads which reference flying the only carbon neutral airline, and this is very likely not correct. And so they have been sued about these representations and Delta’s argument is really that they have, you know, bought a significant amount of carbon offsets and they’ve also been investing in sustainable aviation fuels and other things.

As we know, as we’ve covered, you know, on the show [00:05:00] offsets that are derived from, forests and lands are not high quality in that trees are subject to burning and they’re subject to insect infestations. All of the above are getting worse and worse. So the idea that you’re gonna offset all of your emissions by, you know, protecting trees or buying land is, is really not gonna cut it.

Dina Capiello: Yeah. I mean, listen, I love this story for like a lot of reasons and I’m not anti-Delta, but this basically when you like kind of boil it down to like- or distill it to what it’s about, it’s like you can’t buy your way out of this problem. Right?

And this goes to kind of like the age-old concern from NGOs and you know, even RMI, which is like, really it’s, it’s how good are those credits? Now, to be fair, I mean, the aviation industry outside of sustainable aviation fuels, you know, has a real challenge on its hands to reduce really actual emissions.

[00:06:00] But, but I think this is just a, a, a warning to any industry, any corporation, that they should check what they’re buying and, and check the validity of it.

James Lawler: Right. And I think the, uh, you know, to sort of reiterate or underscore that, you know, if, if any large companies are listening, like this is not about marketing.

This is not about marketing. This is about something that’s much closer to like waste disposal. It’s like a key operational function to reduce emissions and, you know, to decarbonize. So this is a, this is a warning. It’s not gonna fly. And I’m sure you know, a lot of companies, Delta, other airlines, other other companies are, are taking note of this.

Dina Capiello: I love that. It’s not going to fly- to the airline.

James Lawler: Indeed. What, what’s the next one on our list, Dina?

Dina Capiello: Here we have a story out of the New York Times at the end of last month, may, where the largest insurer, I believe it’s State Farm, said it’s gonna stop offering new [00:07:00] coverage and pull back from dangerous areas. So this one like blew my mind. I’m just going to be honest.

James Lawler: Yeah.

Dina Capiello: Like, you know, we read about California, we read about some of the you know, disasters that have struck California that are climate induced, like wildfires, crazy snowfall this year that has, I think we did talk about flooding a couple weeks back, right?

I think like, again, another pun that’s totally intended. This is like the tip of the iceberg. I mean, when you see, you know, sea level rise happening everywhere, either premiums are going up, making those places out of reach for people or displacing people, or we’re getting into situation now where they’re not going to even be insurable and the risk is gonna be on the backs of the American consumer who perhaps settled in this area when it wasn’t experiencing these effects and have seen a worsening of these effects.

James Lawler: Yeah. And this story was sort of had a companion piece [00:08:00] about Phoenix, Arizona that has determined that there’s not enough groundwater for all of the housing construction that’s already been approved in, in the Phoenix area, which has been one of the most, you know, quickly growing areas in, um, in the country, certainly in Arizona.

And so they’re actually gonna stop developers from building some new subdivisions. And then you have State Farm saying, in California, and I think this quote was just so great, the company said, I’m quoting from the article that while it recognized the work of California officials to reduce losses from wildfires, it had to stop writing new policies to quote, improve the company’s financial strength. And because of rapidly growing catastrophe exposure. So it’s basically saying, sorry guys, we’re out. This has all become too much.

Dina Capiello: Well, we’re out because it’s, we’re out, because I mean that, you know, this is an inference, but that quote is basically saying, if like we continue to dole out money for these [00:09:00] wildfires, we might be in financial jeopardy.

Right. And that is just, a whole new level. Like what is it gonna take for people to like, recognize that we are, it’s a problem. You know I got in my car this morning to drop my kid off at school and there’s NPR talking about how like the retaining walls in the tidal basin down in Washington, um, have to be risen by five feet because water’s now coming over them.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm.

Dina Capiello: It’s happening all over America and the world where there, there’s like these clues that, that are, truly advertising that this is a major problem.

James Lawler: Yeah, I mean, and I think what’s interesting is this is just the beginning of, of a mass- of what clearly is going to be a massive trend in, in our economy, right, of insurance no longer being able to, you know, be offered in areas. And infrastructure that was [00:10:00] solid, no longer being solid. Like the walls that you just described, Dina, or even just the asphalt that’s used to pave roads now melting given the extraordinary heats, you know, spikes in, in temperature. And I think these, these, like, these are these kinds of things, they sort of fall into this bucket of stuff that we’ve never had to deal with before, right? Like as a result of a climate that’s no longer stable.

Now for our interview. After earning his PhD in economics in the nineties, Spencer Glendon made a name for himself in the finance industry by predicting, against common wisdom at the time, that China would be the next global economic superpower.

He eventually became head of research for investment giant Wellington Management, where he spent years analyzing and forecasting global market trends. Spencer left Wellington to found Probable Futures, an interactive database platform that uses maps, science and historical context to help project and navigate the [00:11:00] climate crisis.

When I asked Spencer for the inspiration behind Probable Futures, he said, it goes a long way back; 12,000 years back to be precise.

Spencer Glendon: When I was probably in seventh grade, I learned that people settled around 9,500 BCE in a bunch of places around the world and archeologists didn’t know why. Well, between my being in middle school and 2012, climate scientists figured out why.

Which was that around 10,000 BCE, the climate stabilized at a temperature that was perfect for humans. And a stable climate allows you to plan. And I realized that climate change wasn’t just about being warmer, it was about instability. And that once you took away that instability, there would be a revelation of all the assumptions that were embedded in society that were uninvestigated.

James Lawler: This study of archeology is important to how we think about climate change today. Basically, consistent, stable climate patterns [00:12:00] are what allowed humans to settle down, to plant crops, to build functioning societies, that then led to increasingly sophisticated government structures, which enable public infrastructure, electricity, everything we have today.

Audio: This comfortable stability allowed our ancestors to shift their focus from day-to-day survival. To building complex communities with their own individual cultures, governments, and economies.

James Lawler: That audio is from a video on probablefutures.org. An accompanying graphic depicts civilization as a stack of bowls balanced on one another.

The lower bowls in the stack are larger and support the bowls above, and they’re given labels like communities and cultures, which then support government, supporting infrastructure and at the top, advanced financial institution. But the bottom bowl, the one supporting the whole tower is a stable climate. And when the climate becomes less stable, the whole stack of civilization starts to wobble.

Audio: By [00:13:00] continuing to generate greenhouse gases at our current rate, we’re disrupting the predictable climate we’ve been thriving in, and ultimately everything we’ve built upon it.

Spencer Glendon: And this tells this story from 9,500 BCE forward, which says, you know, it took a long time to build that tower of things to the point where you got to modern, high finance. All of that rests on a stable climate.

James Lawler: Yeah.

Spencer Glendon: It’s not turtles all the way down, if you will. There’s one bowl on the bottom, and that’s climate stability.

James Lawler: But to the point you just made a moment ago, the tower structure doesn’t necessarily collapse today if the climate is unstable.

Spencer Glendon: Nope, but it starts to move. So on probablefutures.org, there’s a whole story just about a road and what happens to asphalt as it warms. And the reason we tell that story is that everybody walks on roads or sees roads every day. It’s mundane. But that [00:14:00] mundane material of asphalt is chosen around the world, it’s grade of asphalt, based on the expected climate.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm.

Spencer Glendon: And what’s happening around the world is roads are failing faster than they used to because they’re being exposed to temperatures outside of their previous ranges.

And so there are building codes and standards for all kinds of things that assume a stable climate. And so what I started to realize is, oh, everything I care about has embedded in it this set of assumptions about climate stability. And everything is moving out of those ranges. So the climate, in all likelihood for many decades to come, the climate will remain unstable.

But while it’s unstable, we can tend to the rest of the tower as well to make it resilient to those changes. And so the work of resilience and adaptation and the work that I spend all of my days [00:15:00] working on is trying to help society be aware of the dependencies here and improve communities, governments, infrastructure, industry, finance, to be resilient. And one of the ways to do that is to connect them more, to make them more aware of each other.

James Lawler: And so take us to probable futures. So you say, you know, your work today focuses on trying to build more of this connective tissue within communities and greater understanding of sort of this framework of dependencies so that people sort of can realize the importance of resilience. What is probable futures exactly and what is the work that this organization does?

Spencer Glendon: Sure. So I started spending time with climate scientists and asked them, you know, your work tells a lot about the future and has told a lot about the future, but nobody’s using it.

There is no application of it. And all of the science publications told us about 2100. [00:16:00] 80 years from now. And we can get into the scientific reasons why that was a practice, but I started asking questions like, can we give people projections of what the weather will be like on a duration that matters to them?

So a canonical example for me is the period of 30 years. So 30 years seems like a long time in the future, but it’s quite common for people to take out 30-year mortgages. And so actually there is 30-year framing, and it’s actually quite common for governments to borrow for 30 years. And so initially I said, could we do climate science on a 30 year basis, and maybe ideally on a 10 and 30 year basis?

And the scientists said, yeah, it wouldn’t be hard. And I said, well, has anybody done it? And they’re like, not really. And so I said, well, that seems great. Like it’s known, it’s knowable, its theoretically public knowledge, but it hasn’t been done.

James Lawler: Right.

Spencer Glendon: And so we built Probable Futures. It’s a collaboration, so the science comes from scientists who are at the Woodwell Climate Research Center.[00:17:00] But when I say the science comes from them, they did the processing. What this really is, is taking models from research institutions around the world that have informed the IPCC and inform other things and regional climate models that can downscale those and, and make them produce very vivid and realistic predictive weather for any place on the planet.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm.

Spencer Glendon: And you get what’s called downscaled climate modeling. And so if you imagine putting a grid of 22 kilometers on a side, little boxes or a mesh around the globe, and wherever you live, wherever you are as you’re listening to this, you’re, you’re in a grid cell that’s no more than 22 kilometers in either side from where you are.

That’s a place. So it’s the size of a, you know, a city area or a county or something like that. And, you can, these models will tell you, well, in the past, this is how many days there were above 90 degrees Fahrenheit or 30 degrees centigrade. This is how much rain you could expect, or [00:18:00] precipitation you could expect in a year. And I realize we could tell people, you know, it used to be this hot in August where you live, this is what the hottest was.

Wherever James lives, these were what the hottest few days were like. You know what? Now that’s not the hottest few days. The hottest few days are hotter than that. How hot will the hottest few days be if we get to one and a half degrees? If we get to two, two and a half, three degrees C of global warming, what will the hot days be? And what you discover is the hotter days get more numerous, but it varies by place. In some places, if you think there are warmer years and cooler years, that range gets bigger. So the cooler years stay just as cool, but the hot years get much hotter.

James Lawler: So I just wanna interject here, Spencer, cause we get questions all the time like, how will climate change affect me? Well, folks, here’s your answer. This actually exists. There is a website, Spencer Glendon built it. It’s probablefutures.org.

Spencer Glendon: That’s the [00:19:00] idea.

James Lawler: And this is another thing, another question we get a lot. People say, you know, oh one degree, one and a half, two, two and a half, three, doesn’t sound like a lot if it’s – you know. Well, here’s a tool that will let you see exactly how devastating those different numbers actually are, and will localize it to where you yourself live and you’ll be able to see where, what it’s like for other people where they live.

Spencer Glendon: And that’s how we organize the site, which is around these degrees of warming. These are climate scenarios, as we call them, and we lived in one scenario, which was during the past when the climate was cooler. And so all of our maps on the website, you can select a scenario, and the first scenario is 0.5 degrees C, which is what the temperature was between 1971 and 2000 in the world.

So the late 20th century was about 0.5 degrees C above that long-term average that we talked about earlier. So it already warmed somewhat. And then one degree C is what the [00:20:00] temperature of the planet was in about 2017, and so it’s the recent past.

James Lawler: It’s happening so quickly, isn’t it?

Spencer Glendon: So in fact, there’s a good chance that we pass 1.5 for the first time in 2024.

So these past couple of years we’ve been at about 1.2 degrees C and we’ve done that under a condition called La Niña, which is a, a phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean that moderate modulates global temperature somewhat, but it La Niña keeps the temperature temp typically cooler by a degree or so, or by point a 10th of a degree.

And then we’re entering what’s called an El Niño, which is warmer and it may be a very warm El Niño. And we may see between 2023 and 2024, a jump of 0.2 or even 0.3 degrees globally, so it’s happening so fast.

James Lawler: Yeah

Spencer Glendon: You can see that just the changes between 0.5 and 1 were quite dramatic. So to frame that, we’ll take where I live in Massachusetts, there used to [00:21:00] be a business in the late 19th century of cutting the tops of ponds to harvest ice and sell that ice around the world.

There’s actually a very big business of freshwater ice harvesting. Those ponds don’t freeze anymore. Just the change from 0 to 0.5 to 1 means those ponds are no longer, you can’t even traverse them, let alone put industrial machinery out to cut the ice.

And if you look at the Arctic, you now have nearly ice-free summers, which at 0.5 degrees were covered in ice. And so there are big changes in parts of the world just from the change that have already taken place. And then you can look ahead to one and a half, which is unavoidable, and two, which we can delay a lot, and then two and a half and three, which are totally avoidable if we act.

And hopefully we see, we get people to see the answer to the question you just asked, which was, well, is two and a half or three degrees a real problem? Yes. When you look at these numbers, you see that there become big sections of the world [00:22:00] where it’s routinely hotter than the human body can tolerate, and you see huge changes in drought and you see how much more unstable the weather is everywhere.

Those ranges that were predictable, so, the monsoon coming every two months, the quantity of that monsoon and the timing of that monsoon becomes very unpredictable. And so it gets harder. Everything gets harder.

James Lawler: Spencer, recently I was looking at one forecast from the 1970s by the Rand Corporation, which sought to predict energy demand in California, from the 70s up to the year 2000.

And that estimate turned out to be just completely wrong. It predicted a much, much higher amount, much, much larger amount of energy, um, demand in 2000. In fact, the actual demand when, when we got to the year 2000 was several times lower than they thought, far below even the lowest estimate in that prediction. There are a lot of examples of this where humans are just really, really [00:23:00] bad at predicting the future. I mean, look at Covid, for example. And it, it strikes me that in this climate conversation there are so many interconnected processes that are, you know, taking place over time. And the challenge of predicting where we’ll ultimately end up just seems incredibly hard and probably impossible, especially given just how demonstrably terrible we are at making predictions.

So how do you, as someone who’s spent a lot of time thinking about, you know, research and understanding trends and where everything’s going, how do you reconcile these things when it comes to climate?

Spencer Glendon: Yeah, it’s a great question and it’s fundamental to the way we built Probable Futures, which is, there are no predictions on it. What there are, and so this is how we use the models differently than even my first question about it.

My first question you may remember was, could we do this on a 10-year basis, on a 30-year basis? And then what I discovered was these models don’t have time in [00:24:00] them. Climate models aren’t time-based. What they are is they say, this is the weather you’ll get given an atmosphere. If we, if the atmosphere has this composition, this is the weather you’ll get.

They don’t say when. And so that’s why we built the tool, not around times, but about levels of warming. So they don’t say when it will be two degrees or even if it will be two and a half degrees or if it will be three degrees, but if it gets to two or two and a half degrees, this is the likely weather that we will get.

That is actually the one thing humans have been quite good at predicting. So the models you described that are, the energy models are essentially models of human behavior.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm.

Spencer Glendon: Humans have been bad at modeling their own behavior but the fundamentals of the physics of the atmosphere have been well understood and increasingly well understood so that the manifestations of warmer climates gave been very, very accurate. And so I sometimes call climate science mankind’s first, actually good forecast.[00:25:00] Which is, if you look at not just the, you know, 0.5, 1, 1.5, 2 degrees forecast, the average temperature forecast that were set out in the early eighties, those have done very well, but those were pretty contingent on human behavior, but they’ve done very well.

What’s done much better are the specifics which is rainfall will get- there will be more drought and more downpours. Well, why do we know that? Because of some science that’s very, very well understood, which is what’s called the Clausius–Clapeyron equation, which is that for every one degree C warmer that air gets, it can hold 7% more moisture.

So warmer air can hold more water, and because this is compounding, if it gets 10 degrees warmer, air temperature can hold a hundred percent more water. And so it does not just that it can, but it means it will draw it out of the soil and the plants so warmer air creates more evaporation or evapotranspiration, [00:26:00] and then that water can sit in the atmosphere longer and when it releases it, it can release it as downpours.

That’s very well understood physics, that’s been exactly right. We have more droughts and more downpours, fewer gentle showers. That was predicted very clearly in the early eighties. The other is where, what parts of the planet would warm if the earth warmed, where would warm more.

Those kinds of forecasts are all what I would call conditional forecast, which is if it gets warmer, this is what will happen.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm.

Spencer Glendon: That’s not even really a forecast. It’s a way of pursuing or exploring the consequences of a regime change.

James Lawler: Or expressing a model, expressing a physical law.

Spencer Glendon: And so predicting what humans will do is obscenely hard.

James Lawler: Right.

Spencer Glendon: But predicting what will happen to molecules under certain conditions, we’re really quite good at, it turns out.

James Lawler: Mm-hmm. So take that as a hopeful-

Spencer Glendon: Yes.

James Lawler: As a hopeful note, [00:27:00] cautionary note, or a damning note.

Spencer Glendon: There are a number of hopeful things about this. So first of all, and high hope is a very important emotion driving my work, which is that first of all, we actually understand this problem.

That’s amazing. There should be great wonder, not just sort of anger. And there are, some of the people who are most upset about climate change, I understand why they’re upset. Because it violates the story they had for why the world is the way it is. And so it’s an explanation of the world we live in that is counter to some stories that other people had of their story of why the world is the way it is.

And I appreciate the violence that does to them emotionally. But at the same time, I say it’s amazing that we understand the world we live in. And so that’s quite marvelous and wondrous. The second thing about it, is that it’s hopeful because the answer turns out to be climate change is caused by just a couple of molecules: carbon dioxide and methane.

[00:28:00] If it were a whole bunch of other things, or if it were sunspots or if it were, you know, other things that we had no control over, well then it would be very sad. So, all we need to do is moderate certain kinds of behaviors. The behavioral change that’s necessary, it turns out to be quite narrow.

James Lawler: Right.

Spencer Glendon: And the last part of the hope is these tools allow us to see what’s coming and prepare in a way that gives us agency, both in the, so the first is the wonder of appreciation. The second is the agency of limiting it, and the third is the agency of preparing for it and living with it. We just need good stories that take into account the climate we actually have and the things we actually know. We need better stories.

James Lawler: Interesting. Spencer, it’s great to have you. Thanks for joining us.

Spencer Glendon: It’s my pleasure.

James Lawler: That was Spencer Glendon, founder of probablefutures.org. That’s it for this [00:29:00] episode of The Climate Now Podcast. To learn more about what to expect from a warming planet, check out our videos and other podcast conversations@climatenow.com. And if you’d like to get in touch, please email us @contactclimatenow.com.We hope you’ll join us for our next conversation.

Climate Now is made possible in part by our science partners, like the Livermore Lab Foundation. The Livermore Lab Foundation supports climate research and carbon cleanup initiatives at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab, which is a Department of Energy applied science and research facility. More information on the foundation’s climate work can be found @livermorelabfoundation.org.

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