Advances in the science and observation of climate change are providing a clearer understanding of the inherent variability of Earth's climate system and its likely response to human and natural influences. The implications of climate change for the environment and society will depend not only on the response of the Earth system to changes in radiative forcings, but also on how humankind responds through changes in technology, economies, lifestyle and policy. Extensive uncertainties exist in future forcings of and responses to climate change, necessitating the use of scenarios of the future to explore the potential consequences of different response options. To date, such scenarios have not adequately examined crucial possibilities, such as climate change mitigation and adaptation, and have relied on research processes that slowed the exchange of information among physical, biological and social scientists. Here we describe a new process for creating plausible scenarios to investigate some of the most challenging and important questions about climate change confronting the global community.