When at the Morgan Hill, CA Library, I normally scan the new books section looking for something interesting. The last time I did this, I discovered The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future a look at the future by Laurence C. Smith, Professor of Geography at UCLA. It is an easy read, but I frequently had to put it aside to think about what I had just read.
Smith set out to write a book about the way climate change affects the extreme northern portions of our planet. But his many conversations, especially with indigenous people of the North, convinced him that he needed to broaden his scope. The result is a sobering anticipation of what this world will be like in 2050.
According to Professor Smith, four primary forces are changing the world for all of us: population growth, resource depletion, climate change and globalization. It makes sense to look at them in that order.
The population of Earth has just reached 7 billion. some are thinking long and hard about how we are going feed all of them. We see drought and famine in the Horn of Africa now and most of us appear to be bystanders to that unfolding tragedy. Many had died. More have take to the road to escape this tragedy. But the facts are that we are adding the population of the United States every 4 years. By 2050, there will be 9 billion people, not 7. We will have added another China and the task of feeding them will be much harder.
Population growth will not be distributed evenly. While most countries will see their populations increase, a few, notably Japan, Russia, Korea, Germany and Italy are projected to experience a population decline. In the case of Japan, perhaps 20%. Almost all of the growth will be urban. In 2008, for the first time, more people lived in an urban rather than a rural setting. Fewer will be providing their own food, but will buy food imported from somewhere near or far.
All of those people will need new urban facilities to be built. New buildings, new transportation infrastructure, new things, perhaps even new parks. What resources will be required and at what cost? We already copper prices so high that people risk death to cut the copper from live electrical facilities. At current usage rates the earth has only a 35 year supply of copper in proven reserves.
Clearly, oil and coal will not be around forever and yet we are continuously exhorted to use it up as quickly as we can. You can not listen even to PBS without hearing an advertisement urging us to drill for more oil, exploit the tar sands of Alberta, hold our breaths waiting for clean coal to become a reality, and all in the hope of generating more jobs.
In California, as well as most urban centers around the world, we will see an increasingly expensive bid to control our water. It is the one thing that we can not live without,
The climate change genie is out of its bottle and there is no apparent desire to stuff it back in. We know that temperatures are warming. We see the results with great regularity as the world is buffeted with a series of deadly storms, each driven to increased intensity by our changing climate. So far in 2011, the US has had 14 weather events costing us over $1 Billion each with the April 25/30 super outbreak of tornadoes costing over $9 Billion.
We are beginning to see the development of a new climate paradigm in the Mediterranean. Greece has experienced 10 years without normal winter rains. Focused on the current financial crisis there, we lose sight of the ecological crisis underway.
Big changes in climate will create climate refugees. We already see this beginning in Africa, where Somalian refugees are flooding into Kenya. Can any country absorb these refugees into its own growing population? The UN expects that there will be over 100 million who need to move, some to escape drought as in Somalia, others to escape sea level rise in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta or Bangladesh;
It is still our decision whether we can avert the worst of these problems. It appears that the US is quite willing to do nothing.
(To be published 11/07/11 in Morgan Hill Times)