2100: Hot, crowded and rich

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

Climate scientists use standardized scenarios as they peer into the future. The scenarios, known as “representative concentration pathways” and “shared socioeconomic pathways,” specify trends in population, economic growth, energy use, and other variables that produce different degrees of warming, help maintain comparability among the work of research groups. But by putting everything in the form of tidy numbers, do they obscure the big picture?

Some of the most widely publicized visions of the future combine two scenarios known as RCP 8.5 and SSP5. These assume that population increases to as many as 12 billion people, nearly twice as many as today. They also stipulate no implementation of climate policies, heavy reliance on fossil fuels (especially coal), and a tripling of CO2 emissions. That would be enough to produce as much as 5 degrees C of warming by 2100, far more than the 2 degrees C, beyond which lies climate catastrophe, according to many environmentalists.

Although it is less often discussed, RCP 8.5 and SSP5 also assume a remarkable increase in economic prosperity. They project that GDP per capita in 2100, adjusted for inflation, will be five times higher in countries that are already developed today, and up to 30 times higher in those that are now less developed. This economic growth surprises some people, but it should not. After all, economic production and consumption are the source of the emissions that drive the warming. If they didn’t grow, the future climate would be cooler.

To grasp what this paradoxical future that combines environmental devastation with great economic prosperity would really look like, we need to move beyond the numbers. Let’s take a quick trip through time to visit some representative countries of the crowded, warm, and wealthy world of 2100.

We start with a stop in Iceland—the richest country in the world, with a per capita GDP of $1.5 million, stated in US dollars with 2010 purchasing power. (This and other income estimates come from a recent study by Marshall Burke and colleagues.) Yes, there is still actual ice here, if you look in the right place at the right time of year. As a tourist attraction, ice is one source of the country’s wealth. Tourism aside, Iceland has maintained strict immigration controls, as have most European countries. That leaves plenty of room for crops in its fertile fields. Food exports are another source of income. Iceland continues to get most of its energy from geothermal sources, so it bears little of the blame for the climate woes that affect many other parts of the world.

Mongolia was poor and chilly back in 2010, but in 2100, it is one of thirty-eight countries that are better off than they would have been without climate change. Its per capita GDP of 390,000 dollars makes it the seventh richest country in the world. Unlike Iceland, Mongolia has opted for an open immigration policy. Its population has increased 40-fold since 2010 and now stands at 120 million. Descendants of refugees from Pacific Islands and the Bengal Delta outnumber those of native Mongolian stock. Most people live in cities. The country’s highly mechanized agriculture, which makes Mongolia the breadbasket of Asia, requires few workers. Abundant coal and a young, skilled, and rapidly growing urban population have made Mongolia an industrial powerhouse that some compare to Japan of the late twentieth century. As we take a tour by high-speed train through verdant fields of corn and soy beans, we can’t help but wonder what Genghis Khan would think if he could return today to his once-austere homeland.

Australia, unlike Iceland and Mongolia, has been a loser from climate change, at least in relative terms. Although per capita incomes are more than double their 2010 level, they would have risen five-fold without global warming. The environment is in terrible shape. There is little open-air agriculture. Kangaroos and Koalas survive only in zoos. Nearly everyone lives in cities, which have become more compact for efficient air conditioning. Streets and cars are a thing of the past—people and freight move around in pneumatic tubes that connect everything. Fortunately, energy is abundant. There is plenty of room in the desertified countryside for solar farms, and the country is still working its way through its vast coal reserves. Mineral exports pay for food from Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Siberia. The population is stable. Australia has consistently limited immigration, although it is generous with foreign aid.

India is the world’s poorest country in 2100. Although per capita GDP has risen three-fold since 2010, it is still only $1,657. Much of that is spent on municipal air conditioning, so little is available for personal consumption. By traditional standards, India, one of the world’s hottest countries, is simply uninhabitable. There are fewer days each year when it is safe to go outside, even briefly, but with few countries willing to accept climate refugees, more than a billion people continue to live here. Whereas Sydney and Melbourne were still recognizable as cities, Indians live in more compact habitats. From the inside, they look much like ships, with crowded bunkrooms for the poor and luxury decks for the rich. Like Australia, India is self-sufficient in energy, thanks to abundant solar power and coal. There is a vibrant cultural life, but exports of music, films, and services like software development do not earn enough to pay for food imports. The country is heavily dependent on foreign aid from the hyper-wealthy, unwelcoming, but guilty countries of the North.

We are back to the present now. Can we really believe what we have seen? Did the world really spurn even modest climate mitigation policies that would have left it a little less wealthy, but cooler? Did it really avoid the famines and wars that might have decimated populations and wrecked economies, leaving the planet battered but not quite as hot? These are questions that climate models alone can’t answer.

Edwin G. Dolan holds a PhD in economics from Yale University. He hastaught in the United States at Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, George Mason University and Gettysburg College. From 1990 to 2001, he taught in Moscow, Russia. After 2001, he taught economics in Budapest, Prague, and Riga. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Niskanen Center and lives in Northwest Lower Michigan.

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