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.

Recuerdos de la anciana sabia*

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


(* Memories of the wise old woman)

I have discovered a recording I made of my great grandmother, la anciana sabia, when she was very old and I was young. This is the one in which she described what the Central Valley of California was like before I was born.

She remembered when the two great north-south highways, one on each side of the valley, lay mostly along the valley floor. That was before flooding became so frequent that it was cheaper to move the freeways up to the foothills to carry people and freight vehicles. Off these main highways, you can still see occasional weathered signs showing the name of the town you were entering, the population, and the old elevation above sea level, before sea level rose one foot after another, and the government stopped updating the signs.

In those days, the Sierra Nevada mountains north to south were covered with trees, and there was snow every winter but less heavy rain. That was in the century when the other side of my family was carried north from Michoacán on a tide of workers to pick fruit and vegetables in the Central Valley. My Anglo and Latino ancestors ended up together near the inverted Delta formed by the San Joaquin and the Sacramento rivers. This land had been reclaimed for farming centuries ago, before rising seas made it cheaper and more sensible to return much of it to the birds and the fish. Now the salmon move most years through a great inland sea.

“When your grandmother was born, in Sacramento in the spring of 1986,” said my great grandmother, “the Sacramento River a mile from our house almost topped its banks. Even then I thought, ‘Why do they allow homes to be built in this flood plain?’” In those days, she said, hardly any dwellings were built on pilings—just a few along the Sacramento river north of the Capitol, where now great river walls protect the parts of the city nearest to the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers.

In the Delta, too, only a few people lived in dwellings on pilings, people nearest the rivers and on the edge of basins that are used for growing now only in dry years. You can still see the remains of old Delta roads in a very dry year when locals travel along them instead of using their solar boats. The magical architecture of the floodplains, the houses on pilings, was just beginning to evolve. Winter floods would only occasionally fill the Yolo Bypass, the first great bypass for flood water.

In those days, people grew vast areas of crops on the west side of the valley to feed people in California and the rest of the country and the world. As it became too hot to grow food in the ground, except under solar panels, people everywhere in the country and the world began to relearn how to grow their own food, in fields or greenhouses or agridomes, wherever they live, as our family has done, so that food doesn’t have to be moved great distances. But even now, furthest north in the Central Valley, farmers grow rice, grapes for wine, and marijuana.

“Once upon a time,” said my great grandmother, “men thought they could move water to anyplace that people wanted to live and farm.” That was before, one by one, the big dams failed and earthquakes broke the great north-south aqueducts into useless fragments. In those days, she said, farms grew food for people and animals from one end of the valley to the other. Some farmers irrigated those fields to grow alfalfa to feed cattle, and the meat of cows was so cheap that everyone whose faith allowed it ate beef all the time.

But the southern Valley kept getting hotter, and it kept getting harder to grow many crops in the traditional ways, all one crop planted for miles in soil under the desert sun. It has taken decades for people to learn that even in the deserts, it is possible, with permaculture, to surround yourself with green growing things. But that requires growing many different things together.

When we take the hybridcopter and travel to cities in the southern deserts, we see the new dwelling enclaves where artificial intelligence manages systems that control temperature, clean waste water, capture any rainwater that comes through, and pull water out of the air. Near Tulare Lake, they grow agave for syrup and mezcal. Only on the east side of the valley do thirsty nut trees still grow, taking in carbon dioxide and giving shade.

La anciana sabia saw this Valley begin to be transformed in her lifetime. “People used to accumulate more things,” she said, “before all the fires and floods and dislocations. Gradually, we lost the illusion of permanence.”

Hija, it doesn’t do much good to warn people about calamities. We live our lives up close,” she said, drawing so near to me that our noses almost touched. “The BIG picture” spreading her arms wide and then pulling me closer “we mostly miss, the pending events, the unforeseen consequences.”

“ArtIntel takes care of those things,” I said, repeating the argument I had heard so often. “ArtIntel does an error-free job of reasoning everything through, anticipating every possible consequence of every possible choice.”

“Yes,” she agreed, “we programmed it to do that for us. But even without that, human beings would adapt to their own follies, then innovate their way out of any problem their shortsightedness created for them.”

“Every few centuries,” she said, “people all begin to tell each other that they, of all human beings forever, are living at the end of everything, as if they thought they deserved to suffer uniquely, to be punished by gods they do not even believe in.

“They are always mistaken.”


Jane Wagner-Tyack is a writer and former educator who follows water issues for the League of Women Voters of California. She lives in Lodi, California.

Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Todd Jarvis proposes that undersea freshwater aquifers mean that we never need worry about water scarcity.

Water, water everywhere
Nor any drop to drink
Water, water everywhere
Look offshore, a deep subsea well to sink

Apologies to The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by English poet Samuel Coleridge, but this passage is a fitting introduction to the future of water supplies as our Earth “ship” slips into uncharted waters in the wake of climate change.  Yes, desalination of sea and brackish waters will likely become ever more popular as the costs per cubic meter continue to decrease. But the real opportunity is not the sea, per se, but rather what lies below the sea.

Researchers located on the driest continent, Australia, posit that 500,000 cubic km of freshwater are stored in subsea aquifers on continental shelves around the world. “The volume of this water resource is a hundred times greater than the amount we’ve extracted from the Earth’s sub-surface in the past century since 1900.” While the Australians are famous for hosting some of the most famous water diviners in the world, this discovery is not wishful thinking, but rather the result of careful examination of offshore drilling data for oil and gas on the continental shelves across the globe.

Oil_platform_in_the_North_Sea
Source: Creative commons/Wikipedia

With so much water at our disposal as we spin towards Life plus 2 Meters (and perhaps then some), why would there be any future talk of water wars? This is where things get deep as the legal arguments for who has access and ownership for sub-seabed water is not crystal clear.  Does “groundwater” fall under the UN Commission on the Law of the Sea where countries can claim ownership to an Exclusive Economic Zone that extends 370 km offshore from its coastal baseline? Or is it possible that a variant such as the Law of the Hidden Sea might apply to deep groundwater that is hydraulically connected to the sea? Perhaps water stored in “fossil aquifers” such as offshore aquifers should be viewed as part of the common(s) heritage of humans? Or, perhaps government should step aside and let business into the world of groundwater governance much like how the US and Mexico are dealing with subsea hydrocarbons in the Gulf of Mexico by “unitizing” maritime transboundary reservoirs?

The underwater village of Atlit-Yam located offshore of Israel provides evidence that there is Life afterplus 2 Meters.  The water supply of the village of Atlit Yam was apparently based in part on groundwater. One of the oldest wells in the world, a 7,500-year-old water well, lies between 8 to 12 meters beneath sea level in the Bay of Atlit.

Samuel Coleridge once said “Common sense in an uncommon degree is what the world calls wisdom.” While climate change may be the “albatross around one’s neck”, the “commons” sense development of offshore aquifers will ultimately lead to more cooperation and wiser use of onshore water resources.


Todd Jarvis is a hydrogeologist with over 30 years of experience. Prior to joining Oregon State University with the Institute for Water & Watersheds and the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, he worked for global water/wastewater engineering and groundwater engineering firms. He blogs on water at Rainbow Water Coalition and wrote Contesting Hidden Waters: Conflict Resolution for Groundwater and Aquifers. He serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Oregon Law School teaching Environmental Conflict Resolution and a consultant to UNESCO in their Shared Waters training program.