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.

Climate-charged democracy?

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

In many advanced democracies governments provide public goods, such as health care, education and property rights. Moreover, they provide those goods impersonally (if you meet certain characteristics, you can get those goods regardless of who you are or whether you support that politician). Voters vote for politicians because they believe in their platform or for other reasons. However, in most of the world, especially in most autocracies, politicians buy political support from the happy few in direct exchange for legislation or cash. In those systems it matters who you are (are you a loyal and powerful individual?), and what connections you have, as this determines whether you benefit from government expenditure, or suffer from taxation. One of the major questions in political science and economics is how countries get from the latter situation to the former situation. Lizzeri and Persico have argued that democratization of autocracies depends on whether the political elite prefers more public goods.

Climate change will increase the demand for public goods, such as dykes, large scale irrigation systems, desalination plants, or better protected water property rights. Could this spark democratization?

The link between public goods and democracy
Before trying to predict the future, let’s have a look at the past, namely at the United Kingdom during its industrial revolution, when it created the first parliamentary democracy. Let’s zoom in on London, the biggest city in the world, with its teeming millions, hundreds of factory chimneys, and its polluted water sources. Rich and poor suffered from killer smogs, cholera, and other problems created by the industrial revolution.

Politicians did very little about these problems, but why? While the UK’s government was constitutional, it was far from democratic, as the large majority of the population did not have voting rights. Those that could vote were often tied to specific political parties, based on their ideological preferences. This meant that politicians could win elections by financially rewarding those who were indifferent between the two parties, that is the swing voters. These financial rewards could come in the form of favourable regulation, sinecures or allowing corruption. The ideologically tied voters received much less in terms of patronage for their political support.

For most of history, elites had been quite happy with systems like these, in which the happy few enjoy rewards in exchange for political support, while the large majority of the population has to pay taxes to pay for these rewards. However, in the UK in the 19th century some aspects of the industrial revolution changed elite opinion about this political system. While the urban elite benefited tremendously from the industrial revolution (so going back to the feudal age to solve the problems caused by the industrial revolution was not an option), the industrial revolution did lead to pandemics due to high urbanization and excessive pollution. No matter how rich the elite was, these diseases also killed members of the elite, seeing modern medicine was not available yet. Therefore the elite started preferring public goods which could prevent these diseases over private goods. However, because of the political system described above, politicians did not supply the public goods that were needed to prevent diseases and pollution. This was mostly because many elite members did not want to vote for a party other than their ideologically preferred party, even if another party promised public goods.

Many elite members therefore started seeing an extension of the franchise as a way to get politicians to supply more public goods. The extension of the franchise would make it harder for politicians to buy votes. This is because of the difference between private and public goods. Private goods are rival, so if one voter consumes a private good supplied to him by a politician, other voters cannot consumer that private good. So, you can only hand out a Pound Sterling to a voter once in exchange for a vote. Meanwhile, public goods are not rival, so expenditure on public goods, like health care, allows politicians to spend one Pound Sterling which can benefit multiple voters. With a few voters it is not attractive to build a sewer system, giving them cash is more efficient to win their vote. However, with a large group of voters, handing them cash will result in paltry amounts of cash to persuade voters, while the same total amount of cash can, for example, build a lot of sewerage which multiple people can use at the same time. Thus, to force politicians to provide public goods, without repeatedly having to vote for an ideologically distant party promising public goods, the elite voted for an extension of the franchise once, to then be able to revert to their ideologically preferred party.

Climate change and public goods
Climate change will cause the situation in many countries to resemble the situation in the United Kingdom in the 19th century. To protect valuable farming land, factories and offices, and even their own lives, the elite will want their government to supply certain public goods. Such public goods could be protection from flooding (dykes and research on flood risk in specific areas), protection from environments which are increasingly hospitable to diseases (especially herd immunity is a public good, but also other prevention measures), protection from droughts (irrigation systems, and clear water management solving common pool resource problems), protection from increased pollution and reduction of pollution, reduction of CO2 emissions, etc.

Climate change could thus radically alter elite appetite for public goods. Essentially, the question is, how dependent are elites on environmentally vulnerable areas? This hinges on the mobility of those elites themselves and of their assets (nevermind the individuals who may suffer from an overemphasis on protecting assets vs protecting people or communities). The more mobile the elite and their assets, the less invested they will be in their local environment, because they can simply move with their assets to places which are not suffering from climate change. Although I am no expert on climate science, it does not seem far fetched to claim that in many countries elites will demand their government to protect them and their assets, as climate change starts wreaking havoc on economies the world over.

My prediction in two sentences
As climate change starts having a large impact, elite members too will be harmed by climate change, leading to a higher elite demand for public goods and thus more democracy.

Joes de Natris recently graduated at the University of Amsterdam in the Research Master Social Sciences after doing his BSc. at Leiden University College The Hague. His bachelor’s thesis was about how economic reforms alienated the Egyptian Army from Mubarak, which lead to his fall. His master’s thesis was on the economic roots of democracy and good governance.