27 Jun 2017

Review: 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years

Jorgen Randers -- one of the original authors on The Limits to Growth (my review of LTG) -- wrote this 2012 book to think about the future using similar techniques from the 1972 project. (Contrary to the claims of critics, LTG was pretty accurate in its predictions.)

I read this book to learn more of how we might (not) adapt to life in a climate-changed world (the theme of my life plus 2 meters project).

I am going to group my comments on this book into several categories rather than focus on details, as I made far too many notes. The book is organized into Why & How 40 Years?, Five Big Issues (capitalism, economic growth, democracy, intergenerational relations and climate), a Global Forecast (population & consumption, energy & co2, food & footprint, non-material "goods" and zeitgeist 2052), and ending with sections on Analysis, Straight Questions, Five Regions, Other Futures, and What to Do.

First, consider that Randers makes a forecast rather than a prediction by relying on trends and possibilities rather than probabilities. To oversimplify, Randers focusses on several macro trends in five main regions in the 2012-2052 period. These trends -- based on demographics, economics, engineering and politics -- are used to explain forecast where we humans might find ourselves in 2052.

One important interactions is among trends for population, consumption and impact, with the main idea that the footprint will be heavier -- and thus the chance of "run away climate change" (RACC) larger -- if there are more people consuming more stuff. I think that Randers is too optimistic in his forecasts here. He predicts that the world population will peak at 8.1 billion, that 2-3 billion people will stay poor (=low consumption), and that people in the rich world will consume less because they need to invest significant resources in responding to climate change (e.g., recovering from disasters, coping with climate migrants, paying more as supply chains are disrupted and so on.)

This path -- in the presence of little or no climate change mitigation -- will leave the world on a knife's edge after 2052, with 2080's global temperatures of 2.8C above pre-industrial levels and a 50/50 chance of triggering RACC in which melting permafrost, wildfires and other natural responses trigger positive feedback loops that accelerate warming and far worse living conditions. [A negative trend I discussed over 9 years ago.]

Randers does not consider this forecast as good news (he says "global society will have to perform a miracle after 2052 if it is to end the century in a desirable situation" given that the transition to sustainability will only be half-complete by 2052), and he's admirably frank about our political mechanisms being too weak and short-termist to coordinate either mitigation or adaption, but I think that his underlying assumptions on population and consumption are far too optimistic. The UN recently forecast that "the current world population of 7.6 billion is expected to reach 8.6 billion in 2030, 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100." Turning to consumption, it is hard to see much sign of any government putting the brakes on the cult of GDP growth (e.g., Indonesia converting rainforest to palm oil, China promoting cars and suburbs, or economic refugees fleeing their dysfunctional homelands to go earn some money). Taken together, these "alt-guesses" would put the world in far worse shape in terms of RACC, temperature increases, and so on.

(You can download Randers's massive spreadsheet and change details to suit your own preferences, but I am focussing on aggregates. Am I "cheating" rather than "scientific" to say this? Not if a spreadsheet is merely an opinion dressed up as a model.)

Second, I want to congratulate Randers for his interesting use of "outside experts" who gave 20+ forecasts on various dimensions of the future (a few are a waste of time). Their contributions and Randers's own commentary really created a useful space for thinking about how systems interact (e.g., "more investment" means "less consumption") in our complex world.

There are many interesting, surprising and thoughtful statements in the book:
  • Nations will face climate change only after they give up on a global quota for carbon, tax fossil fuels and force adoption of renewables, energy efficiency, and carbon capture [the story there is grim]. They will only do this when climate damages are a clear and present danger (i.e. probably too late). Global investments will rise from a need to shut down fossil industries early [here's a nice perspective on its collapse in the near future] and cope with climate damages, but productivity will fall due to climate damages, loss of natural capital, more workers in services, etc.
  • There's not much support for "saving ecosystems" among voters who prefer Netflix... and will increasingly experience the world via screen. The impacts will be worse in nations without redistribution or social insurance (poor countries; the US), and especially if "democracy" leads to short-term consumption over long term sustainability. 
  • The worst shocks will not be to the poor (who already suffer), but to the Americans who will face the twin-disasters of losing first place to China as well as greater conflict over national and financial resources due to its weak social welfare system.
  • The Chinese government will use its strength to force its people to sustainability.
  • National militaries will be much more occupied with climate-related risks and assaults. The "third flowering of humanity" will arrive via computers that may work for us (or not).
  • Temperature zones (microclimates) will move away from the equator at a pace of 5km per year and up mountains at a pace of 5m per year
  • Do not acquire a taste for things that will disappear (or give that taste to your children), as you will only be disappointed when your "favorites" are no more. Stick with digital hobbies, etc.
  • Live in a place that's not exposed to CC but where political structures function (NL is -1 and +1 on these!)
Third, Randers covers many topics but he is sometimes trapped by "current thinking" on technology or politics, e.g., discussing the impact of greater biofuel production on food prices (not good for the poor) when cheaper oil (via fracking as well as the shift to renewables) is crowding out biofuels.

Finally, I now think different on several big topics. For example:
  • Japan's consumption per person rose by 33 percent between 1990 and 2010 because GDP was "flat" while population and investment was falling. (One reason robots are so popular in Japan!)
  • Countries that import food may lack "food security" when times get tough and they cannot afford to buy food on world markets. (The same might be said of energy, manufactured goods, etc.) Thus a country like Pakistan may turn into a failed state with hungry people because it has mismanaged its natural resources ("liquidating natural capital") at an even worse pace than the rest of the world, thereby increasing its relative insecurity. We can see this problem today in Yemen but not in places like Japan or New Zealand that have protected their natural capital.
  • Younger generations will not respect older generations -- they will take part of their pensions to pay for damages. (A strategy that may not work if bitcoin, tax havens and corruption undermine government action.)
Bottom Line: I give this book FIVE STARS for helping me think about our (potential) common future, which Randers summarizes as follows [snipped from several places]:
It is surprisingly difficult to maintain a happy outlook when you know deep in your heart that the world is on a path toward disaster (reducing age-old biological diversity and man-made cultural diversity in the process).

The world of 2052 will be well established on a path that I really fear—the path toward self-reinforcing climate change and climate disaster in the second part of the century. I certainly did not find a world on a well-planned path toward sustainability. I don’t know how to assess this future. It will be much better than a global cataclysm where population and production drop dramatically as a consequence of natural disaster and war. But it will be much worse than the now common expectation of continuing growth in GDP and disposable income. It will be good for me as an old Norwegian living in the New North, which will fare well over the next couple of decades. But it will be surprisingly bad for all my good friends in the United States, who will have to endure gradual and seemingly never-ending stagnation from the peak years of their empire in the twentieth century. And much worse for the two billion earthlings who will remain poor.

Even if your personal life is sound and satisfying, it is wearying to know that so much is being done systematically to destroy our common future. Thus my final word of encouragement: Don’t let the possibility of impending disaster crush your spirits. Don’t let the prospect of a suboptimal long-term future kill your hope. Hope for the unlikely! Work for the unlikely! Remember, too, that even if we do not succeed in our fight for a better world, there will still be a future world. And there will still be a world with a future—just less beautiful and less harmonious than it could have been.

For all my reviews, go here.

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