Over at his blog Infinite Recursion
, my old friend Stephen DeGrace has written a series of posts (1
) about the problems facing humanity in the 21st century, especially in the context of climate change I rather like them, and, in fact, would pretty thoroughly represent my own position on the subject.
Stephen begins by making the point that not only modern trade but modern agriculture is terribly dependent on fossil fuels, the cheaper the better, to generate the energy and the materials necessary to sustain a highly-productive, high-energy global culture. This dependency places us in a serious bind in the context of declining fossil fuel reserves, even as climate change undermines the basis of our existing economic structures (more or less precipitation, hotter or colder temperatures, et cetera), all imposing additional costs that might well break the system, in parts at least. I suspect--at least hope--that middle-income Mexico and China, never mind high-income southern Europe, won't succumb to famine, but other regions? The Middle East and North Africa strikes me as peculiarly vulnerable. This additional fragility makes it essential not only to avoid war--especially great power war--but to establish a workable system of global governance, a difficult task given how strained times tend to produce extremist ideologies. Still, a moderate globalism is key.
Between here and there we have to get through food supplies which are flattening out while the world population is projected to continue to grow to nine billion people before declining, and on top of that, dangerous political instability caused by climate change in an environment of food scarcity, peak oil, and Great Power reorganization. The path to survival requires effective supernational institutions and active government involvement, loathed by the right, and robust free markets and heavy investment in science and technology (with nuclear firmly on the table and interference with the climate seriously under consideration), loathed by the left.
Success is not impossible, but requires a sane, centrist approach that draws on the better elements from both basic human political prejudices. However, in an increasingly frightening and destabilized environment, people will increasingly turn to extremist ideology. Just because the right wing happens to be dominant in our time does not mean that it will necessarily be the preferred flavour of extremist ideology throughout the world in the future, either. But ideology means doctrine, and doctrine means a fact-proof screen between the believer and reality.
There are going to be some spoilers, mind, countries which would benefit at least for a while from climate change. Countries like Canada.
Canada stands to be a huge winner in the climate change and peak oil lottery. We are at a high latitude, so we probably won't experience the drying of other regions (although our water supply in parts of the country may be affected due to melting glaciers, as pertains to rivers which are glacier fed). But our water supply will be comparatively unaffected, or may actually improve in areas due to increased rainfall, and we will enjoy longer growing seasons and expanded agricultural range.
In a world where people are increasingly hungry, a nation which actually has an increased agricultural abundance stands to get very rich. Even if imported food is prohibitively expensive due to high shipping costs, people will stay pay whatever they have to, because they have to eat. Canada will make a killing.
Additionally, we have huge reserves of oil, especially expensive, dirty oil which will be very profitable to extract at high oil prices - as long as efforts to mitigate climate change don't cut even further into demand than high prices will, that is.
Because of these factors, it is absolutely not in Canada's naked short-to-medium-term self-interest to have any world-wide scheme to reduce carbon emissions. Obviously over the long term we will suffer along with everyone else, but long term considerations are unlikely to be particularly motivating, particularly when there is widespread wilful disbelief in the central facts.
For now, for practical reasons, our government is openly saying they will do whatever the Americans do, no more, no less. But over time, look for Canada to play even more of a spoiler role in climate change negotiations than we do even at present (and we are already a significant impediment to progress). Canada will absolutely become a major climate change villain. I absolutely foresee a day when Canadians will sew American flags to their backpacks to obtain a better reaction from people when travelling abroad.
Keeping in mind that expectations of limitless technological change are probably unrealistic, what with the easy technological byproducts of the scientific revolution quite possibly having all been made, what solutions are there?
In the long run, of course, human survival with any semblance of a decent standard of living depends on there being a lot less humans. Nine billion human beings is simply too great a strain on the earth's carrying capacity for us to get away with it for very long (and that's making the possibly unfounded assumption that we can get away with it at all). But we would like to get to a sustainable place the painless way, by having less babies and waiting for the old folks to die off on their own. Since that is likely a tall order, we need to be thinking very seriously about how we're going to manage the relatively short term of the next fifty or a hundred years or so.
Perhaps fortunately, the ongoing trend in more and more countries is for populations to fall given below-replacement fertility. This, however, won't necessarily make much of a dent on global population levels, not only because only a few countries are experiencing net natural decrease, but because growing life expectancies slows down the process. The social consequences of rapid aging in countries without effective social safety nets, especially pensions, also has to be considered. (Oh, China.)
The key requirement is clear: cheap, super-abundant energy. Massive food production consumes a massive amount of energy, and we will need to produce food on a more massive scale than has ever been done before. Assuming anyone has any food to export by mid-century, inexpensive transportation to make food imports affordable to nations badly hit by global warming will be crucial, and of course, nations will need to transport food internally at significant expense. Desalinization of sea water may be the only realistic source of water for some highly-populated arid nations which are rapidly consuming their sources of fossil water (*cough*Saudi Arabia*cough*). Every aspect of the very pleasant lifestyle we in the industrialized world enjoy and which everyone in the developing world has a right to aspire towards requires access to cheap, abundant energy.
The vast deployment of solar panels might work, as might successful nuclear fission or nuclear fission. Regardless, it'll be a close thing for us, caught between the need for poor countries to develop economically and everyone's need for an Earth that isn't deterraformed.
In terms of the future of energy, all that can really be said for sure is that we can't continue as we have been. Even if we try, peak oil will force us to bend our ingenuity to making less desirable hydrocarbons like bitumen and coal more economical, which will almost certainly create a major drag on our economy, but can certainly keep us going a while longer. At least until such time, not nearly far enough into the future for anyone's comfort, that our civilization will finally choke to death on its own pollution, most probably through the devastating destabilization caused by global warming.
Every way out that leads to long-term survival involves undeveloped and/or unproven technologies. So it is obvious what we must do - we must invest heavily into research and development through institutions of higher learning, and we must harness the power of the free market by artificially attaching a high price to carbon dioxide emissions on a global scale. Only by making resources available to our best minds and creating powerful incentives can we really have any hope that something will pan out in time. If we don't take this path, it will take more than a miracle to save us.
I think that we can escape, certainly; we likely have the technology to do so. I just hope that we'll be willing to deploy these technologies before it's too late.