Everyone wants to predict the future, but Laurence Smith actually does so in his new book, “The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Our Civilization’s Northern Future” (Dutton, 2010).
Smith, a UCLA professor and geographer, traveled the Arctic region after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006. In Russia, Canada and the northern regions of Europe, he visited remote aboriginal villages, and studied both permafrost and demography.
He concludes that the future is a mixed bag of positive and negative: People will urbanize further; the global population will age; and aboriginal groups of the far north will gain a voice in how we spend our natural resources. It’s not how many people live on Earth, but rather how we live that will affect outcomes.
He recently spoke with The Times about his work.
By 2050, who will be the winners and losers?
The definition of a winner and loser depends on your point of view. There will be a surprising rise of indigenous power; from a human rights perspective, the indigenous groups are huge winners.
Most climate change will be overwhelmingly negative. But there will be milder winters and a longer growing season in the northern countries, even in the northern U.S. like Minnesota. If you are a raccoon pushing north, it’s good. But if you are a polar bear, it’s bad.
There will be reduced ice cover in the Arctic, which will allow for easier access for shipping. But the interiors of the north will become less accessible. So, we’ll see a rising maritime economy –- with greater access by sea, but reduced access by land.
What’s happening with the aboriginal people through the high latitudes?
During the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, these people were pushed out, but in recent years there’s a been a rise in aboriginal power. It started in 1971 in Alaska with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.
This means that the northern people are now stakeholders. From a human rights perspective, it’s great. From an environmental perspective, once the agreements are in place, aboriginal people will be able to favor resource development. Though the aboriginal people deeply care about the land and want to minimize damage. This is happening in Canada. But it’s not echoed in most of Europe and in Russia it's bleak.
The perception Americans have of Arctic people is different from the way Arctic people view themselves. To them, they are changing like everyone else –- they want to move to town, they want the Internet. To us, the Arctic is a pristine part of the planet that we like to protect; we like to know it exists. In terms of hunting, to them, they have lived off of these animals for thousands of years. To them, oil and gas are bounty of the land.
How will Canada fare in the future as compared to Russia?
Throughout most of northern Canada, they are all urbanizing and moving to cities. It’s a young population. Kids there today don’t want to live in a cabin, hunting and fishing; they want to live in town with a Wii.
Canada is growing, while Russia is falling. They differ in their attitudes toward immigration. Canada has been good at attracting a skilled immigrant population. In Russia, they are actually headed toward a population crash. Their population will drop by 17% in 2050.
Canada prizes education, work skills, and language. Russia is xenophobic. It’s a political issue -- if a Russian politician says we need to open the door to immigrants, they get crushed. Because of their differing attitudes toward immigration, one nation is thriving and one will crash.
What about the overall aging of the planet?
Looking forward to 2050, the developed countries will be elderly. Fertility rates are falling all around the globe. Every place where women have more education, they choose to have smaller families.
The world population will be 9 billion in 2050. This affects the environment overall because it affects the resource demands. But it’s actually the material consumption that matters more. If everyone on Earth lived like Americans do, it would be equivalent to having 72 billion on Earth today [referencing his UCLA colleague Jared Diamond’s Op-Ed “What’s Your Consumption Factor?”].
In 40 years, where will we stand in terms of fossil fuels?
Up to 30% of undiscovered natural gas in the world is in the Arctic. Most of it is in Russia. Russia is the natural gas giant and will be even more so in the future.
We still won’t be weaned off of oil and gas by 2050. We’re stuck with fossil fuel for the immediate future. We should focus on gas -– we would cut our CO2 footprint dramatically. It’s cleaner than coal. There’s no such thing as clean coal.
What will happen with fresh water -- especially in California?
Access to clean water is the greatest sustainable challenge in our century. You don’t even need to invoke climate change to understand the water stress we’ll face.
Historically, there is no instance of nation states going to war over water. Instead, the water wars we’ll see will be internal conflicts between users. In Southern California, we’ll see cities versus farmers. California is bound by a lot of antiquated water laws. For instance, San Diego has been in a battle with the farmers of Imperial Valley. San Diego is winning.
In the future, parts of southern California will turn to desert, but we won’t be starving as long as the global food trade does not collapse.
If the permafrost [permanently frozen ground] thaws, what will happen?
It won’t completely melt, but when it first begins to melt, sinkholes open up and the roads buckle, crack and fall. You can build on permafrost, but once it cracks and buckles -- this can cause buildings built on top of it to crack and then collapse.
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