26 February 2010

My Grandchildren's World Part I: Climate Change

What will the world be like in the lives of my children and grandchildren? In other words, what will the world be like in the time frame of 2010 to 2140, more or less. These are long term predictions. Some of that future can't be predicted. But, we know enough to make some reasonable guesses.


Global Warming Will Happen

We are in the midst of a human caused period of rapid global warming. It appears completely unrealistic politically for there to be effective global political action sufficient to stop or reverse this trend in the time frame that scientists say is available.

China's economy is too wed to coal and too fast growing to wean itself to cleaner fuels in the several decades time frame we have for really effective action.

China, India and many other places in the developing world are going to find the urge to dramatically increase their consumption of motor vehicles to be irresistible. More cars will mean more global warming inducing air pollution, even if developing world cars are more fuel efficient, more intensely used, less polluting and less numerous per capita than those of the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. Japan's level of car use is a more plausible model. But that still means far more cars being used in the world and with them more air pollution.

Deforestation is another trend that is unlikely to reverse itself in the next few decades sufficiently to crimp global warming. In the places where it is happening, the need of burgeoning local populations for agricultural income and mineral resources will not be held back indefinitely by any altruistic motives.

The developed world will make a concerted effort to reduce their emissions. Deforestation will be slowed. The developing world will have an industrial revolution that is more environmentally sound than the original. Most importantly, "peak oil" will produce dramatic changes in how our finite supply of fossil fuel resources are used which will lead to widespread adoption of new technologies and the reorganization of the economic sectors most at fault. There will be steps taken that actively counter the global warming trend. And, the ecology of the world will react to buffer the changes we are creating as natural global cooling factors in the biosphere kick in.

So, the problem will ultimately be addressed. Earth is not on track to become the next Venus. We simple won't be able to change soon enough avoid irreversible significant further change and probably not soon enough to avoid crossing a global climate tipping point of some kind. It will be too little, too late to arrest further human contributions to global warming in the next thirty to forty years. My optimistic predictions are that humanity will cease contributing to global warming, with a big boost from peak oil effects and advanced transportation and non-fossil fuel energy technology, sometime after my grandchildren reach adulthood, in the range of 2050 to 2080.

Selective Impacts From Global Warming

What will global warming mean to my children and grandchildren in their lives?

1. The sea level will rise significantly. In real life terms some of the implications of this sea level rise will include the following:

Much of coastal Louisiana will fall below sea level. The most historic parts of New Orleans will be preserved, at great expense, as a Venice or Netherlands on the Gulf of Mexico, with epic engineering efforts. Its connection to the continental United States will be as tenuous as that of Key West to Florida today.

Much of the Everglades and Southern Florida will fall below sea level. Miami and other major coastal cities will be preserved only with major engineering efforts that preserve a thin peninsula on the Florida's East coast from Miami to Cape Canaveral.

Many low lying islands in Oceania and the Caribbean will be flooded, forcing their residents to relocate. Most will move either to higher ground in Oceania, or to places in the developed world with which they have ties as a result of former colonial links, religious missionaries, or past tourism ties. The populations involved will be small enough, and the diaspora far flung enough, that this will have only a modest impact on the rest of the world.

Prime real estate resorts and homes near sea level right at the coast worldwide will be irreplaceably destroyed as the beach retreats inland.

Warmer sea surfaces will also fuel more and more powerful hurricanes, typhoons and cyclones, hitting particularly hard the coastal American South, the Caribbean, the Gulf Coast of Mexico and Central America, Japan, Coastal China, the Philippines, Bangladesh and coastal India.

2. Skiing Will Move North and Up; Glaciers will vanish.

Global warming will leave the winter ski seasons in existing ski resorts looking more like their fall ski seasons. The ski season will start later in the fall, and end earlier in the spring. In North America, Colorado and Utah will start to lose ground to Wyoming and Canada. In Europe, the Alps will become less attractive for skiers. In Japan, skiing opportunities will degrade. Skiing resorts may prosper in the Alaska Range, the Yukon, the Himalayas, Central Asian mountains and the Kolyma mountains of Siberia.

Glaciers are retreating rapidly everywhere in the world that they are found from Scandinavia to New Zealand, from Mount Kilimanjaro to the Alps, from the Rockies to the Himalayas.

Arctic species like polar bears have a dim future.

3. Canada's populated belt will expand.

The vast majority of the people who live in Canada live quite close to the U.S. border. As the global climate warms, the Northern parts of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Quebec will all become more attractive for both agriculture and urban settlement.

4. Diseases, plants and fauna will migrate North and up.

Malaria, yellow fever, killer bees, termites, tropical parasites, hot weather plants, subtropical animals and tropical animals will all migrate significantly north and south from the equator, and to higher elevations than those at which they were previously known.

Kudzu will make a slow but sure migration North. Cotton will be grown further north in the American South that it used to, while Egyptian cotton will be pressured by hotter, drier conditions with that crop possibly migrating to the Levant or Northern Mediterranean.

Similarly, temperate crops will migrate north, with the line between deciduous and evergreen forests moving northward, for example.

Areas of the United States that are already marginal for agriculture, like areas used by dryland farmers in the arid West will tend to revert to open space as farming becomes hopeless outside irrigated areas. In the American South, tropical and subtropical plant varieties will increasingly become more viable.

5. The Sahara will expand.

The Sahara desert in Africa will expand, most notably to the South into the Sahel, where many people who speak Nilo-Saharan or Afro-Asiatic languages, most often Muslims, live now. Climate change will put strong pressure on these peoples to migrate South into territory previously controlled by Christan and animist peoples who do not speak Arabic and are seeing their traditional farming methods fail in the face of an increasingly drier, hotter climate.

We are already starting to see military conflicts, increased ethnic clashes, and famines breaking out in these regions. Somalia is a failed state divided politically along a North-South axis. This climate trend is a major driving force behind the genocidal warfare in Sudan which is likely to cede a new nation called South Sudan in the next few years. Southern Chad, Northern Nigeria, Niger and Mali are also all under these pressures.

Broad based fronts in clash of civilizations conflicts like the one that is developing as the Sahara expands are historically an important motivator for the unification of previously independent states into empires. I expect to see strengthening political and military alliances between Northern Sudan, Chad, Niger, the Islamic controlled Northern states of Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Mauritania, which would also fund insurgent forces of Islamic minorities in the Southern neighbors in West and Central Africa, Uganda and Kenya. Likewise, I expect to see strengthening military and political ties among the coastal nations of West Africa, the Central African Republic, Southern Sudan, Uganda and Kenya. Burkina Faso, which evenly divided between the two civilizations, is at a particularly grave risk of civil war. Minority populations on both sides of the divide are a grave risk of being expelled as refugees to neighboring countries where their side of the clash is in the majority, in brutal campaigns of ethnic cleansing on a much larger scale than seen from the Bosnia Serbs or the Algerian Islamist efforts to expel foreigners. The genocidal campaign seen in Darfur is likely to be a more relevant model for these conflicts.

These wars are likely to be particularly brutal and are likely to remain a military hot spot for most of the lives of my children and grandchildren. I would be surprised if Nigeria sustains this era of Sahel conflict in one piece. It seems more likely that the Islamic states of Nigeria in the North will unite and secede from Nigeria, particularly as the volume of Nigeria's oil production begins to decline. Nigeria will cease to be able to maintain an oil based economy as oil decreases in economic importance in the years running up to roughly 2055-2075. The prospect of sharing oil revenues is an important part of the glue holding many currently oil rich nations like Iraq and Nigeria together today.

One winner in Africa may be Khoisan speaking people who may face less threat from expanding urbanization as the Kalahari Desert grows less and less suitable for settled occupation. But, declines in arable land to the North will increase deforestation pressures in the greater Congo area further threatening Africa's Pygmy populations.

6. Inland seas will dry up.

Expect the Caspian Sea, the Aral Sea, the Dead Sea, Lake Chad, Lake Tana in Ethiopia, Lake Turkana in Kenya, Lake Vitoria, the Great Salt Lake in Utah, and the North American Great Lakes to dry up and get smaller as global temperatures rise. These changes will greatly impact local communities, but will rarely have major geopolitical impact.


Michael Malak said...

No long term predictions can be taken seriously without consideration of the Singularity. I trust you will address this in a future installment of this series.

Mishalak said...

I'm not sure you have the drier conditions correctly pegged. From what I understand the effects of climate change are likely to be similar to a permanent El Niño-Southern Oscillation. So Southern California would, for example, be much wetter than normal during the winter. Similarly Dixie would be cooler than normal in the winter and hotter than normal in the summer.

So if an inland lake dries up will be dependent upon how much precipitation changes in the basin as much as in the overall increase in temperature. I tentatively expect both the Salton Sea and a new lake in Death Valley to expand due to global warming.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

@Michael Malak: Multiple installments to come. I can't cover the entire next 120 years in a single post. I have an outline of the next two or three in my head. Methodologically, I'm trying to limit myself to developments that are (1) likely, (2) have considerable inertia propelling them, and (3) involve relatively short chains of reasoning from fundamentals that are likely to be undisturbed.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

@Mishalak Point well taken. Some of the lakes specifically mentioned like the Great Salt Lake, the Dead Sea, the Capsian and Lake Chad are already contracting, but your point that it would not be uniform is surely correct. Indeed, relocation of climates away from the Equator (moving tropical climates North to Southern California) may be correct. Temperature and humidity certainly do not move in synch.

I tried to identify bodies of water far enough away from large bodies of water to avoid the kind of effects you mention in the Salton Sea case but could be amiss in some of the details.

Michael Malak said...

The Singularity is a certainty. It is probable within our own lifetimes.

Mishalak said...

@Micheal Malak

Not my blog, but I have to say as a reader of science fiction and someone interested in science I disagree profoundly with your statement about "the singularity". It is no more a certain event without our lifetimes than colonization of the moon was in the lifetime of 1st Fandom.

In fact I rather suspect that the singularity will be rather like the Christian rapture. Forever just around the corner.

Mishalak said...

I'm not sure that it will be precisely tropical in Southern California, or at least not wet tropical. Just that looking at what happens in the southern third of the United State under El Niño conditions suggests more rain in winter.

Perhaps in S.Cal. something like the lower elevations of the Sierra Madre Occidental, moving closer to being a tropical savanna or tropical dry forest at higher elevations.

Michael Malak said...

The differences between colonizing the moon and developing human-level artificial intelligence are:

1. The foundational technologies are being developed anyway at a rapid pace for non-AI purposes, so there is no need for an entity such as a government to throw taxpayer money at them:
a. Computer processors
b. Robotics
c. Cataloging of all human knowledge (Google)

2. AI is of benefit to two major industries that have historically driven technological advances: porn (robot dolls) and finance (stock market program trading).

3. The field of AI research is open to anyone who has a PC, and by extension to any country with a team of computer scientists.