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'The World in 2050' : The Arctic and everything below

The World in 2050 by Laurence SmithEveryone 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.

IcelandsmithWhat 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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An Arctic oil spill could linger for years

-- Lori Kozlowski

Photos, from top: "The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future." (Credit: Dutton); Author Laurence Smith in Iceland. Credit: Laurence Smith.

Comments () | Archives (11)

The comments to this entry are closed.

The future of the Arctic is unwritten. The melting of the Arctic ice caps along with global warmings will effect the econmy on the Arcic greatly. The opening of the Northwest passage will cause great changes to Arctic nations.

y'all should read the book b4 saying what it does or doesn't say--- in fact it DOES talk about scary thread of the methane coming from thawing tundra, and DOES come out hard against the awful environmental destruction of northern alberta (and shows evil-looking photos of it too!). like i said in my post this book is remarkable in its balance and thoroughness-- it presents the downsides and upsides of our future in a very clear way, it's hard to find such balance & scientific rigor in controversial subjects like climate change and energy development

A scientist in Lapland where is where Dr SMtih met his lovely wife during his research for this book tells me too: :The unfortunate thing in all of this re polar cities Danny is that You are probably right Dan. Even the watered down (or negotiated:) climate science by the IPCC with its conservative projections - combined with our ever-lasting hunger for more "development" - would likely put the demand for your polar cities much earlier than expected.

Great that there are persons like you waking up the world!

I think you know that there are more of us, who agree with you, scientists, increasing by the day. I do gain some hope when I see the young generation of scholars taking the climate change consequences very seriously, but we might exceed the tipping point already during the waning away of my generation (I am 43).

Our local newspaper here in Lapland ''celebrated''.... recently in its editorial..... that Finland, and Lapland in more particular, will be the real winners of climate change. I was fairly shocked by that news:(

Larry knows about this too:

re Polar Cities project coordinator re global warming and climate chaos in future - WORST CASE SCENARIO

QUESTION: Tell me, how are your ''polar cities'' going to save humanity?

ANSWER: They are planned and envisioned as climate refuges for climate refugees in some distant future we cannot really get our minds around yet. They are just an insurance measure, just in case. They might serve as lifeboats in a distant time for those remnants of humanity who survive what I call the Great Interruption from 25oo AD to 3500 AD or longer. Part of the Long Emergency that James Howard Kunstler so eloquently talks about in his books, essays and lectures. 90 percent of humankind will die in massive die-offs when climate chaos gets real bad, 500 years from now. Maybe. Just something to think about. No need to agree with me.

Are you claiming some messiah-like visionary awareness?

No, no, no. I am just a common bloke, neighborhood dude, just thinking out loud. I don't even believe in a God or anything superstituous or supernatural.

What if you're wrong?

I want to be wrong. I hope I am wrong.

Has Dr Lovelock seen your work and images?

Yes, he has. I sent the images done by Deng Hong-cheng in Taiwan to Dr Lovelock, and he replied by email: "Thanks for showing me Deng's images, and yes, it may very well happen, and soon!"

With no PHD or academic sponsorshop or VIP funding, do you really think anyone is going to take you seriously?

I don't expect many people to take me seriously. Comes with the territory.

Aren't you being a bit arrogant to assume that you know and can see the future?

No, not at all. Not arrogant at all, very humble about all this in fact. I am just sharing some ideas I envision. I don't expect anyone to take me seriously and I don't seek followers. Just some ideas I am laying out.

While it is good to raise awareness that there are people and communities living in the North, it is just as important when doing so not to generalize. Having lived in Canada’s Arctic for the past three years, I found the author’s comments regarding what “Arctic people” want and how they view oil and gas development an oversimplification. In my experience, the surprising lesson to be learned, when trying to understand the difference between us (non-indigenous American) vs. them (Inuit or other similar ethic group), is that the range of wants and beliefs vary just as much from person to person up here as they do in the South.

once again some expert is telling us how the world will be in 50 years. sorta like the televangalist's tell us about the end of he world and like them, all he wants is a gift for his services. I don't pay for there speculation and I hope nobody pays for his. OMG why did I write this, its the LATIMES and I know it wont be kept on the site.

In Canada the aboriginal people live off social security and hunt rare mammals as an "indigenous right". Russia after communism hasn't much social welfare. Canada's population is indeed increasing mostly because of Islamic immigration. If the author thinkss that that is a positive thing, he obviously has a lot to learn. Canada will still exist to provide raw materials to the United States.

Has the author actually been to Russia? Is he aware of shale gas? Or Alberta's horrible destruction of the environment?

Dr Smith doesn't mention that around 1000 gigatons of CO2 and methane reside in the tundra. Both are leaking as the area thaws. Even a small fraction of that will greatly accelerate climate disruption.
Carbon restriction will do nothing to avoid this. If a runaway thawing begins, the Arctic will become a prime climate focus, and the only way to cool it seems to be with stratospheric aerosols.

Gregory Benford
UCI Physics

I've just read this book it's phenomenal, easy to read, balanced, informative learned a lot

I really hope that we find an alternate fuel source real soon that is really viable, so we can ease ourselves off oil before it becomes so rare that it becomes rationed. We have brilliant minds and technology that should be able to solve this issue.

If the permafrost melts, the methane released will spell the end of us.


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