Our Northern Future?

By Chris Mooney | September 27, 2010 2:55 pm

World in 2050In the latest New Scientist, I have a review of a new book by climatologist Laurence C. Smith of UCLA, which is entitled The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future. I have to say, it’s really a tour de force. Smith argues that four megatrends–climate change, population growth, globalization, and resource demand–are setting up a world that looks like this:

…many of the world’s 9 billion-plus people will swelter in teeming, dirty and often corruption-plagued megacities like Lagos, Dhaka and Karachi. Others will be stealing water from farms to supply unsustainable cities like Los Angeles. Meanwhile, people in the NORCs [Northern Rim Countries] are living like kings. The leaders in quality of life will be towns you’ve never heard of, like Churchill in Manitoba and Iqaluit in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. (Buy your real estate now!)

Who are the NORCs, and why will they be winners? To quote my review again:

There are 8 NORCs: the US, Canada, Russia, Sweden, Finland, Denmark (Greenland), Norway and Iceland. In Smith’s view, they will be the grand beneficiaries of dramatic Arctic warming that will create a more hospitable far-northern climate, open up valuable resources (especially natural gas) for extraction, drive economic growth (including a boom in tourism) and trigger northward population flows.

To hear Smith tell it, the NORC cup runneth over. Much of the Earth will grow increasingly parched, but the already plentiful freshwater resources of the NORCs will only increase as global warming boosts northern precipitation. And while much of the Earth will see continuing population explosions and, in some places, struggles for food, the NORCs have sparsely populated northern fringes and will see their agricultural productivity rise.

What do you think? Is that the world in 2050? Can Smith really safely predict such a thing?

In any event, you can read my review here, and check out Smith’s book here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Books, Energy, Environment, Food, Global Warming

Comments (8)

  1. Jon

    ” Can Smith really safely predict such a thing?”


    (As the bloggers say, ‘this has been another edition of simple answers to simple questions…’)

  2. the review hit many of the major issues.

    1) i recall hearing a radio interview with a science writer who was commissioned to do a piece on the impending ‘water wars.’ she came back to her editor and explained that these never end up happening because water is so precious that nations manage to make unpalatable decisions in the end. this was not newsworthy, so the article never got published. we all know there’s a lot of waste in waster use and distribution. even without improved tech. when supply is genuinely constrained conservation will kick in.

    2) i was born in dhaka. the city is way more populous now than before, but arguably the quality of life is better because a) use of condensed natural gas for fuel, less polluting, b) more work for people because of textiles c) better road communication with rural areas e) lower total fertility. dhaka is at replacement, or below. in other words, the arrow of history will actually have to reverse. africa has experienced a commodity boom due to chinese growth too.

    3) i do know investors putting money in the northern countries. i think that prediction probably has some validity, though the author might have gotten carried away.

    4) i’d have to read the book, but will brazil really be short on water? from what i remember the main issue is that the poles and temperate latitudes will heat up, but there are physical limitations in our current biosphere how hot the tropics will get. so the big change will be the north and south, not the center.

    5) i think chris rightly emphasized non-linearities and exogenous “shocks” to the model.

    6) but probably an interesting book. these models are useful as nulls. i’m tempted to go read it now.

  3. It’s a fools game to extrapolate from current trends, but not include trends in technology.

    If one were to calculate how many horses the US military would need, based on how many were used during the Civil War, the number would be staggering, but technology has changed.

    It sounds like a cool book, but I wouldn’t give it too much credit for long term predictive power.

  4. Brian Too

    Let’s not forget the other wildcards.

    The North is inhabited by aboriginal peoples who are deeply conflicted by development, urbanization, non-aboriginal lifestyles, and so forth. They often decry environmental degradation while at the same time calling for opportunities for their young people. These aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but higher population levels do alter the environment.

    Much of the land of the North is muskeg/taiga/bog. A warmer climate does not automatically make the soils better or more suitable for agriculture. Heck, it doesn’t even make them more suitable for development of permanent infrastructure. Building on permafrost requires relatively small changes to foundation design. Building on marshland (summer conditions only of course) requires the sinking of deep piles or some type of floating foundation. Often it’s not practical at all.

    I don’t think we really know how precipitation levels will sort out. Much of the North is a precipitation desert right now. It doesn’t feel like it because of the cold and snow, but by objective measures it’s true. Moisture levels and water availability will have a big impact upon the habitability of the North.

    The variation in daylight hours will not be affected by Climate Change. People are profoundly affected (for the better) by the sun and sunlight. Once you go to a latitude that experiences round the clock darkness for parts of the year, some just can’t handle it. The round the clock daylight during summer is a little strange but you quickly adapt to that. It’s the perpetual darkness that tests you.

    That’s just off the top of my head. My guess is that development will happen despite the challenges; the opportunities will be too good to pass up.

  5. I might by a couple of Hectares down south, perhaps Antarctica as it looses its ice sheet, who knows :)

  6. “Prediction is very difficult…especially about the future”- Niels Bohr

  7. Marion Delgado

    Chris, I am an Alaskan, and this does not describe what’s happening so far. Our coastline is eroding, our forests are burning up and being eaten by beetles – albeit I suspect the author might just call that a speeding-up of succession. As for Interior (yes, we capitalize it, because it’s SO different) precipitation, that’s completely uncertain right now. We have very little topsoil. and no magic is going to create it.

    You might want to contact Glenn Juday at UAF some time. Like many Alaskans, I think he was a Republican, but definitely not at war with science. His training is in forestry and ecology, mostly. This is a presentation by him roughly on this subject. http://www.defenders.org/programs_and_policy/global_warming/symposium2007/juday.html

  8. Marion Delgado

    It’s also speculation that needs to give some sort of probability to THIS: http://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2004/05mar_arctic/

    It reminds me a bit of the complete discounting of possible break-up of the ice sheets.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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