The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future - Laurence C. Smith (2010)
Part III. ALTERNATE ENDINGS
Chapter 9. The Pentagon Report
Our thought experiment so far has been propelled by big drivers, the four global forces of demography, natural resource demand, globalization, and climate change. A fifth—enduring legal frameworks—cropped up in discussions of sovereignty over the Arctic seafloor and the political power of aboriginal peoples. Throughout the book we have stayed within the confines of the following ground rules as stated in the opening chapter:
No Silver Bullets (incremental and foreseeable advances in technology),
No World War III (no radical reshuffling of our geopolitics and laws),
No Hidden Genies (like a global depression, a killer pandemic, a sudden climate change),
The Models Are Good Enough.
These overarching drivers and ground rules have served the 2050 thought experiment well to this point. I hope it has kept the book from being shelved in the science fiction sections of bookstores and libraries. The described outcomes are deduced from big trends and tangible evidence already apparent today, rather than political ideology or my wonderful imagination. They favor the likely over the unlikely. I honestly expect, should I live long enough, to see many or all of them materialize within my lifetime.
In this chapter and the next, let’s step out of the comfort zone a bit. What are some other outcomes these trends could provoke? Are the four forces robust, our ground rules reasonable? If not, how might they surprise us? This chapter explores six less assured, but plausible, developments that could affect some of the big trends presented thus far. Five of them originate in the North, but have global or far-reaching consequences. Let’s begin with climate change, by breaking the ground rules on hidden genies and computer models.
The Evolution of Climate Models
The motivation for running climate models is nothing like the motivation for making weather forecasts on the nightly news. Those seek to identify specific events, like a storm front, and are meaningful only a few days into the future. But climate models forecast average climate variables, like mean January temperature, and are meaningful many decades into the future. They do this by taking account of certain things—like deep ocean circulation and increasing greenhouse gas concentrations—that simply don’t matter for short-term weather. It’s not possible to know what the exact temperature will be in Chicago next August 14 or January 2 at three o’clock in the afternoon, but it’s very possible to know what the average August or January temperatures will be. One is weather, the other is climate.
Climate models are also amazing tools for figuring out how our complex world actually works. Suppose that it is an observed fact that summer rainfall is declining in Georgia, but this phenomenon simply won’t show up in a climate model’s simulations no matter how many times it is run. Puzzled, its programmers realize that something is missing and wonder what it might be. Into the model goes a hypothesis—say, loss of forest (trees pump enormous volumes of water vapor back to the atmosphere), because many trees have been removed to build Atlanta suburbs. Does the model now correctly simulate the measured rainfall decline? If so, congratulations—new scientific understanding has been won about how rainfall works in Georgia, and the climate model has been made more realistic. If not, on to test the next hypothesis down the list. Eventually the missing bit of physics is discovered, the model is improved, and its creators move on to ponder its next little failure.
At their core, climate modelers seek to understand how the atmosphere functions, and how it responds to changing drivers. By studying when and where the models break down, we improve scientific understanding of how the real world works, and our models become more accurate. After more than fifty years of trial and error, they have now evolved far beyond their primitive ancestors of the 1960s. We’ve learned a great deal about how Earth’s climate system actually operates. In today’s generation of models, complicated things like El Niño and the Hadley Circulation emerge organically without programmers having to “add” them at all. That is very encouraging, because it tells us the models’ assumptions and physics486 are realistic and working correctly.
The big push now is to hone down climate model spatial resolutions (i.e., the “pixel size” of their simulations) from hundreds of kilometers, useful for broad-scale projections like the ones presented in this book, to kilometers, which is what local planners need. But even at the coarser spatial scale of today’s generation of models, many important conclusions about our future are now well vetted and uncontroversial. All of the megatrends discussed so far—rising global average temperature, the amplified warming in the Arctic, rising winter precipitation around the northern high latitudes—fall within this uncontroversial category.
More troublesome are the short-sellers and inside traders of natural climatic variability. Volcanoes, wildfires, and sunspot cycles are just a few of many phenomena imprinting their own natural variations over the underlying greenhouse gas signal. But now these volatile (and fairly common) phenomena, too, are being added to climate models and tested.
Where climate models suffer most is in capturing rare events lying totally outside of our modern experience. Most weather stations are less than a century old; the satellite data era began only in the 1960s and ’70s. These records are far too short to illuminate the full range of our Earth’s twitchy behavior. Shifting oceans and ice sheets are key drivers of climate yet contain toggles and circuits with longer patience than our short instrumental records. They add boosts, buffers, and dips to the overall greenhouse effect, so we must understand them as well.
Unfortunately, a naturally twitchy climate makes the steady, predictable push from anthropogenic greenhouse gases more dangerous, not less. From the geological past we know the Earth’s climate has not always been so quiet as it is now. Therefore, through greenhouse loading we are applying a persistent pressure to a system prone to sudden jumps in ways we don’t fully understand. Imagine a wildcat quietly sleeping on your porch—it looks peaceful but is by nature an ill-tempered, unpredictable beast that might spring into a flurry of teeth and claws in an instant. Greenhouse gases are your knuckles pressing inexorably into its soft slumbering belly; the global ecosystem is your exposed hand and arm.
Rare or threshold behaviors—like a permanent reorganization of rainfall patterns, accelerated sea-level rise, or a giant burp of greenhouse gas from the ground—all pose legitimate threats to the world. We know they are plausible but, unlike greenhouse gas forcing, don’t know yet how probable. But their behaviors, too, must be added to climate models somehow. Just because something seems unlikely doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or that its impacts are not potentially enormous if it does. These are the climate genies, and we are just beginning to discern the outline of their various sleeping forms. To find them at all, we must turn to the prehistoric past.
The Flickering Switch
One of my personal heroes in science is Richard B. Alley, an outstandingly accomplished glaciologist and professor of geosciences at Penn State University. Not only has he cranked out one landmark idea after another, published nearly forty times in Science and Nature, been elected to the National Academy of Sciences, and written a wonderful popular book explaining it all for the rest of us,487 he is also about the nicest and most enthusiastic guy one could ever hope to meet.
In 1994, Alley came to deliver a guest lecture at Cornell University, where I was a lowly second-year graduate student. Everyone was abuzz that Richard Alley was coming, because he had just published a pair of back-to-back articles in Nature that had stunned the climate-science community.488 Even my thesis advisor—who was pretty famous himself, having written the paper putting together the theory of plate tectonics489—was talking about them. But a great thing about academia is that it is on open, democratic affair even when it comes to its pop icons. Visiting celebrities will hang out for a day or two happily chatting with whomever, even lowly second-year graduate students. Landing a meeting with one is largely a matter of getting to the sign-up sheet first, which of course I did.
When my time slot arrived I went to meet Alley, armed with a list of questions about his Nature papers so I could hear more from the great man himself. That lasted about forty-five seconds, before he insisted on hearing all about my work. I couldn’t believe it. It was a dumb little side project of my research, but Alley’s enthusiasm was totally contagious. We relocated to my lab hole, where he huddled alongside me, giving all manner of helpful advice and inspiration. By the time he ran off late to his next appointment, I was so excited about my project I barely remembered I’d forgotten to ask more about his. That’s just the kind of guy he is.490
What had everyone gabbling was what Alley and his colleagues had dug out of the Greenland Ice Sheet. The U.S. National Science Foundation had funded construction of a drilling and laboratory camp on top of it to extract a two-mile-long ice core called GISP2, an enormous task taking about four years.491 Preserved in the upper sections of ice cores are annual layers, like the rings of a tree. Each one contains the compressed equivalent of a full year’s worth of snow accumulation falling on the ice sheet surface (cores are drilled from deep ice sheet interiors where it never melts). By counting the layers down-core and measuring their thickness and chemistry, a very long reconstruction of past climate variations is obtained. We even get tiny samples of the ancient atmosphere, by cracking into air bubbles trapped in the ice. From these high-resolution annual measurements in Greenland, Alley and his colleagues had discovered that around twelve thousand years ago, just when we were pulling out of the last ice age, the climate began shuddering wildly.
The shudders happened faster than anyone had dreamed possible. Our climatic emergence from the last ice age, it seems, was neither gradual nor smooth. Instead it underwent rapid flip-flops, seesawing back and forth between glacial and interglacial (warm) temperatures several times before finally settling down into a warmer state. These large temperature swings happened in less than a decade and as quickly as three years. Precipitation doubled in as little as a single year. Around Greenland, at least, there was no gradual, smooth transition from a cold ice age to the balmy interglacial period of today. Alley’s team had shown that climate could sometimes teeter as well, like a “flickering switch,” between two very different states. Furthermore, it had happened other times in earlier millennia, so this was not a totally isolated event. The extreme rapidity of these changes, concluded Alley, implied “some kind of threshold or trigger in the North Atlantic climate system.”492
Thus was born a brand-new subfield of climate science known today as “abrupt climate change.” Twenty years ago anyone who hypothesized a sudden, showstopping event—a century-long drought, a rapid temperature climb, or the fast die-off of forests—would have been laughed off. But today a growing body of evidence from ice cores, tree rings, ocean sediments, and other natural archives tells that such things have happened in the past. We’ve long known the Earth’s climate has experienced big changes before but assumed they only occurred slowly over geological time, like the gradual turning of a dial. Now we know they can sometimes happen abruptly as well, like flipping a switch. The implications of this are global, as we shall see next.
The Pentagon Report
From a societal perspective, an abrupt unexpected climate change is more destabilizing than one that is gradual and anticipated. Military analysts concede that the expected gradual climate changes pose national security threats, and by late 2009 the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had opened a new center specifically dedicated to assessing them.493 A recent study, for example, projects a more than 50% increase in armed conflict and nearly four hundred thousand more battle deaths in Africa by 2030.494 But one of the few attempts to assess the societal impact of an abrupt climate change was commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defense in 2003.
This document, titled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” is not based on climate model projections, but instead on a known prehistoric event seen in ice cores, sediments, and fossils. About 8,200 years ago, several thousand years after the really big swings that Alley had studied, temperatures near Greenland suddenly tumbled by about 6°-7°C. Cold, dry, windy conditions spread across northern Europe and into Asia; certain African and Asian monsoon rains faltered, and temperatures probably rose slightly around the southern hemisphere. These conditions persisted for about 160 years before reversing again.
This event was not unique but simply the last and smallest of several climate shudders seen in Greenland ice cores as the last ice age wound down. It was less severe, shorter-lived, and less geographically extensive than its predecessors (especially the Younger Dryas event, the monster cold snap studied by Alley that abruptly kicked in about 12,700 years ago, then persisted for nearly 1,300 years).495 That said, let’s hope that it never happens again. The Pentagon’s report, which outlines possible social scenarios if what occurred 8,200 years ago were to happen again today, is quite scary.
It describes wars, starvation, disease, refugee flows, a human population crash, civil war in China, and the defensive fortification of the United States and Australia. “While the U.S. itself will be relatively better off and with more adaptive capacity,” the authors conclude, “it will find itself in a world where Europe will be struggling internally, large numbers of refugees washing up on its shores, and Asia in serious crisis over food and water. Disruption and conflict will be endemic features of life.”496 The report’s authors insist that their assessment, while extreme, is plausible.
Could this really happen? Nobody knows for certain, but the good news is that the physical mechanism underlying these North Atlantic cold shudders is now fairly well understood, and its behavior successfully replicated by climate models, so we can at least test the probability. The culprit appears to be a slowdown of the global thermohaline circulation—the long, ribbon-like “heat conveyor belt” of ocean currents, one arm of which carries warm tropical water from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Nordic seas, bathing western Europe and Scandinavia in all that heat so undeserved for its latitude as described in Chapter 7. The North Atlantic region is a critical pivot for this global circulation pattern. It is where the warm, salty north-flowing surface current finally cools sufficiently so that it becomes heavier than the surrounding colder (but less saline) water, sinks down to the ocean floor, and begins its millennia-long return south, crawling along the dark bottom of the abyss.
All of this is driven by density contrasts. If sufficiently large, a local freshening of the North Atlantic can slow or even halt the sinking, thus killing this entire overturning arm of the global heat conveyor belt. This has immediate implications for the Earth’s climate. Heat becomes less mixed around the planet. Cold temperatures (especially winters) and drought descend upon Europe. The southern latitudes warm; the Asian and African monsoons weaken or drift. It’s rather like adding hot water to a cold bath, in which stirring the water around helps to even out the temperature contrasts. But with no water circulation, one’s back grows cold but feet are scalded.
The most likely source of water for the sudden freshening of the North Atlantic was one or more massive floods released from the North American continent at the end of the last ice age, as its giant glacial ice sheet melted away. As the sheet retreated north into Canada, huge freshwater lakes, some even larger than the Great Lakes today, pooled against its shrinking edge. Then, when a pathway to the sea emerged from beneath the rotting ice, out the water went. The deluge that tore out through Hudson Bay must have been biblically awesome in scale.497 I wonder if any aboriginal version of Noah witnessed and survived it, creating a legend for generations of the Great Flood that drained the Earth’s water to the sea, bringing seemingly endless winter upon the land.
Figuring out hidden genies takes time and a lot of work. The above hydrologic explanation for the North Atlantic climate shudders was first proposed by Columbia University’s Wallace Broecker back in 1985.498 Its finer details are still being tinkered with today. But now that we understand this genie rather well, and its physics are reproducible in climate models, we can assess the likelihood of another such shudder happening again in the future.
So far, most simulations agree that a complete collapse of the thermohaline circulation is unlikely anytime soon, for the simple reason that it’s hard to find a big enough freshwater source with which to sufficiently hose down the North Atlantic. The Laurentide ice sheet that once covered Canada and much of the American Midwest is long gone. The projected increases in high-latitude precipitation and river runoff appear sufficient to weaken the circulation, but not enough to kill it outright.499 This weakening shows up in most future climate model projections as a little bull’s-eye of below-average warming centered over the North Atlantic. It’s not enough to create outright cooling, but it does reduce the magnitude of warming locally over this area. Let’s hope these simulations are correct—because if they’re wrong, losing even part of the Asian monsoon would be really, really bad.
There is, of course, another big source of potential freshwater—one that happens to be plunked right in the middle of the North Atlantic. No serious scientist thinks the Greenland Ice Sheet will melt away anytime soon, and if it ever does we’ll be dealing with even bigger worldwide problems than a cold, dry Europe and faltering monsoonal rains. But this genie, we’re nowhere near to understanding well enough to model yet.
Genie in the Ice
Two smelly straight guys sharing a tent sized for one is bad enough. But waking up covered in yellow dust, with no hot water for days, is the pits. It was impossible to keep the stuff out, even barricaded inside the lone wind-rated tent we had thought to bring with us.
The Greenland Ice Sheet was in charge, not me and not Ohio State geography professor Jason Box. We were camped next to its southwestern edge, where one of its many outlet glaciers finally succumbs to a grinding wet death, killed by the sun among the tundra grasses, caribou, and musk oxen. Every night, we squeezed head-to-toe in the little tent and buttoned up tight. Every night a fierce katabatic wind would pour off the ice sheet, lift tons of grit from its gravelly outwash plain, and fling it against our shuddering tent. The silt pushed through closed zippers and tiny mesh slits. It entered our nostrils and encrusted our hands as they gripped the tent’s violently shaking poles.
But by morning the winds would die down and we went to work. Jason installed time-lapse cameras to track the speed of the glacier’s sliding snout; I submerged electronic sensors in its outgoing torrent of meltwater to monitor how much was flowing off to the sea. We were studying these things to help answer a burning scientific question that should worry us all. Chapter 4 showed that we are facing decimeters of sea-level rise by century’s end. Many scientists wonder if even these estimates might be too low. Could climate warming cause the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets to accelerate their dumpage of ice and water into the sea, thus cranking up its rise even faster than is happening already? Could the world’s oceans go even higher, say a couple of meters by the end of this century?
The short answer is maybe. The geological record tells us sea levels are certainly capable of responding quickly to shrinking glaciers. And over the long haul—meaning several thousands of years—it looks like the Greenland Ice Sheet is in trouble and could well disappear completely.500 Glaciers and ice sheets are nourished on their tops by snow. They are removed at their margins by melting and—if they float out into an ocean or lake—by calving off icebergs into the water. When nourishment exceeds removal, glaciers grow, storing water up on land, so sea level falls. When removal exceeds nourishment, glaciers retreat and their stored water returns to the ocean. In this way sea levels have danced in a tight waltz with glaciers, falling and rising anywhere from about 130 meters lower to 4-6 meters higher than today over the past few ice ages. Other things—especially thermal expansion of ocean water as it warms—also drive sea level, but the waxing and waning of land ice is a huge driver.
As the last ice age unraveled, sea levels commonly rose 1 meter per century, and sometimes as fast as 4 meters per century during intervals of very rapid glacier melting.501 Looking forward, if average air temperatures over Greenland rise by another +3°C or so, its huge ice sheet, too, must eventually disappear. Depending on how hot we allow the greenhouse effect to become, this will take anywhere from one thousand to several thousand years, raising global average sea level by another 7 meters or so.
Based on the emissions scenarios currently being bandied about by policy makers, the temperature threshold to begin this process will indeed be crossed in this century, and the long, slow decline of Greenland’s ice sheet will begin.502 It is already something of a stubborn relic of the last ice age; if it magically disappeared off the island tomorrow, it’s doubtful this ice sheet could grow back.503 One thousand years from now, eighteen of the twenty-seven megacities of 2025 listed in Chapter 2 will lie partially or wholly beneath ocean water that might once have been blue ice in Greenland.504
But over the shorter term, meaning between now and the next century or two, the scary genie of Greenland and Antarctica isn’t from their ice sheets melting per se (indeed, it will never become warm enough at the South Pole for widespread melting to occur there) but from their giant frozen rumbling ribbons of ice that slide over hundreds of miles of land to dump icebergs into the sea. Already, there are many such ice streams in Antarctica and Greenland moving tens of meters to more than ten thousand meters per year. They empty out the deep frozen hearts of these ice sheets, where temperatures are so cold the surface never melts at all.
Of grave concern is collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. This vast area is like a miniature continent of ice towering out of the ocean, much of it frozen to bedrock lying below sea level. If it became unstuck, a great many Antarctic glaciers would start lumbering toward the water, eventually raising average global sea level by around five meters. There is geological evidence that this has happened before,505 and if it happens again it would hit the United States especially hard. For various reasons a rise in global average sea level does not translate to the same increase everywhere—water will rise by more than the average amount in some places and less than the average in others.506 Such a collapse would produce above-average inundation of the Gulf Coast and eastern seaboard, putting Miami, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and much of the Gulf Coast underwater. When it comes to climate genies, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is an ugly-looking lamp.
Frankly, we don’t understand the physics of sliding glaciers and ice sheet collapses well enough yet to model the futures of Greenland and Antarctica with confidence. Many things affect the speed and dynamics of that long slide that are hard to measure or see. They include the interplay between the sliding ice and its bed, the heat and lubrication added by meltwater percolating to the bed from the surface, the importance of buttressing ice shelves (which help dam ice up on the land), the ocean water temperature at the ice edge, and others.507 Computer models and field studies—like the one Jason and I were conducting in Greenland—are in their infancy. Scientists are still discovering new things and debating what may or may not be important. This is why the likelihood of accelerated sea-level rise was kept out of the last IPCC assessment, and may be kept out of the next one as well. Might the ice sheets start slipping faster, with higher sea levels right behind? Perhaps—but without well-constrained models, we don’t yet know how likely that is.
Genie in the Ground
Digging into a permafrost landscape usually goes something like this: After cutting through a thick living mat of vegetation, the spade turns over a dark, organic-rich soil, almost like the mulch that one buys to spread in a garden. Usually there are bits and pieces of old dead plants poking out of it. Then, anywhere from several to tens of inches down, the blade goes chunk and will bite no farther. But it’s not a stone. At the bottom of the hole, there is just more of the same organic-rich goop but it is frozen hard as cement, often with a little black ice peeking through. Going any deeper is a major job, requiring a big drill and lots of manpower.
Why on Earth would anybody go all the way to the Arctic to drill holes into frozen black muck? The reason is organic carbon, and we now know that frozen northern soils hold more of it than any other landscape on Earth. In fact, the more we study these soils the more carbon we find. As of 2010 the latest estimate is 1,672 billion tons (gigatons) of pure organic carbon frozen in the ground.508 That’s roughly half of the world’s total soil carbon crammed into just 12% of its land area.
The reason there’s so much carbon there is because this is a place too cold and damp for living things to fully rot away when they die. Live plants draw down fresh carbon from the atmosphere and store it in their tissues. When they die, decomposing microbes chow down, pumping the carbon back to the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2) or methane (CH4) greenhouse gases. But while plants and trees can still grow in cold places, even on top of permafrost, the microbes are hard pressed to finish off their remains because their metabolisms are strongly temperature-dependent (just as stored food decomposes more slowly in a refrigerator than at room temperature). Very often a mulch-like layer of peat will accumulate, building up the ground elevation over time as successive generations of plants root into the semirotted remains of their ancestors. Some decomposition continues underground, but once permafrost sets in, even that halts, and the stuff becomes cryogenically preserved. Since the end of the last ice age, this excess of plant production over plant decomposition has slowly accumulated one of the biggest stockpiles of organic carbon on Earth.
To put that earlier 1,672 gigatons (Gt) of carbon estimate into greater perspective, all of the world’s living plants hold about 650 Gt. The atmosphere now holds about 730 Gt of carbon, up from 360 Gt during the last ice age and 560 Gt before industrialization. The world’s remaining proven reserves of conventional oil hold about 145 Gt of carbon and coal about 632 Gt. Each year we release around 6.5 Gt of carbon from burning fossil fuels and making cement. The total target reduction for “Annex 1” (developed world) signatory countries to the Kyoto Protocol was 0.2 Gt per year.
Put bluntly, there is an absolutely gigantic pile of carbon-rich organic material just sitting up there in a freezer locker, lying at or very near the surface of the ground. The big question is, what will happen to that carbon as it thaws out? Will it stay put, perhaps even offsetting the greenhouse effect thanks to faster-growing plants, thus storing more carbon even faster than before? Or will the microbes wake up and chow down, feasting on thousands of years of accumulated compost and farting voluminous quantities of methane and carbon dioxide back into the air? I’m not suggesting that sixteen hundred gigatons of deeply frozen soil carbon could all be returned to the atmosphere at once, but even 5% or 10% of it would be enormous.
This possibility is another one of those climate genies that we are only just beginning to assess. Compared with the previous two, relatively little work has been done on it. Most permafrost research has traditionally focused on engineering, i.e., how to build structures without thawing the ground, thus slumping it and destroying what was built. Hardly anyone cared much about permafrost carbon until recently.
We don’t know how quickly or deeply permafrost will thaw or how quickly and deeply the microbes will get to work. The microbes themselves generate heat, and we’re not sure how much this will further enhance the permafrost thawing process. The net outcome—net carbon storage versus net carbon release—hinges on a small difference between two far larger and opposed numbers (i.e., the rates of plant primary production versus microbial decomposition). Both numbers are difficult to measure and have large uncertainties associated with them.
Much also depends on hydrology. The millions of lakes sprinkled across permafrost landscapes are themselves heavy greenhouse gas emitters and even bubble forth with pure methane, so their fate, too, is intimately tied to our climate future. Also, if thawed permafrost soils become dry and aerated (as might be expected if deep permafrost goes away), then microbes will release stored carbon in the form of carbon dioxide. If soils stay wet (as might be expected from climate model predictions of increased northern precipitation), then microbes will release it as methane, which is twenty-five times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Given all these uncertainties, our current generation of computer models contain significant knowledge gaps. I’d wager we have twenty years’ work ahead of us before a solid scientific consensus can be reached on what will happen to this big mess of carbon as it defrosts.509
We do know this very same landscape switched on to become a major source of greenhouse gas once before—at the end of the last ice age, when northern peatlands first began to form. About 11,700 years ago, as temperatures rose at the end of the Younger Dryas cold shudder, a threshold was crossed, plants began growing, and peatlands sprang up all around the Arctic, pumping out enormous volumes of methane.510 We also know, from a single study in Sweden, that rising air temperatures penetrate permafrost soils more quickly and deeply than we thought. From two other studies in West Siberia, we know that although thawed soils ooze up to six times more dissolved carbon into rivers and lakes than frozen soils, they also store carbon faster—or at least they did for the past 2,000 years. This is at odds with a different study in Alaska, which suggests that faster-growing plants will not be able to outpace the faster-decomposing microbes once the permafrost disappears. Finally, we know some simple math: If even 2% of this frozen carbon stock somehow returns to the atmosphere between now and 2050, it will cancel out the Kyoto Protocol Annex 1 target reductions more than four times over. Like the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, this is one genie with global repercussions that we should all hope stays asleep.
Might any of the four global forces of demography, natural resource pressure, globalization, and climate change screech to a halt between now and 2050, thus ruining all of our best projections?
Three of these have tremendous inertia. Demographic trends are a slow-moving ship, taking a generation—fifteen to twenty years—before even major course corrections will be felt. Population momentum ensures that our fastest-growing countries will keep growing for decades, even if their fertility rates fall to 2.1 tomorrow (replacement level), because their age structures are so youthful.511 And with a projected population increase to around 9.2 billion by 2050—especially a modernized, urban, consumptive one—it’s hard to envision how our demand for water, energy, and minerals will decrease from what it is today, even with great strides in conservation and recycling. Greenhouse physics dictates that we are locked in to at least some climate change and higher global sea level no matter what; the big uncertainties are how far we will allow greenhouse loading to go, what the impacts on global rainfall patterns and hurricanes will be, and lurking climate genies.
That leaves globalization. In today’s world of Walmart and iPhones, it’s easy to take our continued economic integration for granted. But as discussed in Chapter 1, the current globalization megatrend did not simply happen by itself. It was set into motion by the United States and Britain very deliberately, with a long string of new policies dating to the Bretton Woods summit in 1944. While the Internet and other information technology have enhanced globalization, they did not create it. Global social and information networks surely seem here to stay, but unlike population momentum or greenhouse gas physics, there is no natural law commanding that current policies favoring our global economic integration must continue.
History tells us of past balloons of economic integration and technological advance followed by puncture. In 221 B.C. the Qin armies first unified northeastern China out of a bedlam of warring fiefdoms. Successive Han, Sui, T’ang, Yuan, and Ming dynasties then expanded the world’s biggest trade empire into central and southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean. By the fifteenth century, China had trade outposts in Africa and led the world in medicine, printing, explosives, banking, and centralized government. But then, its rulers lost interest in a global empire. They began a series of fateful political decisions that shut down China’s overseas trade while discouraging scientific advances at home. Its nascent industrialization cut short, China stood frozen in time, and the much smaller European states commenced to take over the world.
Europe wasted little time ramping up the next round of globalization. By the 1600s colonialist governments were working hand in hand with private corporations like the Dutch and British East India companies—the equivalent of today’s multinational corporations—setting up remote trading posts and shipping routes. Merchant capitalism flourished, fueled by furs, timber, gold, spices, and coal imported from overseas. Guided by multinational banks, by the 1870s goods and capital were flowing across national borders as freely as they do today. Steamships, the telegraph, and railroads were opening up the world just as standardized shipping containers, jet aircraft, and the Internet would do again a century later. Many countries decided to peg their paper currencies to a gold standard, creating fluid international currency markets and huge flows of cross-border capital. The British pound became the dominant circulating world currency much as the U.S. dollar is now. Remarkably, by 1913 the industrialized national economies were enjoying even greater levels of foreign investment than today.512 It was a golden age of economic globalization.
It unraveled surprisingly fast. The June 28, 1914, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo initiated a chain of events setting off a world war, the suspension of gold-backed currencies, and a near-total collapse in global investment and trade. Even after hostilities ended, former trading partners remained bitterly divided, a collection of protectionist states heaping tariffs upon one another. Only after a second world war, followed by the United States and Britain’s deliberate reboot of the global economic order at Bretton Woods, did things start to recover. It took sixty years for merchandise exports to regain the levels of 1914.513 The rapidity of this collapse proves that unlike the three other global forces, it is possible for globalization to come to a fast halt. It is also a sobering reminder that national leaders can, on rare occasions, take their countries to war with trade partners even if it means gutting their own economies in the process.
Besides another world war, at least two things could plausibly weaken or halt the global economic integration of today. The first is obvious: Central governments could decide to abandon proglobalization policies in favor of a return to economic protectionism. A variant of this would be a shift from “globalization” to “regionalization,” with separate economic blocs emerging in North America, Europe, and East Asia.514 Some economists have argued that the 2008-09 global financial crisis will mark the end of an era for twentieth-century globalization and neoliberal policies. It is even conceivable that well-meaning carbon-reduction policies, by penalizing emissions by different amounts in different countries, could trigger tariff wars if countries respond by imposing border taxes to recoup their losses.515
A second possibility is the rising cost of oil. Global trade is fueled by cheap energy, and container ships and long-haul cargo trucks cannot readily be electrified like passenger cars as described in Chapter 3. And as environmental damages, too, are increasingly priced into production costs in manufacturing countries like China, the apparent profit margin of a global versus local trade network will narrow.
A deglobalized world with extremely high energy prices might be an oddly familiar one, with local farmers feeding compact walking cities, a return to domestic manufacturing, and airplane travel afforded only by rich elites. One could even imagine a reversal of the urbanization trend as farming returns to being a labor-intensive industry, no longer propped by cheap hydrocarbon for fuel, fertilizers, and pesticides. Overseas tourism would fade, perhaps to be replaced by virtual experiences or even uninterest and disengagement from foreign affairs.
Political genies are even harder to anticipate than permafrost genies. In my mind’s eye I imagine an even more integrated world in 2050 than 2010. But no one really knows if our globalization megatrend will accelerate, slow, or reverse over the next forty years. Of the four global forces, this one is the hardest to foresee.
Dragon Swallows Bear
At the smaller, more regional scale, the future of the Russian Far East is similarly murky.
This region is Russia’s gateway to eastern Asia. By any measure it is vast, resource-laden, and practically empty of people. It covers some 6.2 million square kilometers, about two-thirds the size of the United States and triple the area of Britain, France, and Germany combined. It is rich in oil and natural gas (especially Sakhalin Island and the Sea of Okhotsk), minerals, fish, timber, and a surprising amount of farmland. It holds one-third of Russia’s landmass but, with just 6.6 million people and falling, less than 5% of its population. Averaging barely one person per square kilometer, the Russian Far East has one of the lowest population densities on Earth.
Except for a tiny 20-kilometer border with North Korea, its main southern neighbor, following a 3,000-kilometer border along the Amur River, is the People’s Republic of China. Its three bordering provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning hold more than 100 million people. On the Chinese side of the Amur, population densities average fifteen to thirty times higher than on the Russian side. The city of Harbin alone contains more people than the entire Russian Far East.
This stark contrast does not go unnoticed by Russians. They have long feared the “yellow peril,” a perception that millions of Chinese are poised to flood across the border and swallow up this region. The fear has fomented an intense xenophobia toward Chinese immigrants, something Russian politicians and media often stoke by asserting that millions are illegally entering the country. One individual even suggested that forty million Chinese would sneak into Russia by the year 2020.516
Most migration experts estimate illegal Chinese immigration to be in the hundreds of thousands, not millions. Nor do Russians let their fearmongering get in the way of putting undocumented Chinese migrants to work, for example in the farm fields of the Amur Oblast breadbasket.517 However, the fact remains that this “yellow peril” fear is deeply ingrained in the Russian psyche, something that is perhaps unsurprising when one considers the history of this region.
Much of what is now the Russian Far East actually belonged to China until 1860. Ethnic Russians began arriving in significant numbers only in the 1930s, after Soviet planners closed the border and set about turning the region into a deeply subsidized supplier of raw materials for the centralized Soviet economy and a protective military fortress to the outside world. The Soviet arms buildup there deeply troubled China, Japan, and South Korea. Tensions with China scraped bottom in the 1960s with a series of border skirmishes, including a bloody clash for Damansky Island on the Ussuri River, in 1969.518
Attempts to link the economies of European Russia with Asian Russia never made much sense. The only real transportation link between them was (and is) the Trans-Siberian Railroad, with 9,300 kilometers separating Vladivostok from Moscow. By the 1980s the Soviet Union was ready to abandon the fortress resource colony model for the more sensible idea of opening up the Russian Far East to Asian Pacific trade. Mikhail Gorbachev gave a famous speech in Vladivostok in 1986 that called for the region’s deep subsidies from Moscow to be scrapped and Russia’s eastern flank opened up. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, those subsidies did indeed go away. So also did much of the military defense spending that supported up to 40% of the jobs in this region. The place descended into deep economic malaise and people began to leave.
At its peak population in 1991, the Russian Far East contained a hair over eight million people. Today its population is 20% smaller and will likely shrink further. More detached than ever from distant European Russia, this region struggles to reconcile its dire and obvious need to glom economically on to China, South Korea, and Japan with its deep xenophobic fear of being swallowed up by China. It is the poorest, least healthy, most economically strapped region in all of Russia. Despite its oil and gas riches, electricity is spotty and expensive. A corrupt bureaucracy and perverse tax system dissuade foreign investment. Its resource-hungry neighbors China, Japan, and South Korea, while more than happy to buy raw materials from the region, hesitate to pour badly needed capital into it. Repeated plans from Moscow to develop and improve the region’s quality of life have failed. However, Russia is Heilongjiang’s largest trading partner, and as of 2008 the province had concluded more than two thousand collaborative projects there worth about USD $2.9 billion. Trade between China and Russia’s Primorsky Territory was over USD $4.1 billion in 2009.519
What does the future hold for the Russian Far East? Politically, the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is better than it has ever been; and all of the old border disputes are now settled (Damansky Island is now Zhenbao Island). Even the huge demographic contrast does not predicate a territorial takeover, a political act. But over the long run, given its geographic remoteness and thinning economic ties to the west, the pressures for the Russian Far East to integrate with eastern Asia are obvious. Its 3,000-kilometer border with China is roughly triple its physical distance from Moscow. This region has a huge natural resource base, shrinking labor pool, and dire need for capital investment. Neighboring China has a huge resource demand, bottomless labor pool, and is well on track to become the world’s biggest economy in 2050. Somehow, over the long run, these two things must converge.
A NAFTA-like free economic zone in this part of the world seems the most obvious outcome. Indeed, there are plenty of signs that the Russian government strongly desires this direction, for example, through consistently strengthening its ties with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) trade bloc including regular ASEAN-Russia summits since 2005, and a pending petition for membership in the East Asia Summit. In 2012 Russia will host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok. However the far-out possibility of military seizure or outright sale—as Russia did long ago with nearby Alaska—cannot be ruled out. Just as I once learned in school about the U.S. Alaska Purchase of 1867, perhaps one day schoolchildren in Beijing and Moscow will be reading about the Yuandong Purchase of 2044. If either of these things happens, the economic opening of the Russian Far East, spurred by the demand of Asian markets for its abundant natural resources, would not be far behind.
Demographic models tell us that billions of new people are coming around the hot, dry southern latitudes of our planet, places water-stressed today that will be even more stressed in the future. With a few notable exceptions the water-rich North, in contrast, is expected to become even wetter. Given this obvious mismatch, might northern countries one day sell their water to southern ones?
The idea is not crazy. International bulk water sales have been popping up elsewhere, for example from Lesotho to South Africa and from Turkey to Israel. Indeed, Turkey built a $150-million water export facility at the mouth of the Manavgat River to sell water to regional buyers by tanker.520 A French company is considering an underground canal to send Rhône River water from France to Spain.
The most ambitious example of all is in China, where a massive, decades-long reengineering of its river networks to shunt water from its wet south to the parched north is now under way. This “South-to-North Water Diversion” megaproject will link together four major drainage basins and build three long canals running through the eastern, central, and western parts of the country. Its costs will include at least USD $62 billion—more than three times the cost of China’s Three Gorges Dam—the relocation of three hundred thousand people, and many negative environmental impacts. When finished, the amount of water artificially transferred from south to north each year will total more than half of all water consumption in California.521
Might another megaproject emerge to redirect water from north to south, say from Canada to the United States, or from Russia to the dry steppes of central Asia? There are certainly some precedents, and not just the one going on now in China. The last century saw the construction of many major engineering projects in the Soviet Union and North America, including two huge schemes to transfer water from one drainage basin to another: Canada’s James Bay Project for hydropower, and California’s State Water Project, a massive system of canals, reservoirs, and pumping stations to divert water from the northern to southern ends of the state.
Most audacious of all were two megaprojects designed in the 1960s but never built. Both proposed the massive use of dams, canals, and pumping stations to replumb the hydrology of the North American continent and shunt its water from north to south. They were the North American Water and Power Alliance (NAWAPA), proposed by the Ralph M. Parsons engineering company in Pasadena, California (now Parsons Corporation); and the Great Recycling and Northern Development (GRAND) Canal, proposed by a Canadian engineer named Tom Kierans.
NAWAPA was colossal in scale. It proposed redirecting north-flowing rivers headed to Alaska and northern Canada into the Rocky Mountain Trench—thus forming a giant inland sea—then pumping the water south through connections linking all of the major drainage basins of western North America and the Great Lakes. Flows in the Yukon, Peace, and other distant northern rivers could end up in the Great Lakes, California, or Mexico.
NAWAPA’s price tag and ecological damages were immense. Reviled by environmental groups and most Canadians, and with an estimated cost of $100 to $300 billion in 1960s dollars,522 this grandiose plan did better at attracting media attention than financial backing. But NAWAPA firmly planted the idea of massive north-south water transfers in the minds of generations of engineers and politicians. A half-century later, it continues to inspire revulsion, awe, and smaller spin-off project concepts.
The second immense north-south water scheme of the 1960s, the GRAND Canal, continues to have its advocates today. Its idea is to build a dike across James Bay (the large cove at the southern end of Hudson Bay, see map on p. ix), thus retaining runoff from this lowland’s many north-flowing rivers prior to their entering the ocean. The enclosed part of James Bay would become a giant freshwater lake, and its water then pumped back south again toward Lake Huron.
The GRAND Canal plan’s inventor, Tom Kierans, now in his nineties, remains its tireless proponent. He points out that the only place the project would deprive of water is Hudson Bay, a brackish sea overwhelmed by jellyfish. Every now and then the plan is resurrected by Canadian politicians.523 But with a current estimated cost of USD $175 billion—not to mention many environmental impacts and a local climate change over the region524—its revival seems distant, at least for now.
Smaller projects in the same area, like the very recently proposed “Northern Waters Complex” concept525 (see maps on pp. viii-xi), could realistically win support sooner. This particular plan is to impound seasonal floodwater from three north-flowing rivers, temporarily inundating about eleven hundred square kilometers of land before pumping it south again. According to its proponents, the Northern Waters Complex would cost only USD $15 billion, could be finished by 2022, and would generate $2 billion annually in hydropower and perhaps another $20 billion annually in water sales. With economic incentives like these, the great sucking sound from the United States could start sounding better to many Canadians.
Giant water projects cause significant environmental damage and are no longer popular in either the United States or Canada. In fact, the American trend today is to remove dams, not build them. But smaller-scale water exports can happen with pipelines, tanker ships, and bottling plants. The Great Lakes, fronted and shared by both countries, can be replenished at one end and decanted from another, for example at the Chicago Diversion. In his book The Great Lakes Water Wars, author Peter Annin describes how Great Lakes governors and premiers—fearing the specter of long, greedy straws coming at them from the American Southwest—are engaged in a flurry of cooperative lawmaking, hoping to barricade themselves against future water diversions out of the region.
An open question—one feared by many environmentalists—is whether Canada could in fact become obligated to sell bulk water to the United States and Mexico under NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. Unlike oil, the much more controversial issue of water was deliberately left unaddressed during the writing and ratification of this treaty. Legal scholars point out that if even one province, say Quebec, were to start selling bulk water to the United States, it could establish legal precedent, thus committing Canadian water providers to sell to U.S. or Mexican customers as well as their own. In such a world, North America would grow accustomed to buying not only oil, but also water, from its northernmost country.
Most Canadians oppose the idea of becoming water purveyors to the United States, although their provincial governments are generally more open to the idea. Alongside environmental concerns, Canada suffers water shortages of its own. A water-rich country on paper, most of its uncommitted surplus lies in the far north, flowing over thinly populated permafrost to the Arctic Ocean or Hudson Bay. The south-central prairies are prone to drought, with spotty rainfall and heavy reliance on a few long, oversubscribed rivers fed by distant melting snow and glaciers. If any future megaprojects arise to divert water from northern Canada to the United States, a cut will likely go to southern Canada.
One place where we could well see the resurrection of a massive twentieth-century water-transfer idea by 2050 is in Russia. Siberia’s mighty rivers, flowing untouched to the Arctic Ocean, have long been contemplated as a potential water source for the dry steppes and deserts of central Asia. In the 1870s, tsarist engineers noted the favorable, if long, topographic gateway linking wet western Siberia with the Aral-Caspian lowland, in what is now Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. By the 1940s the Soviet engineer M. M. Davydov had drawn up a grand plan for north-south water transfers out of western Siberia, complete with canals, pumping stations, and the creation of a giant inland lake that would have inundated the same area that is plastered in oil and gas wells today.
From the late 1960s to the early 1980s the USSR studied, revised, and finalized a scaled-down version of Davydov’s plan. The idea was to tap Siberia’s mighty Ob’, Irtysh, and Yenisei rivers using a 2,544-kilometer-long canal to irrigate cotton fields around the Aral Sea (see map on page xii). Diversion of the Aral’s feeder rivers was already careening the region toward the desiccated disaster it is today. By 1985 the canal’s route had been surveyed and the first work crews arrived in Siberia to commence the “project of the century,” known by then as “Sibaral” (short for Siberia to Aral Sea Canal).526 But then, the new Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, abruptly halted the project in 1986, citing a need for further study of Sibaral’s environmental and economic impacts. Nothing further happened and when the Soviet Union collapsed, the project, after decades of planning, was abandoned.
Today, Sibaral continues to rear up from the grave with surprising regularity. The megaproject is more politically awkward than before because six sovereign countries—Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan—are now involved instead of one. However, all five former Soviet republics want Sibaral to happen and continue to clamor for it.
Support for this in Russia is mixed. In 2002 Moscow’s mayor, Yuri Luzhkov, wrote a letter to President Vladimir Putin urging the plan’s revival, citing destabilization of Central Asia over water shortages and the specter of refugees pouring across the Russian border. Russia’s deputy minister of natural resources also wrote support for the plan.527 By 2004 Luzhkov was stumping the project in Kazakhstan; and the director of Soyuzvodproject, a government water agency, said they were assembling archived project materials from more than three hundred institutes in order to revisit and revise the old plans. Most Russian scientists are opposed to Sibaral but some note that reducing river runoff to the Arctic Ocean could slightly mitigate the anticipated weakening of the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation described earlier in this chapter.528 Modeling studies are needed to confirm or disprove this hypothesis, but if correct, Sibaral could conceivably win the support of environmental groups worried more about global climate change than ecological damages in Siberia.
It remains to be seen if China’s ongoing South-to-North Water Diversion will rekindle humanity’s past passion for massive water projects. Given the enormous obstacles—financial, environmental, and political—I am skeptical that any of these north-to-south water transfer megaprojects will materialize by 2050. But of the ones described here, Sibaral is the most developed. Central Asia is getting very, very dry, and its population is growing. Unlike the North American schemes, something about this project refuses to die. Despite serious likely environmental damages, it really could happen one day.
Regardless of whatever water engineering schemes are or are not undertaken by 2050, one thing remains clear. When it comes to water, the NORCs will be the envy of the world.