I'm heading to a science fiction convention in a few hours and will be on a few panels where I'll probably wind up talking about the future. Tonight, for instance, I have a panel on the future of artificial intelligence. Why does being a science fiction writer qualify me to talk about the future? It doesn't. All I can do is guess like everyone else. Still, the speculation is fun, and, as an author, it's often rich fuel for future stories. So, this will be the first in a series where I make predictions about how the world is going to change in coming years.
First up: Climate Change!
I admit to being on the fence as to whether or not burning fossil fuels is a significant source of warming. I am not on the fence as to whether or not humans can alter the environment unintentionally, usually with negative consequences. We've helped create deserts with careless farming and grazing practices. Our water management practices have erased countless miles of shoreline, flooded millions of square miles of previously dry land, and turned previously wet places into dry hell holes. (Google the Aral and Salton seas for examples.) Our industrial monoculture farming has destroyed native prairies, and our promiscuous use of fertilizers have created giant dead zones in the ocean where no fish can survive. Where our fertilizers haven't wiped out fish, we've helped mess up the ecosystem by overfishing, and, whether or not the carbon dioxide we put in the atmosphere warms it or not, it is definitely turning the oceans more acidic. Our consumer culture wipes out old growth forests and our fills our oceans with ever growing continents of plastic. To fuel it all, we bulldoze mountains flat, dig up tracts of land large enough to be seen from space, and accept the risk of contamination that goes along with drilling at sea.
I consider myself an environmentalist, and, despite my libertarian leanings, am mostly in favor of governmental practices that protect the environment, like limits on dangerous chemicals going out of smokestacks and tail pipes or tough laws against contaminating ground water.
That said, I'm not in a panic about carbon dioxide even if it does lead to significant global warming. I support things like higher fuel standards and transitioning our power grid away from coal, but for other reasons than fear of runaway warming. Do I think global warming might lead to catastrophes like powerful storms, widespread drought, and rising sea levels? Absolutely.
If you look at history, catastrophes don't seem all that apocalyptic. Consider how many major cities have been wiped by earthquakes, fires, storms, and war. If catastrophes were any real barrier to humans, there wouldn't be a Chicago or a New Orleans, there wouldn't be a San Francisco or an Atlanta. For that matter, people wouldn't live in Europe, since, statistically, it was pretty much depopulated by the plague a few centuries ago.
Of course, people do live in Europe. They also live in Charleston, SC, a city flattened multiple times by a massive earthquake, by hurricanes, and by the Civil War.
What about fears of widespread drought? I suspect there will be long term shifts in weather that will render some areas unsuitable for farming. It certainly happened in the Sahara, for instance. It may be happening in the American southwest even now. West Texas is about as bone dry as it's ever been. Yet, we aren't reading stories about the massive starvation occurring in Texas. Drought doesn't equate to death in a global economy. If food doesn't grow one place, it grows another. If you look at the IPCC maps on projected rainfall due to global warming, you'll find that for every place that is expected to see a decline in rainfalls, there are other areas projected to see an increase. Heat doesn't equal drought. Very hot places are often quite fruitful agriculturally. Buy any produce from Florida lately?
Of course, you won't be buying produce from Florida if the state's underwater thanks to rising seas. And, yes, there's a real possibility of that happening, almost overnight on a geological timescale.
Fortunately, humans don't live on geological timescales. Let's take a wildly unlikely scenario where sea levels rise ten feet in a century. That's going to suck for a lot of people who lose property. But, as a practical level, a century is plenty of time to get out of the way. Rising sea levels likely won't result in any significant loss of life, at least not measured as a percentage of the total population. Humans are pretty experienced with dealing with rising sea levels. Since the end of the last ice age, sea levels have risen by roughly 400 feet. 400 feet! Yet, somehow, humans have managed to survive this massive global flooding. It's true that, in recent centuries, sea levels have been relatively stable and many large cities have grown on our coastlines. Many currently standing buildings may be wiped out. All the evidence shows that we'll shrug, move back, and build again.
What gets rebuilt will likely be stronger and better. It used to be that hurricanes would devastate coastal cities on a frequent basis. As a resident of North Carolina, I can testify that this is a state that regularly gets walloped by big storms. It used to be that a big storm would mean massive property loss and widespread death. But, death tolls have fallen dramatically thanks to improved accuracy of storm tracking. People have learned to get out of the way of killer storms. When storms do wipe out buildings, zoning codes require the structures that replace them to have more secure foundations, better roofs, better protected utilities, etc. If global warming does bring an uptick in powerful storms, it will also bring an uptick in better constructed buildings along coastlines.
Or not. Because one reason we have so many buildings along coastlines is that governments step in to insure buildings that private companies won't. This means tax dollars subsidize construction in environmentally risky areas. The best thing the government could do to keep people from building in the areas where they are most likely to be hit by high winds and storm surges is absolutely nothing. Just stop subsidizing the insurance. Without the insurance, banks aren't going to lend money to build on coastlines. We'll have to move inland, and give our crowded coastlines a bit of breathing space.
Do I believe the world is warming? There is a tremendous amount of data showing that it is. The people who argue there hasn't been any warming in the last fifteen years are kind of missing the big picture. On the flip side, the people who get panicked by the prospect of warming are also missing the big picture. The world will change. It would be impossible to lock our global thermostat on what it is today. The world is probably going to get hotter. It will lead to widespread flooding, widespread drought, widespread population movements.
In other words, more of the same stuff we've been putting up with since we climbed down from the trees and lit our first fire. My prediction: We'll muddle through.