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The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little. -Thomas Merton
The year is 2050, and the world is a very different place than it was fifty years ago.
A couple of decades into the new century, both citizens and leaders recognized that the natural world of unmanaged forests, other ecosystems, and diverse species is not one amenity among others, to be respected only when budget surpluses allow, but is the very playing field on which our economies and livelihoods unfold. It became clear that our economic success, and in some cases our survival, depend on the health of the natural world.
No longer could our economies set at zero the dollar value of nature's ability to cleanse wastes from the air, soil, and water. No longer could we consume trees, fish, and agricultural lands without regard for the pace of their regeneration. No longer could we mine petroleum and minerals without planning for future substitutes.
No longer could we take over complex ecosystems-forests, grasslands, oceans, lakes, rivers-as if our meager knowledge of parts of them could substitute for the vast unknown complexity of their natural functioning. We lost our surprise when a single predator or exotic plant introduced into an ecosystem wiped out all other species or blanketed the landscape. We realized that we had to back off and let ecosystems carry on under their own rules. We also realized that because we were altering the very chemistry of the air around us, almost nowhere on Earth was really untouched and had the option of carrying on under its own rules.
The crucial implication was this: the human species had to reduce its overall imprint on the natural world, pulling back from the contaminated air and waters, the simplified forests and grasslands. The world understood that we could not continue to grow in our human numbers, our material wealth, or our wastes if we were to lessen our impact. Yet accomplishing this was easier than anyone had predicted in the twentieth century.
On the population side-even with poor health, little education, and low incomes-most people in the world wanted fewer children than they were having in 2000. Better health, more education, and more reliable incomes, especially for women, brought fertility even lower and slowed global population growth to zero. In the fifty years after 2000, it became evident that human beings simply did not want to have so many children that populations would grow indefinitely. Improving people's lives so that they had a measure of mastery over them brought population stability, where exhortations and pleas to consider the environment and future generations had failed.
A parallel revolution unfolded on the material side of the ledger. Soon after the turn of the twenty-first century, it became clear that the reservoir of industrial innovation was vastly more powerful than had appeared from the resistance of business leaders to environmental problems facing the world in 2000. It became obvious, in fact, that in business, manufacturing, and industry literally lay the salvation of the world. Only those had the power, through technology, to bring about the revolution in resource use and waste production required for the world's people to have decent lives while reducing their imprint on the natural world.
Unfortunately, it took a disaster to spark the revolution in thinking about the environment.
In the years 2010 and 2011, a sudden acceleration of global warming and the natural variability of the climate combined to produce a year with no winter in the United States. In the summer, sixty days exceeded 90 degrees throughout most of the country, and Washington, D.C., saw thirty days with temperatures over 100 degrees-all while Congress was in session. Serious droughts occurred in the midwestern and western United States, in northeastern Brazil, and elsewhere. The U.S. wheat crop was small, and the corn crop failed completely. The Mississippi River dried up. The Colorado River had dwindled to a trickle years before, despite policies designed to maintain some flow to Mexico.
Four moderate-sized hurricanes came ashore along the southeastern and Gulf coasts of the United States. One struck Wilmington, North Carolina; another hit Jacksonville, Florida; Miami took a blow; and one, repeating the path of the 1969 storm Camille, struck the rapidly growing area around Bay Saint Louis, Mississippi. These storms took advantage of the higher sea level to send surges farther inland than had previous storms. This greater reach, combined with accurate aim at populous areas, caused many deaths and extensive damage to regions previously free from direct flooding by hurricanes. Similar storms plagued southern Japan and coastal China, as well as the west coast of Mexico and Darwin, Australia.
These dramatic events galvanized the United States into action. The federal government instituted a phased tax on all fossil fuels according to carbon content, thereby reflecting in the price of petroleum and coal some of the costs to the environment and the economy of global warming. With higher fossil-fuel prices, energy alternatives such as photovoltaics, wind power, and other sources became ever more economical. Research into solar-produced hydrogen for use in fuel cells, superefficient engines, vehicles, and other machines led to those renewable sources becoming economical as well. Use of fossil fuel plummeted, and efficient and environmentally benign alternatives replaced it.
U.S. businesses, whose traditional resistance to the carbon tax was overcome by the severity and clarity of the crisis, responded with ingenuity, inventiveness, and energy. They surpassed all expectations of how much and how fast the economy could convert from fossil-fuel-based to renewables-based fuel in efficient machinery. Whether or not they were environmentalists, whether or not they believed in the primacy of human ingenuity or the inviolability of nature, Americans used less energy. American industry, regardless of its beliefs, retooled in response to altered incentives and made it possible for Americans to "do the right thing."
Success with energy, and the link of energy to materials, led to a new, comprehensive materials policy. The government expanded its fossil-fuel tax to include natural resources, so that products made in the United States were either durable, reusable, or eventually composted.
Revenues from the carbon tax made it possible to reduce payroll, income, and capital-gains taxes. This tax shift, long proposed by environmental groups and progressive economists, proved to rejuvenate rather than check the national economy, as had been feared by some economists and businesspeople. Combined with other market-based strategies such as tradable permits in carbon emissions, the carbon tax made it possible for the United States to reduce its carbon emissions dramatically.
In fact, in 2015 the U.S. government announced its commitment to reducing carbon emissions by 3 percent a year until it reached a level 65 percent below the 1990 value. In doing so, the country revitalized international negotiations on global climate change, stalled since the turn of the century over the reluctance of developing countries to take action when the industrialized world, originator of most of the climate problem, held back.
As the largest economy and the most powerful nation in the world, the United States had an enormous influence on the rest of the globe. As the U.S. economic success became apparent and the international negotiations provided a forum for exchange of experience and policy alternatives, other countries (several of which had experimented with tax shifts in a desultory and incomplete fashion) followed the U.S. lead. They found that indeed such shifts provided the incentives needed to reduce carbon emissions at minimum cost. Also, trade negotiations began to include the notion that fair trade requires countries to have carbon taxes or other equivalent policies in place.
A problem that could not be addressed by these measures was an unavoidable commitment to future climate change, driven by the behavior of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide and some other greenhouse gases, once emitted, remain in the air for a century or more, continually trapping heat. The emission reductions therefore did nothing to reduce the climate change already built into the climate system, nor to slow the additional warming that resulted from emissions during the decades-long phasedown of fossil-fuel use. Countries had to expect that the shorter, warmer winters, hot summers, damaging storm surges, and other climate-change impacts would continue and in fact worsen until they stabilized near the end of the twenty-first century. By 2050 a vigorous technological effort to devise means of removing the offending gases from the air had not produced any useful systems, so it was necessary for countries to take adaptive steps, some quite expensive, to live agreeably in the hotter, higher-sea-level world.
The most obvious adaptation tested in developed countries was moving homes and valuable structures out of river floodplains and away from exposed coastal areas. Such policies met with great resistance from residents and developers, who continued to maintain that the storms occurred only once every hundred or five hundred years and hence were a tolerable risk. Considerable experimentation was therefore required. The construction of new towns, and offers to move families on favorable economic terms, produced a few takers. Little more transpired, however, until another damaging storm occurred. Then government officials realized that canceling all of the insurance, mortgage, and other programs that subsidized living in hazardous places would be effective and a bit more acceptable-in part because most people did not recognize that they were being subsidized.
The Netherlands, in a farsighted action almost a century ago, had raised its dikes during reconstruction after a major storm. The Dutch were therefore somewhat protected against sea-level rise, but they found that the higher water caused more infiltration of saltwater through and under the dikes, forcing the abandonment of some farm areas. This problem of saltwater intrusion prevented several low-lying island nations from attempting to build dikes against the rising sea.
Tropical countries experienced less temperature increase than countries in other latitudes. But their rain fell in larger storms and was concentrated in different seasons than formerly. These shifts required modification of long-established agricultural practices, with glitches in food production-and consequent hunger-during the adjustment period.
This persistence of climate change and its damage while emission reductions were in progress had a parallel in the population arena. Population "momentum" means that populations continue to grow for some time after reaching replacement-level fertility, as disproportionately large age groups of young people, the legacy of past high fertility, move into their childbearing years. These large childbearing generations, even if they average two-child families, mean that the population as a whole experiences more births than deaths and populations continue to grow. Even with this momentum, the world succeeded in the fifty years after the turn of the twenty-first century in bringing about the social conditions that made slowing-and halting-global population growth possible.
The world's population in 2050, at 8 billion people, is healthier, better educated, and enjoys more equity between races, sexes, and classes than at any time in history. Incomes are not as high everywhere as analysts fifty years ago thought necessary for successful economies. But they supply an adequate diet, decent housing, clean water, and modest transportation for the world's 6 billion "middle-class," people in the middle of the global economic scale. Families average two children-the "replacement level" required to achieve population stability-and population growth is essentially zero.
Another billion people live in wealthy countries, where material conditions are generous, though less wasteful than at the turn of the twenty-first century. The populations of these countries are shrinking in size by an average of nearly 1 percent annually, as fertility is well below two children per family.
The world's other billion people live in countries still dominated by material deprivation. They are expected to experience positive population growth for another few decades, as families are still larger than two children, but at increasingly slower rates as health, education, women's status, and incomes continue to improve. These countries started so far behind the others in the social revolution that brings fertility and population growth down that they still have some years to go before they see real equity and zero growth.
On average, the world's population of 8 billion people neither grows nor shrinks, but is stable.
The world's most populous country in 2050 is India, with 1.2 billion people. But this giant has several hundred million fewer people than expected in projections made in 2000. Fertility reached two children per couple on average some twenty years ahead of expectations and fell below replacement level in about 2020. A new government elected in 2005 absorbed the lessons of Kerala. This very poor Indian state had low fertility before 2000, principally because women there enjoyed much higher status and better health than elsewhere in India. The result was a strong national government commitment-and funding-for girls' education and high-quality reproductive health care for all women, including adolescents, coupled with a countrywide microenterprise program that enabled women to finance small businesses and raise their incomes.
The United Nations held its 2024 population conference in India to highlight the country's achievements. These successes in turn demonstrated the power of the social development agenda set thirty years before at the U.N. International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. India now has a small but significant industry that provides advice and technical assistance to other countries on investing scarce dollars in highly leveraged population and social-development programs.
Material development in China has proceeded continuously, though less rapidly than the government had hoped, in the fifty years since 2000. Social development there looks fine on paper: China's people enjoy educational equity and satisfactory basic health care. Its population reached 1.3 billion in 2005 and then began to decline. In 2050 the country's population is less than 1 billion and still shrinking, by nearly 1 percent a year.
Excerpted from The Crowded Greenhouse by JOHN FIROR JUDITH JACOBSEN Copyright © 2002 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
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|1||One Vision of the Year 2050||1|
|2||The New World of Population Policy||23|
|3||Putting Cairo to Work||52|
|4||U.S. Population Activism in the New Century||80|
|5||A Warming World||102|
|6||International Climate-Change Negotiations||135|
|7||Creating a Stable Atmosphere||165|
|8||Population and Climate Change Together||187|
|Afterward: Dancing in the Crowded Greenhouse||203|