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Earth Man
Photo by Zen Sekizawa/UCLA Magazine

Earth Man

It's 2050, and the northern quarter of the planet is more pleasant, prosperous, stable and powerful than it is today. The south? Not so much. This is the provocative conclusion of UCLA Geography Professor Laurence C. Smith in his new book, The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future. Smith traveled the Northern Rim to discover what the future will look like. Here's what he found.

By Brad A. Greenberg for UCLA Magazine

Q: When you started this journey, what were you looking for?

A: All my previous work is climate science and landscape changes. My intent with the fellowship was to go to the north and document firsthand some of these impacts on people and personalize my science. When I got there, I found that people were happy to share their stories about that, but they were often even more interested to talk about other factors like immigrants or fossil-fuel development or extraction industries or their population increases or their political situation. Climate change was important, but it wasn't the only factor in their lives — often not even the second- or third-most-important factor. That is when I realized my scope would have to be broadened significantly.

Q: Describe the world in 2050.

A: The big, take-home message is that owing to these very clear macro-scale trends in population demographics, in resource demand, in globalization and in climate change, I see mounting stresses and pressures around the more populous lower latitudes of the planet and some easings and attractive forces in the higher-latitude northern countries.

Q: If a human in 2050 was watching the news, how would they see this playing out in their lives?

A: I could imagine someone living in Shanghai or Calcutta in 2050 being drawn to a television ad or hologram ad — whatever the technology is — of "Come to beautiful Ft. McMurray, Alberta. The weather is cool, there is water everywhere, great jobs, a booming economy and lots of space."

Q: Your conclusions are being couched as the upside of climate change, but that doesn't dovetail nicely with your previous research.

A: No, and it's being presented that way because that is what is new and different about it and that is what the media has seized as a fresh angle. But anyone who reads the book as a whole realizes there is nothing to relish or advocate about this.

Q: What do you think will put fear in people who actually read the book?

A: It's not an advocacy book. It's very neutral and balanced. But I think people will be fearful and dismayed by the first half and feel reassured and buoyed by the second half. It's only in the final pages that I remind the reader that the second half represents a very small fraction of the world relative to the first.

Q: What does this mean for those of us in California and other lower latitudes?

A: California, like many other parts of the world, will face increasing water stress. We are already seeing this with Lake Mead at an all-time low. In the developing world, parts of Africa and parts of Asia and the Middle East, the projected population growth and industrialization are going to raise water demand even without worse drought statistics and climate change.

Q: In the book, you invite us to "imagine the Arctic in 2050 as a frigid version of Nevada — an empty landscape dotted with gleaming boom towns." How and why is that going to come about?

A: Human ingenuity and market profits created Las Vegas, and that is what will create these boom towns in the north. The only difference will be that the industry won't be gambling. It will be fossil-fuel extraction. We'll see that in northern Alberta with the development of the tar sands, which are horribly degrading to the environment. And we'll see it in the far north of Russia and North America with growth of natural gas towns and extraction activities.

Q: Green is in, but people seem to have lost their appetite for climate change.

A: It's tragic that what is really settled science is considered a contentious debate. I blame scientists for not adequately explaining the difference between climate and weather to the general public. The much deeper, more pervasive unrelenting increases in global-mean temperature that must accompany more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — there is just no disputing it.

Q: Is the world of 2050 set, or is there something we can do to slow its arrival?

A: It's only partially set. There is still much that can be done to avert the worst projections. And if there is one key action we could take, it would be two words: Resist coal. We are not going to convert to a clean, fully renewable energy by 2050. We just can't. We need to ramp it up as fast as we can, but we are still going to be hooked on fossil fuels for several decades. And we better hope we pile into natural gas and not coal. For a given unit of energy produced, coal pumps out about twice as much CO2 as natural gas.

Q: And population growth and industrialization are on the rise in developing nations.

A: A lot of the story isn't about the emissions that have already happened. It's about the emissions that we are really about to ramp up with the industrialization of China and India. The rising of prosperity in the developing world will increase material consumption much more. Our energy demands are just going to go through the roof.

Q: So this is not a happy story.

A: No. That's why I'm a little dismayed by a lot of the newspaper headlines, especially in Canada, that are [saying], "Yay for Canada."

Q: Does this create perverse incentives for larger countries, like Russia, to produce more fossil fuels?

A: It could. However, Russia better be careful and so, frankly, should Canada, because their agriculture is just as poised to suffer as they are to gain. It would be very shortsighted for Canada or Russia or the northwest United States to rejoice in this or assume that climate change would be good. I would say it's worse than a zero-sum game.

Q: And you met your wife in Finland while on your journey — your current wife, not your wife of 2050.

A: This is my current wife, but hopefully still my wife in 2050.

Watch Professor Smith explore the cold truth about tomorrow in this video. Learn more about UCLA's Geography Department at www.geog.ucla.edu.

UCLA International Institute