Ten Big Questions for 2100
By Michael Marien
Imagining scenarios of what life might be like in 2100 is a fun exercise, but we should not use it as an escape from addressing the many huge uncertainties of the early twenty-first century and the unfolding Global MegaCrisis.
Facing the uncertainties and complexities—about environment, resources, population, society, and technology—sooner, rather than later, will likely make life in 2100 better for most or all people, and improve our chances that we will even make it to the twenty-second century.
Consider these 10 big and overlapping questions—surely not the only ones to ponder, but good candidates for a short list that should be widely circulated and continuously updated:
1. How Much Global Warming Is Ahead?
The world has already warmed by 1°C over pre-industrial levels, and there is near-zero chance of stopping warming at 2°C. Many climate scientists now think that worrisome 4°C warming is most likely in the 2050-2100 period, and that a disastrous 6°C or more is possible. Some scientists, such as James Hansen of NASA, warn of possible tipping points leading to runaway global warming “out of humanity’s control.”
2. Will Methane Eclipse Carbon Dioxide?
Methane in the atmosphere is only about one-fifth of CO2 in volume, but is 20-25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas, although not as long-lasting. In addition to other sources, such as livestock, methane is now being released in large quantities by melting Arctic permafrost—a process likely to accelerate. If large amounts of methane are also released from clathrates on the ocean floor, catastrophe is likely. But there are no estimates as to what could trigger how much release, or when.
Adding to the methane threat is nitrous oxide, about one-tenth of CO2 in volume but 300 times more effective than CO2 in trapping heat.
3. How High Will Sea Levels Rise?
The conventional projection of sea-level rise by 2100 is currently about 20 inches (0.5 meters). But check out The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change (MIT Press, 2011), especially for the 70 striking photos of melting ice. The authors warn that “in the fate of Greenland lies clues to the fate of the world” and that “uncertainties dominate on the bad side.” Based on past records, it is possible that the Greenland ice sheet could melt in a few decades, raising sea levels by some 24 feet worldwide. Melting of the West Antarctic ice sheet would raise sea levels by 16 feet.
4. Will We Run Out of Essential Resources?
Renewable resources (notably water) and many non-renewable resources (oil, arable land, minerals, rare earth elements) are becoming more difficult to acquire even as demand increases—what Michael T. Klare calls “the end of easy everything” in his book The Race for What’s Left (Metropolitan Books, 2012; the GlobalForesightBooks.org Book of the Month for May 2012).
Prices are rising and will surely continue to do so, as companies and nations also scramble to adapt through conservation, substitution, and new technologies. One writer estimates that supply shortfall by 2030 is “nearly certain” for cadmium, gold, mercury, tellurium, and tungsten.
5. How Many People Will There Be in 2100?
Global population projections are pretty much settled on 9–10 billion people by 2100, or roughly 50% growth from today’s 7.1 billion. This is a substantial addition, even as the rate of growth slows. But it may be more useful to think in terms of four scenarios:
- Sharp Decline due to a global pandemic or a world war.
- Slow Decline where modernization leads to smaller families.
- Slow Increase due to general improvements in medicine and health outpacing smaller families.
- Rapid Increase due to success in anti-aging and life-extending technologies, made accessible to many people. Demographers never consider this possibility, but experts on Bill Halal’s TechCast.org panel forecast life extension to 100 years as probable by 2040.
6. What Will Be the Quality of People in 2100?
Genetic and robotic enhancements may create “better” or at least different human beings, but will these options be popular? Even if widely available at low cost, could these improvements be more than offset by endocrine disruptors and other pernicious chemicals in the environment, taking overdoses or inappropriate drugs (both illegal and legal), and overeating of food (leading to obesity and diabetes)?
7. Will Decent Employment Be Available to All?
Assuming that livelihoods will be necessary and desirable, will everyone have jobs or self-employment that provides for basic needs? At present, this is a serious long-term problem, especially for younger generations. Any Year 2100 notions about cornucopian futures where governments or corporations provide free food, housing, education, health care, etc., are simply escapist fantasies.
8. Will Inequality and Plutocracy Continue?
Global trends to more inequality within and between nations are unmistakable in recent decades and seem likely to continue, as well as the parallel trend to governance by the rich. There is no definition as to when a “democracy” becomes overtaken by “plutocracy,” but, arguably, this is happening or has happened, with no substantial reversal in sight.
9. Will the Energy Transition be a Clear and Rapid Success?
A transition away from fossil fuels has begun, and everyone favors energy that is cheap, safe, nonpolluting, renewable, and available to all. But this transition will likely take decades at best, and the ultimate mix is highly uncertain: Solar, wind, nuclear, biomass, hydro, and geothermal are the known competitors to oil, gas, and coal, but could soon be joined by ocean algae, ultra-deep geothermal, solar power beamed from space, nuclear fusion, widely distributed LENR (low-energy nuclear reactor) generators, or other technologies not yet on the horizon.
The competition is fierce, and a level playing field will surely help this crucial transition, which, in turn, will mitigate global warming. Unfortunately for sustainable energy, the transition is being delayed somewhat as a result of new and controversial hydrofracking technology that enables easier access to unconventional oil and natural gas.
10. Will Nuclear Weapons or Bioweapons Be Our Undoing?
The number of nuclear weapons is slowly declining, while bioweapons—much easier to make—are probably increasing. The Cold War threat of nuclear holocaust and/or the follow-on environmental disaster of nuclear winter has lessened, but is still a not-so-wild-card possibility. And widespread global use of bioweapons could keep most or all of us from reaching the year 2100. Much depends on the future of fanaticism, religious or nonreligious, leading to use of these or other destructive technologies.
This is merely a starter list of huge uncertainties that we face on the bumpy road to 2100. There will be many surprises ahead: negative (e.g., cyber-war), positive (e.g., nanotechnology fully developed), and perhaps ambiguous (e.g., contact with extraterrestrial intelligence), as well as many surprises that we can’t even imagine. Global governance and global law are huge challenges at a time when we can’t agree on governing our nation-states, and the growing distractions of infoglut are formidable.
In 2003, Sir Martin Rees, Great Britain’s Astronomer Royal, wrote that “the odds are no better than 50-50” that our present civilization will survive to 2100. It’s still a pretty good bet.About the author:
Michael Marien is the former editor of the World Future Society’s Future Survey (1979-2008) and now director of GlobalForesightBooks.org. He ponders the future and grows his garden in LaFayette, New York. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This is my last posting for the next few days. I will be taking my office apart so that we can move to our new apartment downtown next Tuesday. I will be unplugged and disconnected except by tablet. Expect me to be back in the saddle before the end of next week probably in time to provide you with some more headlines. In the interim these are the stories I share with you this week:
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