Future dystopias of overcrowded hive cities and post-apocalyptic wastelands could accurately anticipate the world to come, according to the latest issue of the New Scientist. Its feature, How to survive the coming century makes very grim reading indeed. Forget the climate change deniers, the real debates are around how bad it's going to get and what we can do about it.
In this article, the appropriately-named Gaia Vince reports that the IPCC predicts a global increase in temperature somewhere between 2°C and 6.4°C this century. As Peter Cox puts it, "climatologists tend to fall into two camps: there are the cautious ones who say we need to cut emissions and won't even think about high global temperatures; and there are the ones who tell us to run for the hills because we're all doomed. I prefer a middle ground. We have to accept that changes are inevitable and start to adapt now." So what would a mid-range increase - say 4°C entail?
Well, the world would look something like this - a planet where rain forests and productive agricultural land is choked out by advancing desert, coastal regions disappear beneath the waves, glaciers and ice caps shrink and vanish, and perhaps most destructively, the growth of two uninhabitable dry belts in presently densely populated regions.
The flip side of increased warming is that cold regions to the north and the south will become temperate and capable of sustaining large human populations. But how large depends on a number of things. First is the speed and depth of the changes to come - James Lovelock thinks "the number remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less." Others are more hopeful, but this depends on the second key factor: social change. While governments around the world promote anaemic green washing, or prominent environmental celebrities like Al Gore blame a lack of political will for the paucity of radical action, Vince argues that dealing with the crisis means to "rethink our society not along geopolitical lines but in terms of resource distribution".
Winding the clock forward 90 years and working with a projected global population of nine billion, Vince is sure these numbers can be accommodated if everyone receives 20 square metres of space (this would, according to my very dodgy maths, require 4.5 million square kilometres - about half the size of Canada), which in turn demands packed high rise cities towards the poles to free as much land as possible for agriculture. Food production would have to be more seasonal and move away from thirsty crops. The remaining land will be too precious for large scale cattle grazing, so say goodbye to your beef burgers. And the oceans would likely suffer a massive crash of fish and other sea life thanks to increasing acidification. Biodiversity would plummet with many species eking out an existence in zoos or gene banks.
But this will also be a world of huge engineering projects. The uninhabited and uninhabitable wastes of the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australia might become home to a global belt of solar cell arrays. This in combination with nuclear, wind, wave, and geothermal power could supply the energy-hungry cities of the north and south.
Vince's thought experiment is in many ways the best possible outcome. She herself admits the massive stores of carbon and methane locked up in the world's forests, tundra, and ocean floors will either have or be in the process of escaping into the atmosphere. The temperature would not remain a static 4°C above present levels - they would climb further. Plus the world she describes is premised on global-scale planning. What character this planning would be is left open. But the scale required of juggling mass population transfers, building new metropolitan centres, constructing energy gathering facilities and so on can only be possible in a social system where at the most the market plays a marginal role. Whether this society is bureaucratic/technocratic and ruled by the descendants of today's bourgeoisie, or socialist, depends on how the class struggle plays out in the intervening years. If socialism inherits this battered planet then we are best placed to cope with the damage. If not the chaos and social dislocation of Vince's scenario would be without parallel in history. Mass migration, starvation, wars ... it almost doesn't bear thinking about.
It's a good job this is only speculative but it is speculation solidly based on contemporary climate science. Our species will survive, but whether it will be in the billions or the millions depends on the class battles of the next few decades. The stakes could be that high, comrades.