Every four years, just before inauguration, each incoming president gets a 100-page National Intelligence Council (NIC) briefing called “Global Trends” that looks at potential risks to the United States 20 years ahead. As futurology goes, the report’s aims are quite cautious:
The report is intended to stimulate thinking about the rapid and vast geopolitical changes characterizing the world today and possible global trajectories during the next 15-20 years. As with the NIC’s previous Global trends reports, we do not seek to predict the future—which would be an impossible feat—but instead provide a framework for thinking about possible futures and their implications.
The NIC is the long-term strategic think tank of the U.S. Intelligence Community, which in turn is a cooperative federation of 16 U.S. government agencies (including the CIA) that work on intelligence issues.
The U.S. Intelligence Community hasn’t covered itself with glory over the years when looking at geopolitical trends. Notable misses have included the fall of the Shah or Iran, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the sudden arrival of the Arab Spring, to name just a few. That said, much geopolitics is inherently unpredictable as the lead-in to the Executive Summary (quoted above) rightly notes.
Moreover, the latest edition which came out this week, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds” covers a lot more than just issues relating to politics, international relations and conflict. Indeed, it touches on all of the major concerns of this blog: 1) climate change, 2) resource constraints and 3) the nexus between technology and growth.
Starting with climate change, I intend to go through the report and grade it in terms of how well it deals with these three major medium-term risks.
Climate Change: A minus
In most of U.S. political discourse, climate change is “the risk that dare not speak its name” (apologies to Oscar Wilde). While watching the three U.S. presidential debates, I swung between being dismayed and disgusted that neither Obama nor Romney addressed the topic. Full credit then that the NIC sets out a potentially stark future with no obfuscation or weasel words:
The present emissions pathway is leading to a doubling of greenhouse gases by mid-century. Based on a better understanding of climate sensitivity and emissions, this concentration will lead to approximately 2°C warming by mid-century. Under the present emissions pathway, 6°C is more likely than 3°C by the end of the century, and will lead to even more significant impacts. By 2030 the emissions trajectory will be cast, determining this century’s climate outcome.
Unfortunately, the report does not touch on what the “the more significant impacts” will be in the “more likely” 6°C world since “the end of the century” falls outside of the NIC’s 20-year time horizon. I am not so reticent: if we remain on track for a 6°C world through mid-century, then Global Trends 2052 (that looks out to 2080) will be dystopian in nature. In short, in a through-train to 6°C of warming scenario I would expect to see nation states fail and societies come apart at the seams. The president should be served a large Scotch when given that particular report: he or she will need it.
However, keeping in mind the report’s shorter term remit, I am pleased that the NIC does have a few things to say about the outlook to 2030 from a climate change perspective. In particular, they see water scarcity as a potentially bigger source of conflict than energy or mineral scarcity. The chart below (click for larger image) shows where that water stress will hit hardest:
Of course, climate change is not the only driver of water scarcity: population, increase, industrial and urban development and the run-down of ground water all play a part; but the report sensibly adds climate change to this mix:
Demand for food, water, and energy will grow by approximately 35, 40, and 50 percent respectively owing to an increase in the global population and the consumption patterns of an expanding middle class. Climate change will worsen the outlook for the availability of these critical resources. Climate change analysis suggests that the severity of existing weather patterns will intensify, with wet areas getting wetter and dry and arid areas becoming more so. Much of the decline in precipitation will occur in the Middle East and northern Africa as well as western Central Asia, southern Europe, southern Africa, and the US Southwest.
The report is also good at outlining the challenges of food security, and again recognises the role of climate change:
A stable supply of agricultural commodities to meet global food security needs and ensure trade flows can be achieved through supply-side management practices to boost crop production—including new technologies—to mitigate the potentially negative impacts of climate change.
However, a number of supply-and-demand factors could derail that outcome. These include extreme weather-related disruptions from unmitigated climate change, prolonged periods of poor management of water and soil, and inadequate use of modern agricultural technologies and fertilizer. If one or more of these factors came into play, a second, higher-risk outcome would emerge in which food production failed to keep pace with demand growth. Such a development would create shortages that could have dire geopolitical, social, and economic repercussions.
In a report of such length, I would not expect to see page upon page on climate change, but the fact that it is mentioned as a risk factor in all manner of contexts is a pleasing recognition of reality. My only caveat is that the reports contains a certain contradiction in its treatment of climate change and energy; the message sounds something like this (my words not theirs):
We now accept that climate change presents a growing danger; but cheer up because the US suddenly has the potential to become energy independent and the world doesn’t have to face a near-term fossil fuel constraint after all.
True, the report does recognise the possibility that shale will make the hurdle rate for the introduction of renewables that much higher:
The potential for more abundant and cheaper supplies of natural gas to replace coal by 2030 would have undeniable benefits for curbing carbon emissions. Nevertheless, another consequence of an increased reliance on relatively cleaner natural gas as a source of energy could be the lack of a major push on alternative fuels such as hydropower, wind, and solar energy.
But I think the idea that shale gas can act as a carbon-efficient bridge fuel to the future is an argument that is much over-rated. Even in the United States, the U.S. government’s Energy Information Administration sees coal providing a vital energy provision role far into the future as the chart below shows (click for larger image, see here for source).
Apart from this, Global Trends has given climate change a degree of prominence in its pages, so I give the NIC an “A minus”.
More seriously, I would hope that President Obama reads the report and makes carbon emission mitigation a central plant of his second term in office. While such issues as Obamacare and the fiscal cliff may preoccupy him now, I believe his two daughters will judge his legacy on the climate they inherit more than anything else.