Thu, Sep 22, 2011 - Page 13 News List

Northern lights

Earth and space sciences professor Laurence C. Smith forecasts that northern countries will become regions of increasing economic and strategic importance as the planet warms

By Noah Buchan  /  Staff Reporter

Laurence C. Smith, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles, will give a lecture on Saturday about four “megatrends” that he argues will influence our future.

Photo courtesy of Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation

Those of you who think climate change will only bring violent storms, flooding, droughts and reduced agricultural productivity may need to think again. Many countries north of 45° latitude are set to witness significant benefits as the planet warms, or so forecasts Laurence C. Smith in his book The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future.

“Many stresses will be less apparent or not apparent at all in some of the northern countries,” says Smith, a professor of earth and space sciences at the University of California, Los Angeles. “There will even be quite a few positive ones, such as increase in shipping access.”

Smith is under no illusion that the positive impact of global climate change, one of the four forces of the book’s title, could even come close to the negative impact. He does convincingly show, however, that climate change and the other three forces — population demographics, the distribution of natural resources and global trade — will help northern rim countries (NORC), as he dubs the US, Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Russia, become regions of increasing economic and strategic importance.

Smith will deliver a talk titled The Last Frontier: The Scramble for the Arctic and Its Implications on Saturday as part of the Lung Yingtai Cultural Foundation’s MediaTek lectures series. Sun Wei-hsin (孫維新), director general of the National Museum of National Sciences, will moderate the lecture.

The Taipei Times caught up with Smith via Skype in Dalian, China, where he was invited to give a speech at the World Economic Forum.

Taipei Times: Of the four forces mentioned in your book, which are unstoppable and which do we have control over?

Laurence C. Smith: None of them is unstoppable, but some sure have a lot of inertia [laughs]. I don’t want these forces to be taken so much as a prediction, but as a projection. The truth is our future in 2050 is not set in stone. There are many possible scenarios and where we end up depends largely on human choices and what we decide to do as a collective society.

So there is an array of outcomes under our control and the projection of this book is [to show] where current trends are taking us if we do nothing, if we more or less continue our current behaviors. Take population demographics for example. It’s almost impossible to see how we can avoid the aging trend. But the only way for that to be ameliorated is if we start having more babies, which seems unlikely, or the doors to immigration are opened even more widely than they are now.

And the demand for natural resources: Again, it’s hard to see that declining when you look at the projected economic growth and urbanization in the developing world. Look at the hubbub over rare earth that is happening right now. With regards to climate change, we are locked into a certain amount of climate change no matter what we do. That said, how warm we get depends upon how serious we get about curbing our global carbon cycle. There’s a big difference between plus 2°C warming and plus 4°C warming. It’s calamitous, but that’s very much [within our power to control]. Of all of them, globalization is the least uncertain and the least wired in. It could collapse at any moment.

TT: You mention in the book a fifth force, that of technology. Is this perhaps a wild card with regards to the interaction of the other four trends?

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