The 21st Century Climate Change and Resource Problem
We face three major problems in dealing with climate-related risks. The primary problem facing us is that a switch of the climate will happen in the coming decade(s), and we face the prospect of a host of climate related risks en-route (Cold climate switching, climate-forcing volcanism, rapid climate change, and pandemic flu). Second, exacerbating our vulnerability to this primary climate problem is the fact that population and economic growth are accelerating the depletion of our finite energy and water resources. Third, a minority of nations controls access to the world’s energy resources.
Absent a global catastrophe (unlikely) the world’s population is expected to exceed 9 billion by mid-century. Much of this population growth is expected to occur in Asia and Africa, where nearly 70 percent of population growth is occurring today.[i],[ii],[iii],[iv] World population and economic growth is accelerating the depletion of world energy reserves, such that we only have 50 years of proven oil and gas reserves left.[v],[vi],[vii]
Human activity has already depleted two-thirds of the world`s largest aquifers beyond sustainable limits, and increased the periods of time when there is insufficient water to meet human needs available in water basins and major transboundary river systems.[viii],[ix] This water basin depletion eliminates our ability to buffer extreme and prolonged drought, and this will impact our food supply during a severe drought.
The above represents a catastrophe waiting to happen, and for which we don’t have a plan that anticipates the climate-related risks and the limited fossil fuel reserves.
Thomas Malthus in 1798 anticipated the population growth crisis of his time in his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population.[x] In light of this essay, the term Malthusian crisis was coined to describe the situation in which a population in a given area exceeds its food supply, resulting in famine. Famine would reduce the population until it was once again in balance with the food supply. The technology of the First Industrial Revolution—innovations such as the steam engine, the seed drill, marine chronometer, the spinning jenny, etc.,[xi] as well as migration to the New World, for the most part saved 19th century Europe from famine.
Rapidly switching the world’s energy system to renewable energy and implementing decentralized sustainable development (see below) are pivotal strategies for mitigating 21st century climate and resource supply risks—and addressing the three interrelated problems outlined above and preventing a Malthusian crisis.
Such a dual strategy will permit a greater degree of self-sufficiency at home and in urban areas, with the aim of reducing our vulnerability during a climate switch and to climate-related risks. A focus on decentralization means that individuals, communities, and cities embrace partial self-sufficiency for securing energy, water, and food. The need for decentralization anticipates that government, corporate, and commodity market actions will restrict resource supply in a crisis event, and so aims to reduce our vulnerability to this risk.
What is sustainable development?
One of the more widely recognized definitions of sustainable development is contained in the Brundtland Report (1987). This report came out of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1983.[xii] The Brundtland Report defined sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”[xiii]
This report focused attention on the need to promote economic and social development in ways that avoid damaging our environment, such as through over-exploitation of natural resources and pollution. It critically focuses our attention on managing population growth and ensuring all human rights, especially for women and their basic human right for self-determination and equality.[xiv]
From a resource perspective, living sustainably means we must strive to use all energy, water, and food, and other resources sparingly, efficiently, and equitably. We must also maximize residual resource and energy recovery, before generating a minimal amount of waste and pollution. Living sustainably must permeate everything that we do at home, at work, and when we travel. With an impending return to a cold climate, living sustainably will need to become embedded in daily human activity and popular culture, and become a new societal norm, both nationally and internationally.
[i] Global Europe 2050. Directorate-General for Research and Innovation. 2012. Socio-economic Sciences and Humanities. EUR 25252.
[ii] Conduct a Google search, “United Nations, World population, 2050, 2100.”
[iii] J. Cleland, “World Population Growth; Past, Present and Future.” Environ Resource Econ (2013) 55: 543. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10640-013-9675-6.
[iv] P. Gerland et al., “World Population Stabilization Unlikely This Century.” Science (New York, NY). 2014;346(6206):234-237. doi:10.1126/science.1257469.
[v] See endnote 75.
[vi] See endnote 76.
[vii] Data: Energy Information Administration data was obtained from: International Energy Statistics. These calculations utilized the following data files. Natural gas https://bit.ly/2LC6GBo, Crude Oil https://bit.ly/2IWeEaP, Coal data https://bit.ly/2L6pk3w. [Personal Research: The 50 year reserve timeline estimates are calculated by dividing the 2013 Energy Information Agency’s proven global oil, natural gas, and coal reserves by the 2013 levels of production. This calculation tells us there are 50 years of proven oil and gas, and 130 years of coal reserves left. These reserve timeline estimates do not assume any population or economic growth, or a switch to a cold climate regime, which would accelerate energy demand and reduce the reserve timelines.].
[viii] A.S. Richey et al., 2015, “Quantifying renewable groundwater stress with GRACE, Water Resources Research.” 51, 5217–5238, doi:10.1002/2015WR017349, and NASA via https://www.nasa.gov/jpl/grace/study-third-of-big-groundwater-basins-in-distress.
[ix] H Munia et al., “Water stress in global transboundary river basins: significance of upstream water use on downstream stress.” Environment Research Letter 11 (2016) 014002. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/11/1/014002 http://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/11/1/014002/pdf.
[x] Principle of Population, As It Affects The Future Improvement of Society. With Remarks on the Speculations of Mr. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (1 ed.). London. Printed for J. Johnson in St Paul’s Church-yard. 1798.
[xi] 18th Century Timeline: 1700 – 1799. Technology and Science Ruled “the Age of Enlightenment” https://www.thoughtco.com/18th-century-timeline-1992474.
[xii] The Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future.” To view the report, click the link. http://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/AdvocacyToolkit/index.php/earth-summit-history/historical-documents/92-our-common-future.
[xiii] The Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future.” To view the report, click the link. http://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/AdvocacyToolkit/index.php/earth-summit-history/historical-documents/92-our-common-future.
[xiv] The Brundtland Report, “Our Common Future.” To view the report, click the link. http://www.sustainabledevelopment2015.org/AdvocacyToolkit/index.php/earth-summit-history/historical-documents/92-our-common-future.