Tuesday, 29 March 2011

"The new north"

I wondered whether I should write this week about the big TUC-organised demonstration that was held in London last Saturday. But it's been very well worked over in the print and broadcast media, and I didn't really think I had anything new to say that I hadn't already written in an earlier post, 'Taking to the streets'.

Instead, a little bit of serendipity has brought me to the topic of 'The new north'.

Some time ago I read a very interesting book by Laurence Smith called The New North: The World in 2050. The serendipitous reason I've ended up writing about it now is that the author was one of the guests on the latest programme of Laurie Taylor's Radio 4 series Thinking Allowed. I tuned in, as I almost always do late on Sunday night, not knowing what the topic will be, and heard Smith talking about his research and his book.
Will power and prosperity shift to the frozen North? A new book predicts that Iceland, Greenland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, and Russia will be the beneficiaries of a new world order. By 2050, four megatrends - climate change, rising population, globalisation and resource depletion - will lead to the rise of 'The New North', as migration, energy bonanzas and international trade turn the world upside down. The geographer, Professor Laurence Smith, tells Laurie Taylor why these projections amount to more than planetary palm reading.
The reason for Smith's appearance at this point is that he gave a public lecture at the RSA last Wednesday - there's a downloadable audio recording available.

Laurence Smith is Professor and Vice-Chair of Geography and Professor of Earth and Space Sciences at the University of California, with research interests focusing on hydrology and the effects of climate and environmental change in northern environments.

He writes:
There is now broad scientific consensus that the northern part of our planet is rapidly transforming in response to climate warming, demographic trends, and large discoveries of natural gas and oil . . .  Such awareness has heightened the demand for accessible, science-based research on emerging issues facing northern countries and elsewhere in the world. Furthermore, the work must be presented in a form useful to policy and the general public as well as academics . . . A key quality of the book is its interweaving of rigorous science with personal observations and interviews with scientists, policy-makers, and local residents. Its objective is to provide a politically neutral synthesis of the physical, biological, and societal changes currently underway in the northern world, identify the challenges and benefits posed by continued warming and development in the region, and present an informed view of what the future may hold.
The New North 
presents a balanced, science-based projection of what our world might look like in forty years' time, driven by the four global forces of (1) population demographics, (2) resource demand, (3) globalization, and (4) climate change. The first part of the book (The Push) identifies key world pressures and trends, for example in urbanisation, population aging, energy technology, water supply, immigration, and a historic transfer of wealth and power from west to east. The second part (The Pull) describes the emergence of a new region, coined the Northern Rim, comprised of the northern United States, Canada, Greenland/Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the Russian Federation (named the NORCs). These eight northern countries and their surrounding seas will experience enormous changes over the next 40 years, making the Northern Rim a place of higher human activity and global strategic value than today. The last part (Alternate Endings) explores some more extreme, but less likely potential outcomes; and the power of societal choice in shaping our future.
The book describes:
-  The rapid rise of the world's new megacities... and the two paths they might take (e.g. Singapore vs. Lagos).
-  The mass migration of life forms to higher latitudes and elevations - and even hybridisation between southern and northern species - that is already underway.
-  Why competition for global immigrants will spell success or failure for many developed countries by 2050.
-  Current contrasts in human age structure that will produce startling shifts in the world's workforce by 2050 - for example Mexico's shrinking migrant worker pool to the United States.
-  The little-noticed battle between energy and water.
-  Why California's thirsty desert cities will survive, but its famously abundant agriculture may not.
-  How the world will begin tracking its water resources from space - even across sovereign country borders - in as soon as ten years.
-  Why the world will (and should) increasingly turn to Russia for natural gas.
-  The unique 'Arctic Amplification' of climate change that makes the northern high latitudes the fastest-warming place on Earth (2 to 3 times global average), especially in winter.
-  Why new shipping will spread across the Arctic Ocean - but not the kind imagined and dreamed about for the past five centuries.
-  Why Canada has one of the fastest-growing populations in the world, with a growth rate six times greater than China and rivalling that of India.
-  How Canada may hold 175 billion barrels of (unconventional) oil, the second-largest endowment of petroleum on earth (after Saudi Arabia) -- with a catch.
-  The geopolitical race for the Arctic Ocean, and why Russia may have a special claim to the North Pole.
-  Why globalisation, resources, demographics, and climate change portend the rise of a northern maritime economy but abandonment of remote continental interiors.
-  How the indelible stamp of the U.S. military, Josef Stalin, and energy companies will shape the coming expansion of human activity around the Northern Rim.
-  The surprising power resurgence of northern aboriginal peoples in the United States, Canada, and Greenland, but not in Scandinavia and Russia.
-  Some possible wild cards of abrupt climate change, rapid sea level rise, north-to-south water sales, and collapse of our great global economic integration.
-  A coherent vision of 'The New North' - and its vital integration and importance to all of us - by 2050.

The impacts are already obvious in the extreme north, where melting Arctic sea ice, drowning polar bears, and forlorn Inuit hunters are by now iconic images of global warming. The rapidity and severity of Arctic warming is truly dramatic. However, the Arctic, a relatively small, thinly populated region, will always be marginal in terms of its raw social and economic impact on the rest of us. The greater story lies to the south, penetrating deeply into the 'Northern Rim', a vast zone of economically significant territory and adjacent ocean owned by the United States, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Russia. As in the Arctic, climate change there has already begun. This zone — which constitutes almost 30 percent of the Earth’s land area and is home to its largest remaining forests, its greatest untouched mineral, water, and energy reserves, and a (growing) population of almost 100 million people — will undergo one of the most profound biophysical and social expansions of this century.

You can see Laurence Smith talking about these issues on YouTube: The World in 2050 and The Future is in the North. And you can read an extract from his book, and also a review.
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