Despite the hoopla, the U.N. climate change conference in Copenhagen is destined to fail. Here’s what will happen instead: Over the next several decades, world leaders will embrace tougher emissions standards than those proposed-and mostly ignored-in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But real support for tougher regulations will fall. By midcentury, the mandatory emissions standards in place will be well below those set at Kyoto, a far cry from the targets for carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases set to be discussed by world leaders in Copenhagen. And by the time 2100 rolls around, the political will for tougher regulations will have dried up almost completely. The reasons are many, but come down to this: Today’s emerging powerhouses like Brazil, India, and China simply won’t stand for serious curbs on their emissions, and the pro-regulation crowd in the United States and Europe won’t be strong enough to force their hands.
Only 10% of scenarios predict stronger than Kyoto standards.
Because so much can happen over the next 125 years of my simulation, I have spiced up the model with random shocks to salience and to each stakeholder’s interest in building consensus or sticking to its guns. By randomly changing 30 percent of the salience values and 30 percent of the flexibility values in each bargaining round, we can look at a range of predicted futures to see whether the global warming simulations reveal strong trends. That will help us sort out how confident we can be about the toughness or weakness of future regulations of greenhouse gas emissions.
range of values is pretty narrow, encompassing barely five points up or down through about 2050. After that, as we should expect, there is more uncertainty, but even as far into the future as 2130, the range is only about 10 points up or down, so these are probably pretty reliable forecasts.The most likely value — the heavy solid line-reflects our best estimate of what the big players might broadly agree to if the global warming debate continues without any significant discoveries in its favor or against it. It tells us two stories. First, the rhetoric of the next 20 or 30 years endorses tougher standards than the ones put forward in Kyoto in 1997. We know this because the predicted value through 2025 is above 50. That’s the green part of the story. Second, support for tougher regulations falls almost relentlessly as the world closes in on 2050, a crucial date in the global warming debate. When we get to 2050, the mandatory standard being acted on is well below that set at Kyoto. By about 2070 it is down to 30, representing a significant weakening in standards. By 2100 it is closing in on 20 to 25. There’s no regulatory green light left in the story by its end.
The most optimistic scenario predicts no rollback in emission controls. It never dips below 50. In fact, most of the time in this scenario the predicted level of greenhouse gas reduction hovers around 60, implying a 10 percent or so tougher standard than was agreed to in Kyoto. Only about 10 percent of the scenarios, however, look optimistic enough to anticipate even holding the line at the standard set in the Kyoto Protocol.
So how might we solve global warming and make the world in 500 years look attractive to our future selves? My short answer: New technologies will solve the problem for us. There is an equilibrium at which enough global warming — a very modest amount more than we may already have, probably enough to be here in 50 to 100 years — will create enough additional sunshine in cold places, enough additional rain in dry places, enough additional wind in still places, and, most importantly, enough additional incentives for humankind that solar panels, hydroelectricity, windmills, and as yet undiscovered technologies will be good and cheap enough to replace fossil fuels. We have already warmed enough for there to be all kinds of interesting research going on, but today such pursuits take more sacrifice than most people seem willing to make. Tomorrow that might not be true, and at that point, I doubt it’ll be too late. And, looking out 500 years, we’ll probably have figured out how to beam ourselves to distant planets where we can start all over, warming our solar system, our galaxy, and beyond with abandon.
de Mesquita predicts:
when the fast-growing poor surpass the rich, the tables will turn. China, India, Brazil, and Mexico will then cry out for environmental change because that will protect their future advantaged position, while the relatively poor of one or two or three hundred years from now will resist policies that hinder their efforts to climb to the top. The rich will even fight wars to keep the rising poor from getting so rich that they threaten the old political order. (The rising poor will win those wars, by the way.)
I predict China will surpass the overall US economy by 2016-2018. The catchup in per capita income will take longer 2030-2045. Having China and India and Brazil in solid economic positions sooner could accelerate climate action policies.
Also, it seems likely that technology improvements with nuclear fusion could make shifting to clean energy and away from fossil fuels far simpler without anti-economic growth sacrifices.