Life in 2050: What Will the Environment Look Like Where You Live in 20 Years?

The world will be a very different place by 2050, as environmental problems become an existential threat to civilization as we know it.
Matthew S. Williams

Welcome to the final installment in the "Life in 2050" series! Our previous installments examined what life will look like from different vantage points -  warfare, economics, education, everyday living, space exploration (in two installments), transportation, and medicine. Today, we conclude things by taking a look at the impact climate change will have by mid-century.

As noted a few times in this series, climate change is (and will continue to be) one of the main drivers of change in this century (the other being the accelerating pace of technological change). And when it comes to changes in our climate, the resulting impact will be significant, far-reaching, and will come in many forms.

These include environmental crises and natural disasters and the geopolitical, economic, health, and humanitarian crises that will result. Our attempts to address any one of these problems have the potential to exacerbate one or more of the others. Ultimately, this raises some very serious questions.

For starters, just how bad will things get by 2050? Second, how will we deal with the problems that are anticipated? And lastly, is there a chance things will get better after 2050, or are they expected to keep getting worse? Interestingly enough, the answer to this last question depends on how we deal with the first two.

Things will get worse

Between now and 2050, we will continue to see an increase in the environmental and climate-related hazards that are a major concern today. These hazards are innumerable but can be broken down into five broad categories:

  • Increased drought and wildfires
  • Increased flooding and extreme weather
  • Icecap melting and rising sea levels
  • Collapsing agriculture and fisheries
  • Pandemics and increased spread of disease
  • Ecosystem disruption and species extinction

No matter what, these issues are all predicted to become worse between now and 2050. The only question is, will things get better after they become worse? The difference between the two comes down to our efforts as a species to address our habits and dependencies. As the research shows, the overall impact on our environment depends entirely on our ability to curb carbon emissions.

For this reason, international environmental summits have set baseline goals for emission reductions. Previously, the signatories of the Kyoto Protocols had identified atmospheric CO2 concentrations of 400 to 450 parts per million (ppm) as a limit. The theory is that, if we can keep CO2 levels below this baseline, we could mitigate the environmental changes that will result.

To illustrate, the last time that atmospheric CO2 levels were as high as they are today was during the Pleiocene Era (ca. 3 million years ago). At this time, average global temperatures were 3.6 to 5.4 °F (2 to 3 °C) higher than they were during the pre-industrial era (prior to 1750 to the present), and sea levels were 50 to 80 feet (15 to 25 meters) higher than they are today.

Unfortunately, as of April of 2015, the NOAA announced that atmospheric levels of CO2 reached 400 ppm and were still climbing. As of February of 2021, they have reached 415 ppm, and the upward trend will continue. This essentially means that even if we abandoned fossil fuels entirely today, the resulting effects of climate change will still be felt for decades (even centuries) to come.

At this point, it's clear that CO2 levels will not level off anytime soon, and that establishing new goals is the best we can do. The only question is, just how much will we be able to curb our emissions? If we can keep them, and the resulting atmospheric CO2 within a certain threshold, things will get better after they've gotten worse. If we don't, things will continue to get worse.

Because of this, scientific agencies engaged in climate and Earth science - NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), and others - have created climate models that offer different predictive scenarios based on how high CO2 levels will reach.

Hotter days lie ahead!

According to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), average global temperatures will rise between 2.7 to 3.6 ºF (1.5 ºC to 2 ºC). As before, these figures are entirely dependent on our ability to curb carbon emissions. The former is based on accumulated atmospheric levels of 430 to 480 gigatons of CO2 (GtCO2), where the latter is based on levels of 480 to 530.

While this may not sound like a big increase, it's important to note that this represents a global average, accounting for seasonal and regional variations. It should also be noted that the first scenario represents a 50% reduction in annual CO2 emissions (compared to 2010 levels), whereas the latter reflects no change at all.

At the Earth’s mid-latitudes, the hottest days will be up to 5.4ºF (3ºC) hotter in the first scenario, while an increase of up to 7.2ºF (4ºC) will occur in the second scenario. At higher latitudes, the coldest nights will warm by 8.1 to 10.8°F (4.5 to 6°C) while in the Arctic, temperatures will become warmer by 9.9 to 14.4°F (5.5 to 8°C) and cold spells will be shorter.

This will mean that less ice will be retained by the polar ice caps every passing winter, which in turn will mean increased absorption of solar radiation come summer. It is also estimated that 14% of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heat waves at least once every five years in the first scenario. That number jumps to 37% and near-annual heatwaves in the second.

Densely-populated regions will be especially hard hit, and up to 350 million more people in megacities will suffer from the resulting heat stress by 2050. Similarly, these temperature increases will lead to severe drought in many parts of the world, which will drastically impact agriculture and increased water stress in urban areas.

South Asia will be in particular danger since four of the most heavily populated cities will be located there by 2050. These include Mumbai (42.4 million; first place), Delhi (36 million; second place), and Kolkatta (33 million; fifth place) in India, and Dhaka (35.2 million; third place), and Karachi (31.7 million; in eighth place) in neighboring Bangladesh and Pakistan (respectively).

Those areas that will be particularly hard hit include the Mediterranean (Southern Europe, Northern Africa, and West Asia), Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, and Australia. While the resulting death toll is difficult to predict, recent heatwaves and the resulting deaths indicate that it won't be pretty.

In West Asia and the Middle East, increased temperatures of between 5.4 and 7.2ºF (3 and 4ºC) will greatly exacerbate the problem of droughts and severe heatwaves. In this region, considerable stress is already placed on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which originate in the mountains of eastern Turkey and pass through Syria and Iraq before entering into the Euphrates.

In the summer of 2019, heatwaves in June and July were responsible for the deaths of close to 1500 people in France, 400 in the Netherlands, and 900 "extra deaths" in the UK. Similarly, in 2015, India experienced one of its most intense heatwaves in recent years, which caused more than 2,500 deaths between May and June.

Once again, these highlighted scenarios represent the difference between a 50% reduction in emissions vs. "business as usual." If CO2 emissions exceed the 2010 baseline, the situation will become far worse. According to the AR5, emissions of 580 - 720 Gt will result in an increase of 3.6 to 5.4°F (2 and 3°C) while levels of 720 - 1000 Gt will mean an increase of 6.3°F (3.5°C) or more.

While temperature increases within the two highlighted scenarios will have significant implications, they will potentially be sustainable in the long run. If average temperatures increase further, life will become untenable for many regions on the planet, with the potential to displace tens of millions.

Rising sea levels

Another major threat associated with climate change is the prospect that temperature increases will result in the loss, or severe shrinking, of the polar ice caps. This will result in rising sea levels around the world, threatening coastal cities, as well as inland regions wherever major waterways are connected to the world's oceans.

This trend is already happening, and the consequences are being felt all across the world. According to a recent study by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, sea levels have been rising at an average rate of 3.4 mm/year between January 15th, 1993, and March 11th, 2021. The same data indicates that since 1900, global sea levels have risen by an average of 20 cm in total.

According to the IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate (issued in 2019), by 2050 global sea levels (GSL) are expected to be 9.44 to 15 inches (24 to 38 cm) higher on average. However, more recent NOAA estimates have incorporated new findings on ice sheet dynamics from Greenland and Iceland.

These ice samples indicate that average increases in GSLs have been accelerating over time and that this could mean an average increase of 1 to 3 ft (0.3 to 0.9 m) by 2050. During storm surges, coastal waters will be pushed further inland, leading to drastically increased instances of "nuisance flooding."

Again, this represents an average increase and will vary depending on the region, thermal expansion, changing winds, air-sea heat, freshwater fluxes, atmospheric pressure, and the addition of melting ice into the ocean. These factors will alter ocean circulation and weather patterns, which will disrupt fisheries and threaten coastal and low-lying regions.

Again, urban centers will be especially hard hit, mainly because many people live close to the world's oceans. According to a 2017 report by the UN Ocean Conference, more than 10% of the world's population lives in coastal areas that are less than 33 ft (10 m) above sea level. Meanwhile, about 40% of the world's population lives within 60 mi (100 km) of the coast.

This works out to about 37% of the global population living within "coastal communities," where access to the sea and marine resources is vital to the lives and livelihood of the local population. According to projections issued by the Climate Center in 2019, annual flooding and sea-level rise will mean land occupied by more than 300 million people will be underwater.

Increased spread of disease

Another major consideration presented by the IPCC AR5 is how changing temperatures will result in increased levels of disease. As it states:

"Throughout the 21st century, climate change is expected to lead to increases in ill-health in many regions and especially in developing countries with low income, as compared to a baseline without climate change... Risks from vector-borne diseases are projected to generally increase with warming, due to the extension of the infection area and season, despite reductions in some areas that become too hot for disease vectors."

The major drivers of this trend will include increased temperatures, flooding, urbanization, and the movement of human populations around the world. This will lead to increases in food- and water-borne diseases, especially those spread by pests like fleas, ticks, and mosquitoes.

In fact, by 2050, it is estimated that half the world's population could be at risk of mosquito-borne diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and the Zika virus. As a result, infectious diseases are projected to surpass heart disease as the world’s number one cause of death, creating a healthcare crisis that would cost at least $100 trillion in the process.

Increased levels of air pollution, ground-level ozone, and airborne allergens will also lead to higher rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other respiratory illnesses. Combined with other disease vectors, this will put a significant strain on health care systems, especially in urban centers in the least developed countries.

Species extinction

Another major warning contained in the AR5 is how climate change will impact biodiversity and lead to increased rates of species extinction due to drought, forest fires, and the spread of invasive species. Once again, the report found that the potential impact varied considerably between temperature increases of 2.7 and 3.6ºF (1.5ºC to 2ºC).

The report studied 105,000 species of insects, plants, and vertebrates and determined that in both scenarios, there would be a significant impact on their populations. In the former scenario, 6% of insects, 8% of plants, and 4% of vertebrates were projected to lose over half of their geographic range. In the latter, those numbers rose to 18% of insects, 16% of plants, and 8% of vertebrates.

The consequences of this would be considerable. For insects, the loss of range would mean a loss of pollinators, such as bees, hoverflies, and blowflies, which are essential to the life cycle of countless species of plants (and agriculture). In polar regions, the increased loss of habitat could lead to the extinction of species such as penguins and polar bears.

In ocean basins, sharks, many species of fish, rays, and phytoplankton are becoming increasingly threatened as temperature changes and altered ecosystems force migrations poleward and/or to deeper, cooler waters. Increased temperatures are also leading to bleaching and habitat loss in warm-water coral reefs.

Once again, the extent of this depends on which scenario comes true. In the first, about 7% of land areas are projected to see their ecosystems shift from one type of biome to another, which increases to 13% in the second. The warming trends will also lead to a reduction of rainforest biomass, increased deforestation, and the loss of the southern boundaries in boreal forests.

Sinking cities

The population of Africa is expected to increase by 83% and reach 2.5 billion by 2050, which will be driven largely by urban growth, which itself will increase threefold by 2050. The largest population centers are expected to include Kinshasha, Lagos, Cairo, Khartoum, and Dar es Salaam, with populations ranging from 35 million (Kinshasha) to slightly less than 16 million (Dar es Salaam).

Every one of these cities is located on a major river and/or coastal region, which means flooding will also be a major concern. As a result of rising sea levels and extreme weather, these cities risk increased flooding, the displacement of their residents, and (in some cases) may even need to be abandoned.

Consider the Nile Delta, where the majority of Egypt's heavy industry and population are currently located. By 2050, much of the Delta will be submerged, meaning that cities like Alexandria will be underwater, while Cairo will see heavy flooding. In part to address this, Egypt plans to move its seat of government to the New Administrative Capital located 28 miles (45 km) to the east.

On top of that, many cities in low-lying areas are expected to be completely flooded or submerged by 2050. These include Basra, southern Iraq, and the coastlines of southern Pakistan and north-east India - ironically, as severe drought will be taking place further in the interior. Farther east, Kolkata and much of southern Bangladesh will also experience flooding and/or be submerged.

The coastal city of Mumbai, India’s financial capital and one of the largest cities in the world, also faces severe flooding and could even be wiped out by rising tides. The city's historic downtown core and all the densely populated areas built on the series of islands that make up the region have been identified as being at risk. 

Life in 2050: What Will the Environment Look Like Where You Live in 20 Years?
The Nile Delta at, photographed from the ISS. Source: NASA

In Southeast Asia, at least two major capitals may have to be abandoned because of rising sea levels and flooding. These include Bangkok and Jakarta, the capitals of Thailand and Indonesia, respectively. Similarly, the Mekong Delta could be underwater as well, not to mention Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) and parts of the northern capital of Hanoi.

In addition, the capital city of Manila is anticipated to become the 12th most populous city in the world, with a population of over 23.5 million. However, recent studies have also indicated that the Metro Manila region (and many other places in the Philippines) could effectively be submerged by then, forcing the evacuation of tens of millions.

In China, floodwaters and rising tides threaten to consume the very heart of Shanghai, one of Asia's most important economic hubs, and many other cities around it. Then there's the Pearl River Delta, a major economic hub in southern China that includes Guangzhou, Shenzen, Hong Kong, Macau, and others.

This region is currently home to more than 78 million people and will also experience significant flooding by 2050. In North America, cities like New Orleans are expected to be submerged by 2050, despite its extensive system of levees. The southern tip of the Everglades in Florida will also be underwater this time, as well as much of the Mexican state of Tabasco and the Mayan Riveria in southern Mexico.

Further north, flooding will also devastate much of southern Philadelphia, Hoboken, Newark, Jersey City, and Long Island's southern coast. In the west, Canada's city of Vancouver (which sits on the Fraser River Delta) will be largely underwater, as will towns along the coast just north of Seattle and parts of San Francisco.

Up to the challenge?

Dealing with the range of changes that will result from climate change will be no easy task. All across the globe, new pandemics, extreme weather, mass migrations, conflict, and natural disasters will stress disaster relief, healthcare, and governments to their breaking point. If not properly addressed, the death toll is expected to reach a few hundred million or more.

In short, the world will be torn between two extremes: heavy rains, floods, and surging tides on the one side, and drought, wildfires, and disease on the other. Given that some parts of the world will be hit harder than others, these hazards will trigger mass migrations, which will lead to humanitarian crises.

With their resources stressed to the breaking point - particularly food, water, and medicine - the least-impacted nations of the world will only be willing or able to do so much. In fact, increased shortages at home are likely to lead to isolationist and xenophobic governments whose solution to the crisis is to close the door and throw up barriers.

These problems are already apparent in the world today and will pick up speed as time goes on. Luckily for all of us, the solutions are also already here, and their development and adoption will speed up as 2050 draws nearer. For starters, desalination technology has come a long way, specifically as a means of addressing future water shortages.

There are also countless technologies designed to reduce water use, recycle greywater, and eliminate waste. Big data and machine learning are also being used to address the various symptoms of climate change by ensuring better monitoring, disaster response, and prevention.

Urban planning and architectural design are also evolving to emphasize sustainability and potentially turn megacities into hubs of green innovation. There are also many ways to mitigate flooding, ranging from large-scale engineering projects to small-scale, individualized solutions.

As Shanghai is China's largest city and economic hub, that country is anticipated to do whatever it takes to keep the city "unsinkable." Many other cities are doing the same in preparation, from building up coastlines to constructing levees. And there are countless ways humans can reduce their carbon footprint and the amount of waste they generate.

One of them is to adopt alternative energy and fuels, which is becoming easier thanks to lower costs and greater efficiency. By 2050, renewables are projected to provide 49% of global electricity, followed by natural gas (23%), coal (23%), and nuclear (5%). As climate change continues to become more pressing, adoption efforts and production will increase further.

In addition to reducing our emissions, there are also strategies for reducing the amount of CO2 already in our atmosphere. These take the form of carbon capture technology, genetically engineered trees, artificial trees, smog-eating surfaces, carbon upcycling, and geological engineering (aka. geoengineering).

As the saying goes, "every problem has a solution." However, in many cases, every potential solution has a window of opportunity on it. Miss that window and the problem will continue to get worse and require more drastic measures. If humanity can significantly reduce its carbon footprint between now and 2050, we can expect that the changes in our climate will be sustainable.

If we cannot, then we can look forward to some rather severe outcomes. Coupled with all of the changes that will result from our rapidly-changing technological base, we can reasonably expect that the world of 2050 will be very different than it is today. In fact, you could say it would be enough to frighten and astound anyone alive today!

In any case, 2050 will come around on its own, and being morose about how bad things could get is not an effective way to cope with change. What matters is what we do in the here and now and that we take the prospect of those changes seriously. After all, if we do our jobs right, things may still get worse before they get better. But ultimately, they will get better!

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