Environment: Professor Jørgen Randers talks about the ability to feed ourselves in 40 years time, and critiques the Western political and economic models. The second of three interviews.
BI Norwegian Business School professor Jørgen Randers, one of the most influential environmentalists of our times, will be in Luxembourg next Wednesday November 20, to give his global forecast for the next 40 years at a conference organised by Mouvement Ecologique at the Coque at 6:30 p.m.
How will climate change most affect our ability to feed ourselves and our food systems? What parts of the world will see their food systems most affected by global climate change?
JR: “The increased level of CO2 in the atmosphere accelerates plant growth; photosynthesis speeds up when there is more CO2 around. So if this were the only effect of man-made CO2 emissions, the effect on food growth would be positive. But the CO2 also leads to higher temperatures, and heat reduces plant growth, at least in most places. In my own home region, in northern Europe, cold is the limiting factor for plant and tree growth, so both will grow faster when the climate warms.
“The total effect on global agricultural yields will be limited over the next 30 years, but then yields will start to decline because the heat effect will overwhelm the CO2 effect.
“But there will be huge regional variation, and exactly how agriculture will be affected in a specific locality is not yet known by science. There is speculation that corn in the United States and wheat in India may suffer most. But farmers will change to other crops in response--and when there is nothing else around, consumers will have to adjust their tastes to the new stuff.
“In sum I believe that the world will be able to supply the food that is demanded in 2052. The problem will be then, as now, that many people will starve because they cannot afford to pay for the food they need.
“The dominant factor on the world food scene will be poverty, not constraints on land, water, and fertilizer. In 2052 billions will still be poor, and many of them unable to afford enough food--even though this food could have been grown on available land.”
In the book you are critical of the dominant Western political model of democracy and capitalism as limited. Why, and what economic models do you think will best meet the challenges of the future?
JR: “I believe that the main problem today, is the fact that humanity is excessively short term in its outlook. Our current action is dominated by its effect over the next ten years--at most. We do not heed the long-term effect of our current action, and this is the basic reason that we will continue to emit greenhouse gases to such an extent that we risk triggering self-reinforcing climate change in the second half of this century.
“The short-term genetic disposition of humans is reflected in our institutions, and especially in democratic decision-making--which rarely looks at consequences beyond the coming electoral period--and the capital markets--which have an even shorter time horizon. The point I am making is that it is unlikely that these two institutions will come up with a solution to the long-term problem of climate change.
“Short-termism in the financial markets and in democratic parliaments--both resulting from the short-term nature of the normal citizen--makes it unlikely that the market will put in place the necessary solutions in time, and that the governments will pass the necessary regulation that could have forced the markets to do so, that is, to allocate more money into climate-friendly solutions, at the cost of reduced consumption.
“What we need is a system of governance that puts more emphasis on the interest of our children and grandchildren--that is, on future generations. We need stronger government that can force us all to be more long-term in our current action. I believe the current centralist Chinese government has many of the desirable characteristics in this context: it is seeking to allocate capital in ways that bolster the long-term future of China, even when this means lower growth in disposable income.
“It is interesting to note that it is not only communist societies that have chosen to make decisions independent of the popular will. For example, most democratic governments have decided to delegate the authority to decide on the size of the national money supply. This decision is normally delegated to a central bank run by technocrats, outside democratic control in the short term. I support the idea of a Global Central Bank for Control of Climate Emissions, with supernational power to determine national emission strategies based on advice from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and ideally funded through a global tax on climate emissions.”
Are there generational differences in terms of how the young and old view the future, and is there a risk that one generation will be pitted against the other during a time of contraction? Can that be avoided?
JR: “I do believe there are generational differences between the outlooks of young and old people. The young have always tended to look forward while the older tend to look to the past. What is new, I think--and now I am talking about the rich world, the OECD countries--is that today’s young are in a less attractive situation than the young in the post-World War II period.
“Today’s young are faced with the unattractive task of having to pay dearly for their parents’ pensions and their parents’ national debt, while at the same time facing high unemployment and expensive housing. It won’t seem like a fair deal, and I expect the youth to rebel. In some cases this will be resolved peacefully simply by reducing pension benefits or increasing the pension age. Or, by splitting the cost of down-payment of national debt across all citizens in an equitable manner.
“In other constructive cases, society will ensure that the unemployed youth actually is given opportunities. But in sad cases democratic decision-making won’t be up to the challenge. The older majority will not take sufficient care of the young minority, and violent reshuffling of the cards will result. Which in clear language means that some pensions will not be paid and some debt will not be repaid. Or in other words, there will be an intergenerational conflict that the young will win.”
How do you see the future in China? Will the transition to an economic dominance by China be a peaceful one?
JR: “I think the next forty years in China will be a very positive experience for the Chinese. By 2052, China will be the economic superpower of the world--the hegemon. The average per capita income will grow tremendously, most poverty will disappear, and China will be far along on its path toward national self-sufficiency in energy and food and other essential resources. Self-sufficiency has always been the goal of the Middle Kingdom, and it will be achieved again.
“The main reason is that China’s 2000-year-old tradition of a strong central government will survive. This will enable the Chinese to engage in decision-making that focuses on the long term, not the short term. China will be able to use its economic muscle to develop solutions to the societal problems they are facing. They will not need to wait until investments in new solutions become profitable. I agree there is a chance that corruption and huge income differentials may break the spell; but I don’t think it will, because the current leadership is so vey much aware of this threat to Chinese progress.
“Luckily I think the transition to economic dominance by China will be peaceful, because the prime interest of China is to establish a sustainable and happy society on Chinese territory. This will be made simpler by the fact that the Chinese population will be declining already in 2020. China will pay for the resources they need to import with their abundance of competitive manufactured products, like the United States paid for decades for oil from the Middle East. China won’t need to occupy foreign lands in order to ensure progress. It will simply buy what it needs.”
On Monday, Randers predicts how the EU, US and “BRISE” countries will fare in the future, and paints a different picture of multiplying megacities.