By Patrick Thibodeau
Jan. 11, 2017
Despite the dire expectations, these assessments are uncertain.
"The problem is always that it's easy to point to the troubling developing trends," Thomas Stork, an economist with the National Intelligence Council, said at the conference presentation. "It's more difficult to point to the as-yet unknown thing that is going to make it less troubling in the future."
The intelligence report doesn't see problems in supplying the world with energy. New sources of natural gas and declining prices of solar electricity are part of the reason. But water supplies are seen as a major challenge.
Marcia McNutt, president of the National Academy of Sciences, said many places in the world are "mining" for water to meet their needs, or getting it out of aquifers that can take thousands of years to fill. Globally, 21 of the 37 largest aquifers now "are being depleted unsustainably," she said.
But McNutt said water supply problems can be addressed with management and technology changes. She argued, for instance, that it is wasteful to use potable water to flush toilets, wash cars and clean sidewalks.
Soil degradation is another issue. The loss of soil productivity, mostly due to human-induced changes, "is already occurring at rates as much as 40 times faster than new soil formation," the report said.
The intelligence assessment cites not only the problems caused by rising temperatures and sea levels, but the possibility of sudden, dramatic shifts in the climate. That said, climate change will also create new industries, investment opportunities, and "drive both geopolitical competition and international cooperation as well."
In other words, climate change could become a rallying point for global cooperation -- if people can regain their trust in information. That lack of trust could work against a consensus on climate action or anything else. Technology, the report notes, has given individuals and small groups "the ability to exert worldwide influence."
All these changes and environment threats are happening at the same time tensions are rising globally. "A hobbled Europe [and] uncertainty about America's role in the world create openings for China and Russia," the report said,
Amid the report's many warnings and cautions about the next 20 years, was a little optimism.
"The United States has rebounded from troubled times before, however, such as when the period of angst in the 1970s was followed by a stronger economic recovery and global role in the world. Innovation at the state and local level, flexible financial markets, tolerance for risk-taking and a demographic profile more balanced than most large countries offer upside potential," the report said.