How People Live. . .

Natural and human-induced changes in many of Earth’s ecosystems during the coming decades are likely to weaken the planet’s resilience and expose humans to new health, food, water, energy, and infrastructure vulnerabilities and demands.  With changes in climate, weather will become less predictable and suitable for the status quo.  The oceans’ biodiversity will plummet as they become warmer and more acidic, fragile, and polluted.  Human and animal health will face threats from heatwaves, cold snaps, and the altered dynamics of pathogen spread.  These risks will be distributed unequally in time and geography but have the potential to harm most of the world’s populations and ecosystems—severely in some cases, and catastrophically in others.

Environmental and climate changes will challenge systems in different dimensions; heat waves, for example, stress infrastructure, energy, human and animal health, and agriculture.  Climate change—observed or anticipated—almost certainly will become an increasingly integral component of how people view their world, especially as populations are projected to swell in those areas most vulnerable to extreme weather events and sea-level rise, including coastal megacities and regions already suffering from water scarcity.  Many of the ecological and environmental stresses from climate change—and the infectious diseases it will affect—will cut across state borders, making coordination among governments and international institutions crucial to effective responses.  Policies and programs to mitigate and adapt to these challenges will spur opportunities for those well-positioned to benefit.

Major Trends

Changes in Earth Systems.  Climate change, sea level rise, and ocean acidification are likely to amplify stresses already felt from population growth, urbanization, inadequate environmental protection, and the use of energy and past natural resources.  Although new climate policies could reduce the rate of greenhouse gas emissions over time, past emissions already have locked in a significant rise in global mean temperature, which will in turn drive more frequent and intense extreme weather events, such as heatwaves, droughts, and floods.  The steady run of record-setting weather and growing frequency of extreme events suggest to many scientists that climate change is hitting harder and sooner than the gradual change often projected.  The intensity of the disruptions could vary widely, spawning unpleasant surprises, particularly given that an increasingly significant fraction of the planet’s species already are at increased extinction risk.

  • Forecasting changes with greater regional and time precision becomes increasingly uncertain, but the stresses will probably disrupt the most vulnerable—or unlucky—populations in countries at all levels of development.
  • Storm surges, augmented by sea level rise, are likely to threaten many coastal systems and low-lying areas, and this environmental volatility almost certainly will disrupt food production patterns and water availability, fueling broader economic, political and social stresses. Changes in the Arctic will exceed those felt in the middle latitudes, and reductions in summer sea-ice will make the Arctic more accessible than any time in human history. (Follow this link to read the NIC paper on Implications for US National Security of Anticipated Climate Change.)

Human and Animal Health Under Pressure.  Changing environmental conditions and increasing global connectivity will affect precipitation patterns, biodiversity, and the geographic distribution of pathogens and their hosts, which will in turn affect the viability and vitality of crops and agricultural systems; the emergence, transmission, and spread of human and animal infectious diseases; and potential medical and pharmacological discoveries. The direct impact by environmental stressors to human health from increased heat stress, floods, drought, and increased frequency of intense storms will force difficult decisions on how and where to live, particularly in low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

  • Indirect environmental threats to population health will emerge in the form of food insecurity, under-nutrition, and air and water quality declines as a result of pollution.  Troubling trends in communicable diseases—in particular, emerging zoonotic diseases, antimicrobial resistant (AMR) pathogens—and noncommunicable diseases (NCDs)—including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and mental illness—may be the result of these effects,
  • These concerns will be further intensified by demographic and cultural trends, such as aging societies in Europe and Asia; inadequate nutrition and sanitation in Africa and India, urbanization and development in uninhabited areas and the rise of megacities; and a widening inequality gap.  Perversely, increased longevity—an almost-universal goal—will reduce food and water security in places that are only marginally capable of supporting their populations.

Unaddressed disease-control deficiencies in national and global health systems will make outbreaks more difficult to detect and manage, increasing the potential for epidemics far beyond their points of origin.  Increasing contact between people and the easier spread of diseases mean that chronic infectious diseases that are already widespread—such as tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and hepatitis—will continue to pose heavy economic and human burdens on high-prevalence countries, despite the significant international resources that have been committed to combatting them.  Many middle-income countries already struggle with the burden of increasing noncommunicable diseases on top of persistent infectious diseases.

Critical Human Systems at Risk.  The increasing incidence of extreme weather events put all people at risk, although those concentrated in dense areas will be especially vulnerable.  International organizations will be increasingly stretched to respond to the food, water, transportation, shelter, and health needs of those affected unless states and localities have made provisions to mitigate the risks, such as infrastructure improvements and early warning systems.

  • Soil and land degradation during the next 20 years will diminish land available for food production, contributing to shortages and raising prices.  Even more-affluent nations are at risk, to the extent that they rely on the highly efficient global agricultural trade that has developed under stable environmental conditions during peacetime.
  • Water shortages and pollution probably will undermine the economic performance and health conditions of populations worldwide, including those of major developing countries.  Economic output would suffer if countries do not have enough clean water to generate electrical power or to support manufacturing and resource extraction.  Water problems—added to poverty, social tension, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, gender inequality, and weak political institutions—contribute to social disruptions that can prompt state failures.

Key Choices

How will political leaders and populations respond to a world less able to sustain life?  Environmental and ecological degradation and climate change are likely to force governments and aid organizations at all levels to wrestle with how to divide their resources between crisis response—especially to the most vulnerable populations—and long-term investment to build more resilient and adaptive systems.  Unprecedented weather events and ongoing desertification will hurt vulnerable populations in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, with major droughts probably causing some water, food, and livestock systems to fail.  More intense tropical storms will have a cumulative impact on infrastructure, health, and biodiversity in some coastal and low-lying areas that could overwhelm recovery and reconstruction efforts.  Those struggling to survive such disruptions could, on the positive side, develop radical innovations for improvement or , more negatively, turn violent, migrate—if allowed by similarly struggling or less hospitable neighbors—or die.

  • Some prominent voices will call for interventions involving climate geoengineering, although the governance and legal structures needed for these technologies to be deployed with minimal social disruption are almost certain to lag research and development.
  • There are also likely to be calls to give the victims of extreme levels of environmental degradation some form of “asylum-like” right as refugees.

To what extent will individuals, governments, and private, civil, and international organizations employ new technologies to improve food, water, and energy security; air and ocean quality and biodiversity; human and animal health; and the resilience of transportation, information systems, and other critical infrastructure?

The inability to predict the timing or location of complex environmental and climatological events increases the need to develop information systems that would better enable officials to make near real-time assessment and policy decisions to minimize damages and casualties.  Prevention is better than cure; the cost of building resilient infrastructure is generally much lower than disaster recovery, but mobilizing the political will and resources to take preventative action will be difficult without a dramatic crisis to realign priorities.

Even after a crisis, the will to prevent future harm is often overwhelmed by the breadth and complexity of investing in climate and public health research, monitoring and surveillance; financing climate-resilient health systems; developing a sustainable carbon budget; developing more energy-efficient buildings and transportation systems, applying “best practices” for industrial processes to reduce the risks to food, water, and health systems; improving water management through pricing allocations and “virtual water” trade; and investing in water-related sectors such as agriculture, power, and water treatment.

An increasingly important challenge for resource sustainability will be developing the capability to assess local population needs for power, fuel, and food in near real-time.  Tracking the interactions between natural resources and people—and wildlife—would enable better understanding of resource needs, a key vulnerability in an era of increasingly scarce resources.

New investments in energy and technologies offer an important opportunity to reduce the risk of adverse climate change, although most of these will require substantial funding and years of effort to deliver benefits.  These include clean-energy sources and enabling technologies, such as offshore wind energy, solar cells, distributed power generation, and energy storage; improvements in combustion sources such as biofuels and waste-to-energy; and mitigation through carbon-capture and sequestration.

  • Reducing carbon output will threaten entrenched economic interests and disrupt longstanding communities built around hydrocarbon industries.
  • Ocean energy, renewable synthetic fuels, next-generation nuclear power, methane hydrates, wireless energy transmission, and energy harvesting are promising but far from maturity.  Industrialized biotechnology can contribute to the manufacturing and extraction sectors, food and health security, and defense.

Many new technologies hold great potential for addressing the complex challenges the world faces, but their impact will be blunted if available to only a few countries or elite segments of populations.  Increased global connectivity makes populations more aware of new technologies and more eager to access them.  Countries and regional and international organizations could be hamstrung by the differing rates at which national and international policies develop relative to those of technology developments.

  • Technological advances in healthcare, synthetic biology and biotechnology, information, materials and manufacturing, and robotics are likely to improve disease prevention, surveillance, treatment, and management that will improve quality of life and lengthen lifespans.
  • Automation could reduce pharmaceutical R&D costs by enabling computerized rational drug design and human-system modeling that reduce animal testing and failed products.

Advanced biotechnology alone cannot address a number of important public health threats, such as the rise of antimicrobial resistance (AMR).  There is also a pressing need for relatively simple technologies that can be made affordable for a global population.  To meet these needs, business practices in generating new health technologies are likely to shift.  Pandemic and AMR research has already shifted toward public funds rather than private investment for product development; development funds are also likely to come from nontraditional sources, including other high-income countries, emerging economies, and philanthropic sources.  In short, changes in innovation models will be as important as changes in the technologies themselves.

How much will individuals, governments, and private, civil, and international organizations partner in new ways to build resilience into critical human support systems?  Making support providers more resilient will be critical to reducing the impact of climate-change related events—particularly in densely populated urban areas—and to improving the speed and quality of responses to those events.  Many states and local governments will be unable to provide the capital needed for major infrastructure investments, making support from sources such as civil and international organizations, corporations, and individuals necessary for success.  However, motivating donors and political interests—which may see little incentive to develop more-resilient, redundant infrastructure, rather than just more infrastructure—may prove difficult.  An additional challenge will be to work with individuals, organizations such as researchers, NGOs, and corporations, states, and the international community to make technologies and capabilities available to both “haves” and “have nots.”