World in 2050 | What will the world look like in 2050?
What will the world look like in 2050? A great question that is on a lot of people’s mind, especially on the minds of climate scientists and geologists.
Its 2050, AND another balmy day in Los Angeles. A young woman steps outside and puts on her air filtration mask. The air is thick with smog, which aggravates her asthma. As she hurries to get into an air-conditioned, self-driving car, she wonders if the temperature will finally dip below 90 degrees today for the first time this November.
By 2050, climate change and its reality will no longer be up for debate. The subtle signs we’re starting to see around us will be more pronounced, scientists say, and their impact will be easy to spot in everyday life.
The warming trend can feel overwhelming to understand, much less confront especially with so many factors believed to affect how the planet is changing. But there’s good news: Humanity has tools to shape our future, USC researchers say, and some are already working in places across the globe.
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Weather in 2050
“The global climate is like an aircraft carrier; turning it around is slow,” says Julien Emile-Geay, an associate professor of Earth sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “If we don’t start now, we’ll be stuck in a very tough place in 2050.” As an expert in climate dynamics, Emile-Geay has devoted his career to understanding what’s coming for the planet.
The 20th century was Earth’s warmest period in nearly 2,000 years, he says. Data he examined from a wide variety of sources, including ice cores, tree rings and coral reefs, show that the warming trend began after the industrial revolution the 1850s.
For most of the globe, the warmest temperatures have come within the past 100 years. He agrees with the broad scientific consensus that if the trend continues and physics says it will sea level rise and droughts could render areas of the planet unsafe or even uninhabitable.
Refugees leaving their homes for livable climates could lead to geopolitical instability. The World Bank predicts as many as 140 million people could be displaced by 2050.
Environment in 2050: Something in the Air
We don’t need to time travel to 2050 to imagine the impact of climate change on the air. In spring 2018, Los Angeles’ air quality exceeded federal safety levels for 87 days, says Antonio Bento, director of the USC Center for Sustainability Solutions and professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy and the Department of Economics.
When temperatures rise, so does “bad” ozone. Don’t confuse this ozone with the ozone layer in the upper atmosphere, which shields Earth from the sun’s radiation. Bad ozone forms at ground level when pollutants from cars and other industrial sources react to sunlight.
“Ozone is dependent on temperature, sunlight and heat waves,” Bento says. “That means that higher heat brings on worse air quality.”
In Los Angeles, it’s one of the biggest reasons climate change endangers human health: More days above 90 degrees means more ozone, more asthma, more lung damage and more deaths.
Health problems in 2050
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions would not only reduce health problems related to air pollution impacts, but it also could bring along other benefits, like spurring technological innovation, improving the reliability of the power supply by diversifying energy sources, reducing fuel costs and boosting employment.
“If we account for these co-benefits of climate action, it’s in the best interest of countries to act independently of what others are doing,” he says. “And it’s in the best interest of California to implement climate policies, because even if others don’t act, we will get these additional benefits.”
Bento has worked with the city of Los Angeles and other local governments in the U.S. and abroad to craft climate-mitigation strategies. By 2050, 68% of the world population will live in cities, up from 55% today, so the actions of municipal and regional governments are critical.
“If cities become the unit at which we do climate policy, we end up with comprehensive climate legislation even without national leadership,” he explains. “That’s the future of our cities and the environment. It really depends on how we communicate the climate crisis to the public.”
Oceans and Water in 2050: Beneath the Surface
More than 90% of the warming created by humans since the 1970s has been absorbed by the oceans. And just as on land, there is a shift underway in the sea that will affect the global oceans of 2050, says David Hutchins, a USC Dornsife professor of marine and environmental biology.
“The ocean is warming, acidifying, losing oxygen and being overfished and choked with pollutants ranging from nutrients to plastic,” he says. “Nearly the entire marine environment is in flux right now.”
Some governments, like Australia’s, are taking action, trying to protect reefs by reducing other threats to coral such as dredging and runoff from land. And scientists are identifying and growing types of resistant coral that may be better able to cope with warm water.
In Southern California, people will have to deal with rising sea levels as polar ice continues to melt. Some of California’s most valuable coastal real estate may go underwater later this century, Hutchins says.
Another aquatic impact: unwelcome bursts of harmful algal blooms that thrive in warmer waters and poison human and marine life.
Water distribution in 2050
Water distribution across the planet is a challenge, too: By 2050, more parts of the world will go through droughts, while others will be deluged with floods. It’s hard to believe that a place like Phuket, Thailand, could suffer from a water shortage when about 100 inches of rain falls there per year, says Amy Childress, the Gabilan Distinguished Professor in Science and Engineering at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering.
But right before the monsoon season begins, the reservoirs can get very low as reserves from the last monsoon season dwindle.
Areas like Phuket can’t wait until 2050 to figure out a sustainable plan for their water supply; they need to plan now. That goes for California, too.
In the future, more people will depend on drinking water that’s been recycled. The idea of drinking water that’s “secondhand” from wastewater or other human uses is off-putting to many, maybe because the public prefers to think it should come from a pristine mountain stream, Childress says.
That’s not realistic, even today. “Typically, our drinking water comes from a source that was used upstream by others and is being reused by us,” she says. “We have regulations in place to ensure that this practice is safe.”
Lifestyle in 2050: Changes at Home
For a long time, Bento says, academics were so concerned with getting their climate change models right and assessing broad existential threats they failed to communicate how changes are already affecting daily life. That’s no longer the case.
Commuting, travel, shopping, eating, housing they all may be transformed by 2050 as people come to understand their effect on the planet. Bento, for one, already drives an electric car, but he questions whether he needs one at all.
“It was just such an unquestioned expectation for me, that I would get a car as a teenager,” he explains. “And when electric vehicles arrived, I thought I was doing something for the environment. But now we are moving into new models.
“If we could move to a system that is more efficient, and that integrates density of development with public transit and car-sharing, perhaps we could have much better outcomes.”
Similarly, when people travel for pleasure in the future, more could opt to use low-carbon transportation to explore their own regions instead of taking trips to faraway countries.
Besides changing his travel habits, Emile-Geay also has stopped eating meat, and tries to choose foods grown as locally as possible.
“Some like to pit a healthy planet against a healthy economy,” he says. “That’s a false dichotomy. It’s in our power to build an economy centered on ecological and humanistic values instead. The laws of physics won’t change, but our laws can.”
A possible low-carbon future, he says, could include less driving and more local focus, leaving more time with family and friends, which creates safer communities with stronger social bonds.
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