The time is the early 2030s. “The world was in the midst of a global catastrophe. Rising ocean temperatures and acidity devastated major fisheries already stressed by years of overfishing.
“At the same time, changes in precipitation patterns depressed harvests in key grain producing areas around the world, driving up food prices, triggering widespread hoarding, and disrupting the distribution of food supplies, leading to global famine.
“A wave of unrest spread across the globe, protesting governments’ inability to meet basic human needs and bringing down leaders and regimes. … Across the world, younger generations, shaped by the COVID-19 pandemic and traumatized by the threat of running out of food, joined together across borders to overcome resistance to reform, blaming older generations for destroying their planet.”
That’s not the plot from a dystopian novel — it’s a scenario from an influential new report by the U.S. intelligence community. With input and review by leading universities, think tanks and businesses, the document is grounded in solid research.
Every four years since 1997, the Global Trends report has attempted to look 20 years into the future. In the latest, released last month, no one can accuse them of being brightsiders.
Subtitled “A More Contested World,” it lays out a somber path to 2040. Climate change figures prominently but isn’t alone in the looming challenges.
The previous report, from early 2017, raised the red flag for a global pandemic — albeit in 2023, not 2020 — echoing cautions going back two decades.
It also warned about nationalist politicians (“America First”) undermining alliances, a severe drop in oil prices and protectionist trade policies.
The new report states, “Much like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to produce some changes that will be felt for years to come and change the way we live, work and govern domestically and internationally. How great these will be, however, is very much in question.”
Indeed, the pandemic “has shaken long-held assumptions about resilience and adaptation and created new uncertainties about the economy, governance, geopolitics, and technology.” Trust appears to be a casualty, too, with everything politicized in our closely divided nation.
Even with a light-speed effort to provide vaccines, many Americans — even in supposedly progressive Washington state — will refuse to get them.
We’re only beginning to sort the path ahead in Seattle, a Superstar City of the 2010s that has seen key sectors wounded and politics shifted to the far left. A comeback is not guaranteed, especially if the most dismal predictions of this report come true.
Economics is one of the four strategic areas of focus (the others are demographics, environment and technology) considered “foundational in shaping future dynamics and relatively universal in scope.”
The economic section of the report appears to be the most predictable because it continues trends already underway: powerful firms expanding; evolving global competitiveness; increasing employment disruptions; fragmenting trade, and rising national debt.
The familiarity of the challenges doesn’t guarantee agreement in the report on every outcome, however. For example, consider the effect of artificial intelligence and automation on employment. Will it kill relatively few jobs (9%)? Accelerate a persistent mismatch between workers and jobs available? Create more jobs than it destroys? Or “could 2040 be jobless?”
The report lays out reasons why each of these outcomes is possible. But it’s clear that these coming two decades won’t be as smooth as, say, 1950 to 1970.
As for trade, expect the World Trade Organization — the fulfillment of American post-World War II aspirations — to become more antiquated over the next two decades. Regional agreements will play bigger roles. This leaves many questions for Washington, America’s most trade-dependent and trade-vulnerable state.
The report says, “A combination of the desire to protect jobs in the manufacturing sector, concerns about capturing gains from winner-take-all technological progress, and a focus on critical inputs, such as medical equipment and pharmaceutical feedstocks, is likely to further accelerate the use of protectionist trade policies.”
Financial crises — from which the United States was spared from the end of the Great Depression until 2008 — are likely to become more common.
Climate change rightly is front and center in the new strategic assessment.
Already, the science of human-caused global warming is far more solid and settled than the denial propagandists would have you believe. It’s already affecting the economy, environment and geopolitics (e.g. the Syrian civil war).
The past decade has been the hottest on record, and every 10-year stretch since the 1960s has been hotter than the one before it.
Going to 2040, the intelligence agencies conclude, “Climate change will increasingly exacerbate risks to human and national security and force states to make hard choices and tradeoffs. The burdens will be unevenly distributed, heightening competition, contributing to instability, straining military readiness, and encouraging political movements.”
Higher temperatures, extreme weather, sea-level rise and resulting migration are baked in the cake. The question is how bad they get. Can societies and governments make the changes needed to lower emissions? How much can new technologies help? The next 20 years will be critical to addressing this existential crisis.
This 150-page document allows space to hedge its bets. A renaissance of democracy is even possible. But not likely. The preponderance of evidence points to a future of conflict, mistrust, inevitable rising inequality, disruption and difficult choices. Nuclear proliferation and even nuclear warfare are more likely.
All is not lost. Scenarios are not destiny. Global Trends offers policymakers some ways out of the worst outcomes.
The Biden administration has made a promising start on reasserting American leadership on climate and alliances, “building back better” with proposals to make massive investments in infrastructure, and policies to encourage equity and opportunity. If Democrats keep the Congress in 2022 and 2024, we might just get a chance.
Otherwise, we’ll be thrown back into division and stagnation — setting the table for the worst of Global Trends outcomes. We can’t say we weren’t warned.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.