by Jorgen Randers

Human civilisation: the next 40 years

Extraordinary action is needed to avert the coming climate crisis

The next 40 years will see a climate crisis
new earth.jpg

It’s not too late to avert a climate crisis, but 'pervasive human short-termism' makes it highly unlikely that society will do so in the next 40 years.

According to Jorgen Randers, leading economist and professor of climate strategy at the BI Norwegian Business School, although the technologies exist and the costs to do so are not exorbitant, the world’s leaders are incapable of taking the necessary action to secure a more sustainable future for human civilisation.

Although it is relatively cheap – if humanity chose to use available technologies to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, the cost would amount to 1% or 2% of gross domestic product – it is still more expensive than doing nothing,” said Randers. “Human short-termism therefore prevents us from doing anything. It is difficult to get people to make sacrifices today for an uncertain future.”

Randers was speaking at a forum organised by the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership South African office in Cape Town recently, on his forecasts for the next 40 years of human civilisation.

It is a future that he describes as “not rosy”. “Although the world’s population and economy will grow more slowly in the next 40 years than most people expect – it will still be fast enough to trigger a climate crisis,” said Randers. He said that although this may not be dramatic, it will make human life on this planet extremely uncomfortable.

In this world, growth in population and GDP will be constrained by rapid fertility decline as a result of increased urbanisation. There will be a decline in productivity and continuing poverty among the poorest two billion world citizens. Consumption will stagnate because society will have to spend ever more on repairing the damages wrought by climate change and adaptation strategies.

Randers is no stranger to forecasting. As co-author of the famous 1972 book, The Limits to Growth, he participated in one of the most ambitious forecasting exercises of the last 40 years, creating 12 scenarios for what the future of the planet may look like 100 years into the future. Although the book became a best-seller, it was widely criticised. However, almost all the predictions that it made have since come to pass.

Randers said he was tempted into embarking on this second forecasting exercise, published in his new book, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, partly for selfish reasons. “I wanted to know what the world would look like as I get older,” and partly because he “couldn’t resist the temptation to deliver a final kick in the ass to society in the hope that this might move them to do something”.

We already live in a manner that cannot be continued for generations without major change. Humanity has overshot the Earth’s resources, and in some cases we will see local collapse before 2052; we are emitting twice as much greenhouse gas every year as can be absorbed by the world’s forests and oceans,” warned Randers. “Action is necessary; it is desirable!”

According to him, the kind of action required is “extraordinary”. “Ordinary action won’t work; it has already been worked into my scenarios,” he said.

Randers presents five such extraordinary actions that could work if they were implemented urgently, including:

  • Introducing a one-child policy in rich nations;
  • Banning fossil fuel use in the rich world;
  • Helping the poor with clean energy;
  • Tempering short-termism by establishing a supra-national institution with powers to implement the necessary changes; and lastly
  • Establishing new goals for rich society for well-being in a world without growth.


However, he remains skeptical that any such reforms will be implemented in time, citing human short-termism and democratic political systems that reinforce this as the main culprits in holding back change.

So the climate problem will not be solved simply because we choose not to solve it,” he said. “Humanity is in the process of postponing action until it is too late. Not too late that the world will come to an end, but so late that our grandchildren will have a harder life than if we had acted decisively today.”

The data available to support his predictions is abundant and extremely clear. “We know much more now that we did in 1972,” said Randers. And this paints a relentless picture of the future that is difficult to ignore.

The momentum in the system is so strong that we basically know what will happen unless there is extraordinary action in the next 40 years.”

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