Wherever you stand on the legitimacy of the Royals, the bright new addition to their family – receiving microscopic media coverage of ludicrous proportions – has brought well wishes from all quarters of the political spectrum. A few commentators have even pointed to Prince Charles’ longstanding passion for environmental issues and climate change – manifest in his earnest letters to the government – as evidence of how he intends to fulfill his caring role as grandfather to the little tot.
Indeed, earlier this year, the next-in-line to the British throne revealed how the prospect of becoming a grandfather had spurred his environmental convictions, because he does not want to “hand on an increasingly dysfunctional world to our grandchildren.” As a parent myself, I feel much the same.
But few have noted that by the time the Royal Baby is a grown up Prince in his early 30s – around the same age as his dad is now – the world could well be a much more dangerous place, if business as usual continues apace.
Fast forward to Year 2050, and assuming Prince George takes after his environmentalist grandfather, he’ll be grappling with the reality of an increasingly uninhabitable planet for over half of the global population. Based on the most conservative predictions for business as usual – even if we meet all our emissions reduction pledges – we are heading for about 3 degree Celsius rise in global average temperatures by that time. Let’s not even bother thinking about the impact of amplifying feedbacks that most climate models ignore.
Before 2050, coral bleaching will hit 74% of the world’s reefs as ocean temperatures rise – 19% have already disappeared, and a recent study suggests we are well on track for coral reefs to become extinct. Coral reefs affect the entire ocean ecosystem, and as so many fish species are dependent on them to survive, their extinction would undermine the livelihoods of an estimated one billion people who rely on fishing as source of food and income. Effectively, we would face the complete and irreversible collapse of the marine ecosystem.
That’s just part of it. By around this time, at least a quarter of the world’s species will be extinct due to global warming. No wonder one study has argued that the current Holocene extinction event, proceeding over the course of decades rather than centuries largely due to the impact of industrial civilisation, may be the greatest extinction event in Earth’s history.
By 2050, the Prince would also be concerned that 4.8 billion people – over half the then global population – will suffer from severe water scarcity. Business as usual water management practices will put at risk about $63 trillion – nearly half of the world’s projected GDP at that time. Simultaneously, wildfires in vulnerable regions will double in destructiveness, with particular hotspots experiencing a five-fold increase in acres burned.
As Prince George grows up, he will witness droughts, floods, heat waves and extreme weather on a scale that will eventually wipe out crop yields in the major food basket regions by over 40%.
But water woes will also affect energy production with fossil fuels like coal, oil, gas and nuclear – still dominating the energy scene by then – being heavily water dependent and even some alternatives like biofuels requiring significant water inputs. The problem is that by 2050, the world population will need double the water it uses now to meet its energy needs – but there won’t be enough for even half that population.
By 2050, Prince George will witness us hitting the fundamental limits of our dependence on traditional mineral energy resources, especially fossil fuels, in their own right. Scientific studies show that oil, gas, coal and uranium will all have definitively breached their production peaks, with energy production at this time being dramatically more expensive – oil prices might be as high as $500 as we become increasingly wedded to dirty unconventionals requiring costly and destructive extractive methods.
The higher costs of resource extraction not just for fossil fuels, but also for everything else, will act as an intensifying drag on the economy. Simultaneously, the devastating impacts of routine climate catastrophes in the form of extreme weather, heat stress, proliferation of diseases, and so on, will trigger ongoing costs slashing into world GDP to the tune of 3.2% annually at least.
This dual combination of deepening energy and environmental costs will basically kill growth.
The geopolitical implications of all this are incalculable, but it won’t be good. Major oil exporters in the Middle East and North Africa will be collapsing as their oil revenues plummet and they fail to provide for the water and food needs of their populations – processes already at way in countries like Egypt and Syria. China and India will be grappling with domestic uprisings, too, as their unsustainable debt-saddled demographic dividends explode into nightmares.
The UK, following the US lead, may find itself increasingly embroiled in long, unpopular and costly military expeditions responding to myriad climate emergencies while simultaneously attempting to secure fast-diminishing resources. As their welfare systems collapse under the strain of dwindling GDP, as governments resort to knee-jerk police-state measures to quell domestic anger, we could see social polarisation and the resurgence of extremist nationalism on a scale that would make Greece’s Golden Dawn look like a holiday agency. Government and corporate-backed land grabbing will accelerate as states and investors seek to maximise strained profits amidst rocketing land and commodity prices, displacing millions of poor and fueling local uprisings.
In short, looking through the lens of business as usual, Prince George is part of a generation of children who, if they survive to 2050, will confront a brave new world that is crowded, underfed, thirsty, poor, unemployed and fighting for survival. He of course would be shielded from much of these impacts – but if he is anything like his grandfather, it will haunt him. If that’s not enough to turn a Prince into a radical ecowarrior, I don’t what else would.
The thing is: None of this is inevitable. It is merely a glimpse of what might happen if we don’t make the collective decision to change course, now.
And I’d rather my kids didn’t have to endure lessons on tree-hugging from a Royal.
Dr Nafeez Ahmed is executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development and author of A User’s Guide to the Crisis of Civilisation: And How to Save It among other books. Follow him on Twitter @nafeezahmed