Global Climate and Global Power
I was pinged recently by the UK outfit Forum for the Future, a foresight team specializing in sustainable futures. They wanted to know what I thought would be the key issues the world would be confronting in 2030. "Climate" is the first thing that popped to mind, unsurprisingly, and we talked for a bit about what that might look like. (I also argued for molecular nanotechnology as a likely disruptive element to the world of 2030, and I'll examine what that might mean down the road.)
Something I didn't get to go into, but is on my mind these days, is the possible political shake-up coming in part from how we respond to climate disruption. 2030 is a good target point for this issue, since I'm fairly confident that by then we'll have seen some significant changes in how we govern the planet.
This scenario most likely to make this apparent is one in which we embark upon a set of geoengineering-based responses to the climate problem (not as the sole solution, but as a disaster-avoidance measure), probably starting in the early-mid 2010s. These would likely be various forms of thermal management, such as stratospheric sulfate injections or high-altitude seawater sprays, but might also include some form of carbon capture via ocean fertilization, or even something not yet fully described*. Mid-2010s strikes me as a probable starting period, mostly out of a combination of desperation and compromise; geo advocates might see it as already too late, while geo opponents would likely want to have more time to study models.
As a result, by 2030, while various carbon mitigation and emission reduction schemes continue to expand, a good portion of international diplomacy concerns just how to control (and deal with the unintended consequences of) climate engineering technologies. It's not impossible that there will be an outbreak or two of violence over geo management. I wouldn't be surprised if at one point, the world ceases geoengineering, only to find temperatures bouncing back up quickly; geo would then almost certainly be resumed.
This is a challenging world, and not just because of conflicts over control or the potential for unexpected impacts. It's a world in which the two familiar models of power -- "hard" military power and "soft" cultural power -- don't adequately describe the arena of competition. Although geoengineering might have the potential to be used harmfully, it would be insufficiently visible, swift, and controllable to serve as a broadly useful form of force; similarly, the memetic elements of a geoengineering strategy are keenly focused on scientific debates over uncertain results, a form of discourse which tends to be opaque to most citizens.
And the struggles over geoengineering wouldn't be happening in a vacuum. Over the next couple of decades, we'll be dealing with multiple complex global system breakdowns, from the present financial system crisis to peak oil production to the very real possibility of food system collapse. Climate disruption, with or without geoengineering, clearly falls into the category, as well: systems in which neither hard nor soft power work very well. All of these problems demand greater information analysis, long-term thinking, and accountability than traditional forms of power tend to offer.
The era of overlapping system threats is now clearly underway, and geoengineering will be a highlight of that period. New patterns of international behavior will almost certainly have emerged by 2030. My gut sense is that they'll have a strong legalistic component; in particular, one of the major points of debate over geoengineering will be liability for negative consequences. Given the need to deal with these overlapping crises, we might imagine the third form of power (beyond hard and soft power) as a kind of "administrative" power. (There's an intentional echo here of Thomas Barnett's "sysadmin force" concept, but this isn't meant as a direct link.) Although much of what I've been discussing here about administrative power focuses on the actions of states and transnational entities, the same concept could easily be applied to bottom-up groups and movements (just as hard and soft power concepts operate at both ends of the scale).
I know that the notion of administrative power as a parallel to hard & soft power isn't quite right. But there's something there about an alternative model of competition that works directly with complex interconnected global systems. Geoengineering won't be the cause of it -- really, the emergence of administrative power (or whatever you call it) is already underway -- but could well be the action that makes this model of power clearly visible.
And yes, "administrative power" is a boring name.
* To be clear: I'm not endorsing any of these models in particular, only noting that they're currently the ones seeing the most discussion.