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We asked some of the boldest thinkers what the world will be like in 50 years. Here’s what their answers tell us about the future.

Sponsored by
Kathy Baughman McLeod

Kathy Baughman McLeod

Director, Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center

Kathy Baughman McLeod is the director of the Adrienne Arsht–Rockefeller Foundation Resilience Center at the Atlantic Council. She creates and executes the center’s strategy to help one billion people be more resilient to the challenges of climate change, migration, and security by 2030. Baughman McLeod is the former senior vice president, Global Environmental and Social Risk, for Bank of America.

  • What kinds of companies will be the most important?

    • Companies that reject shareholder primacy—that prioritize the needs of society, community, consumers, and employees above shareholder value—and those that fully understand the social and environmental impacts of their entire supply chain, irrespective of product or industry, will be the ones to thrive.

      To define the characteristics of those companies: They will demonstrate emotional intelligence, flexibility, and the ability to adapt to complex, quickly-shifting conditions, work forces, and social movements. The companies that develop innovative products and services designed to protect people from climate impacts (sea-level rise, extreme heat, disaster) will prosper as well. Examples are companies that make cooling vests for outdoor workers, police officers, and firefighters; flood-response companies; design firms that build resilient structures capable of floating or adapting to rising waters; even “private extraction” companies like those being used by oil and gas entities to “extract” personnel from harmful situations like political conflicts, violence, or natural disasters. 
      Further, companies with a majority of women on their boards and executive teams will outperform competitors and lead in their industry. In fact, I would venture that the numbers of men will flip to a women-led majority in most everything in the next 50 years.

      Finally, given the increase in both the types of risk and the size of risk exposures such as hurricane, drought, extreme heat, and floods, property and casualty industry will finally transform. Along with reinsurance companies, they will offer individual policies that pay quickly based on a metric such as wind speed or sustained temperature. 

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  • What will cause the biggest conflicts?

    • Forced migration due to climate stresses, civil conflict, and violence will cause the biggest conflicts in the future. Every day, 45,000 people are forced from their homes due to conflict and violence. Those numbers are projected to rise. An estimated 3 billion people will be living in settlements and slums by 2030.

      What’s worse, we’re nowhere near reaching the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reduction targets we’ve committed to in the Paris Climate Agreement. If nothing more is done to reduce GHG, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects that the temperature in 2100 will be roughly five degrees higher than it is today. 

      Rates of mosquito-borne and heat-related illness due to extreme heat, water shortages, floods, coastal inundation and erosion, and wildfire will inexorably rise. Big cities, where 68% of the world population is projected to live by 2050, will bear the biggest burden. Compounded tensions in urban areas—already buckling under the weight of population density, influxes of migrant populations, poor land use, insufficient building codes, and failing infrastructure—will create a crucible for further radicalization of disenfranchised populations. 

      The difference between the “haves” and the “have nots” will be further emphasized by the shortage of funding to move communities away from hurricane-impacted and flooding/eroding shorelines. Currently, about 40% of the world's population lives within 100 km (62.5 miles) of the coast. Limited resources mean that some communities will receive help to fortify, rebuild for more resilience, move back or relocate; many will receive no help at all.

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  • What will we eat?

    • We will eat FAR less meat for reasons of cost (including the price on carbon that will absolutely be in place in 50 years). Society will have immense awareness of the animal experience in the human food chain and increased empathy for animals, thus, decreasing demand for meat—even in China.

      In the future, we will need to take more supplements because of depletion in the soil where we grow our food. While soil condition is slowly on its way back to health, climate impacts like drought will mean we need more synthetic vitamins and minerals for normal human development.

      As we become more aware of potential food shortages and more self-reliant, things we now see as unusual, like eating from rooftop and pocket gardens, will become more common.

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  • What kinds of stories will we tell?

    • We will be much more risk-aware and how we share our folklore will reflect it. Even on an individual level, people and institutions will be facing the true cost of their risks. Telling stories about how we manage our risks as families and individuals—how we reduce the risks of floods, adapt to storms, contend with heat—will be as mundane as talking about the weather. 

      Furthermore, stories of shared experiences related to humanitarian conflicts, natural- and climate-driven disasters will become ubiquitous and no longer the exclusive domain of specific geographies or communities.

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    • How will we get information?

      • In 50 years, we will be much better trained in how to discern the veracity of information from all kinds of outlets and sources. People will also get information and “news” from the content we now call video games, but they will be more content-rich. Preschoolers will be trained to discern trusted sources of information as a daily activity along with learning their letters and numbers. Sources of information will be essential to safety and security as disinformation is increasingly a weapon in political and social discourse.

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      • What forms of transportation will we use?

        • We will still be driving cars, but many of us won’t own them anymore due to advances of the sharing economy. Perhaps only those who make any kind of living by owning vehicles will be the exception. By not owning cars individually, we will also share in the cost of fuel and insurance. Over time, we’ll be able to acknowledge the decrease in the need for them. Trains will be improved and expanded; hopefully, the CO2 emissions associated with air travel will be greatly reduced if not absent.

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        • What will cities be like?

          • Future cities will be crowded, wired for public connection, more segregated, on either end of weather extremes—very hot, very wet or very dry—yet, better, more strategically vegetated and forested. Investment in public spaces like parks and natural areas will increase as those spaces will be appreciated for their multiple values to cities and their inhabitants, especially immigrants. People will also no longer need to go to work in the traditional sense; very few will need to commute so people will stay in one part of the city, which will boost reliance on and the importance of community.

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          • What will our borders be like?

            • There is a fundamental battle being waged the world over: good vs. evil; democratic states and strong institutions, the rule of law, trust in government vs. despots and authoritarian leaders stoking fear and xenophobia. Who will win? Trump is breaking down institutions, and it’s not just happening in the US.

              In 50 years, we will be rebuilding a sense of a common good. Our current polarization over crossing borders will play out. Depending on who wins that battle, we will again be collaborating and building, following free-trade rules, and having open borders—or we will be folding in on ourselves and still calling for more “walls.”

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            • What will our most valuable resource be?

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            • What will the biggest change to our natural world be?

              • An understanding of the value of nature will exist at a much higher level—the ecosystem of forests, mangroves, coastal areas, and grasslands will be commonly understood, measured, and incorporated into decision-making. The big change will be a move to return to a time when habitats were sufficient to support species, including humans. We will be somewhere on that path in 50 years.

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              • Will our world be more equal or less equal?

                • Less equal, given the disparity in who gets funding to adapt to and survive the impacts of climate change. The projected 3 billion people living in settlements by 2050 will take generations to climb out of poverty. Communities with money and support will adapt with strategies and shared values built by diverse stakeholders. Unfortunately, these will be few and far between. Mass migration and displacement will set back GDP and the economic and social progress of individuals and families. 

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                • What technology will bring about the biggest change in society?

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                • What’s your best prediction for the world in 50 years?

                  • The global financial system will reflect that a 7-12% return on investment grade financial products (like our current 401k and mutual fund accounts) includes significant harm to women and children, people of color, and the environment. Corporate “sustainability officers” will, therefore, no longer be needed because the financial system will become sophisticated and transparent enough—given the growth of broad availability and access to good data—to show the true costs of doing business the way we do now. Impacts to people and the environment will no longer be “externalities” that do not have a dollar value associated with them.

                    We will have learned that our current financial system is not sustainable, and yes, we’ll be living in a hotter, wetter world—and working to restore forests and wetlands—whereby the value of nature will be on par with the value of money.

                    The upshot: We will not see returns of 10% or more any longer—8% will be a huge return for investors 50 years from now, but the planet and its people will be on a much better trajectory.  

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