5 Long-Term Trends the New Obama Cabinet Should Understand

factory pipe polluting air ...
factory pipe polluting air ...

A president's cabinet shapes the tone and agenda of an administration. And as Obama reshuffles his, it's likely that no matter whether former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel becomes the next SecDef or Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry the top diplomat, the administration's overall second-term global priorities will be similar to the first: improve financial stability, increase security, and promote diplomacy.

It's the nuance that might change. And it's our hope at the Frederick S. Pardee Center for International Futures that the next cabinet members, whoever they are, take a longer view than their predecessors. The chaos of governance can tend to overemphasize short-term objectives relative to longer-term goals. Yet, these longer views are often just as important in a nation's strategic thinking.

As a forecasting and research center geared toward informing such long-term global strategy, we've listed five global trends that we think the next Obama administration needs to better understand -- and act upon -- this term.

1. The global climate is still changing.

Last year was the hottest year in our nation's recorded history, and scientific consensus has long told us that carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere has been a driver of such changing precipitation and temperature patterns on Earth. In our scenario analyses using the International Futures model, we've found that U.S. policy decisions could have a real effect on these carbon levels. Take the chart below, which shows different scenarios for carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere.


During his first term, Obama pushed a few green initiatives domestically, such as the DOE's loan guarantee program and a rise in CAFE standards. Internationally, he also gave wind to global climate agreements, such as those shaped by summits in Copenhagen, Cancun, and Durban. While these agreements are important, they're hard to make effective for a slew of reasons, including the difficulty of worldwide collective action and varying economic costs for each country.

Meanwhile, cheap fossil fuels (driven, in part, by technologies like fracking) make the long-term negative impacts of climate change even more ominous.

For these reasons, the next Obama cabinet should focus on using information and communication technologies (ICTs) as a driver of reducing carbon dioxide. ICTs form the backbone of smart-grid electric systems that can be very energy efficient and promote local renewable energy production. Our research has found that a strong investment in promoting ICT for reducing carbon had a similar impact -- at a global level -- on reducing emissions to a $100 per ton carbon tax.

2. Africa's fast-growing population should not be ignored.

By 2050, one in four people in the world will live on the African continent. While most countries and regions will be saturating population growth, Africa's growth rate will remain above 1 percent by mid-century.

Of course, the countries of Africa are diverse, and different U.S. action is required in different nations. On the one hand, many are growing rapidly because of improved health, education, governance, and infrastructure. This growth is sustained by technology leap-frogging and increasing trade partners, like China and India. The new cabinet should try to sustain this growth--and encourage Americans to take advantage of the opportunity -- by increasing foreign direct investment to African countries. If he's confirmed, Kerry's participation in the African Growth and Opportunity Act of 2000 would be a good precedent.

On the other hand, problems persist, and some states, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and Somalia, remain very unstable. The new Secretary of Defense will likely spend more time focusing on these lawless areas than the previous cabinet, ensuring they don't expand as safe havens for terrorist networks.

3. Improving human development will be a lingering challenge.

The number of people in extreme poverty today stands around 1.2 billion. According to the Pardee Center, if government policies continue as they have since the end of the Cold War, this number stands to reduce to around 600 million by 2030.

Sure, that's a major reduction. But that's still a huge number -- almost double the current U.S. population -- that will remain in extreme poverty.

To confront this problem and address other global issues related to human development, the new Obama cabinet should support a new round of Millennium Development Goals that is aggressive but reasonable. These new development targets should be country specific and realistic. For instance, expecting Chad and the United States to both reduce extreme poverty by 50 percent is not reasonable in the first case, nor aggressive enough in the second.

4. China is gaining on us quickly, but it's not the end of the world.

As I noted in my last post on the Pardee Center's work for the National Intelligence Council's Global Trends 2030 report, China is increasing its relative material power and will outstrip the United States' sometime in the first half of this century (depending on the measure used). But despite the apparent inertia of this material power transition, the diplomatic influence of standard Western countries will persist through institutional structures and norms.

The United States will still be a leading power despite China's advances, and the Obama administration might try to shape its policy toward China with that in mind. The president's current nominees for State and Defense, Hagel and Kerry alike have supported the idea that a deepening cooperation with China is a key driver of a more effective international system. If either is confirmed, we may see U.S.-China rhetoric toned down a few notches compared with Obama's first term.

5. Today's major powers are aging rapidly.

Rapid aging has important impacts on government spending and productivity. China, especially, is in a period of rapid aging -- a long-term impact of the one- and two-child policies. Indeed, our International Futures forecasts indicate that when China passes the United States in terms of material power, it will be nearly as old as Europe is today. But China is not alone. Aging will be an increasingly important issue in many other developed places, like Japan or South Korea, too. In Japan, for example, we forecast that the population over 65 will grow from 20 percent to nearly 30 percent of the total over the next 15 years.

The new Obama cabinet should focus on promoting improved migration policies in the countries forecasted to age most. Such policies would help these countries, which are now our major economic partners, to promote stability and growth in a way that's sustainable long into the future.