TIME | 18 April 2016
By Parag Khanna
'Go north, young man'
I hate to say it, but I might be living at the wrong latitude—or at least, my kids certainly are. Reams of climate change reports—and a quick look at the news showing submerged tropical islands—attest to how sea levels are rising fastest at the equator … and we live in the equatorial city-state of Singapore.
Of course, the good people of the tropics aren’t to be blamed for climate change: Their emissions have historically been much lower than the gas-guzzling, winter-heating, highrise-building and city-sprawling West. But in a perverse geological twist, temperatures are rising fastest at the extreme latitudes—the Arctic and Antarctic—accelerating the ice melt that will drown the Maldives and Kiribati.
Every time we think we are near a climate deal, it slips between our fingers. The Supreme Court’s recent decision to block the enforcement of President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which would accelerate the phasing out of coal power in favor of low-emissions sources of electricity, is considered a fatal blow to the major Paris Climate Agreement forged just last December. And even when there is agreement on emissions reduction targets, they are watered down and set far into the future. Meanwhile, we are already experiencing climate change’s volatility today with a painful increase in droughts, skewed currents and migration patterns of fish, oceanic surges and other no-longer-so-freak occurrences.
We can’t achieve a meaningful global consensus on global warming because not everyone loses equally or at the same rate. The urgency exhorted by the Pacific Islands isn’t truly shared by Canada and Russia, about half of whose territory is covered in permafrost and almost totally depopulated. Canada’s largest Inuit population (in Nunavut) numbers only 25,000, hardly a major voting block even as they now have to move further and further north each year to hunt for their caribou and seals. And perversely, the thawing permafrost of Russia’s Siberia and Canada’s Northwest Territories has made the world’s northern latitudes a giant bog that releases five or more million tons of methane (a greenhouse gas) per year, accelerating the demise of ecosystems lying to their south. The face of global warming will no longer be belching Chinese factories or the congested highways of Los Angeles but the endless tundra of Canada and Russia.
Let’s state the long-term truth no diplomat would: The world’s two largest countries are also among the two biggest winners from climate change. They are already among the top energy and food producers in the world, and with warming temperatures they can more easily access even more energy and produce quantum leaps more food. Oil may be getting cheaper, but agrobusiness is a surging asset class. According to New Scientistmagazine, a 4 degree Celsius rise in global averages temperatures would decrease agriculture yields in today’s other leading states such as the U.S., Brazil,China, India and Australia. Meanwhile, Canada and Russia’s ramped up industrial farming industries could be the breadbaskets for the planet. They are the hydro and food superpowers of a dry and thirsty planet.
Under these extreme but realistic scenarios, there is much more coming to the northern giants than just more tractors. They should expect a few hundred million new neighbors, too.
We are becoming a world of climate refugees: According to the U.N., there are millions of people fleeing floods, droughts and other natural disasters. A 2015 paper published in the journal Nature Climate Change claimed that the Middle East would be totally unlivable by 2100, if not sooner. Both the heat and the humidity would be too much to bear—“even for the fittest of humans.” By the way: Did I mention that the United Arab Emirates other Gulf statelets have among the fastest-growing populations on the planet today, attracting waves of migrants to their luxurious air-conditioned condos and tax-free lifestyles?
It is a paradox of our times that millions of people are enthusiastically moving to some of the hottest and driest places in the world, whether Dubai or Phoenix. For example, Las Vegas is one of America’s fastest-growing cities—just as its primary water source, Lake Mead, is being reduced to a trickle.
There are plausible solutions to the skyrocketing water demand in the American southwest. Southern California is home to more large-scale water desalination projects than anywhere else in America, and we could dust off decades-old hydro-engineering proposals. The U.S. will have to become a “hydraulic civilization”—the term coined by Joseph Needham to describe ancient Chinese canal and aqueduct building practices—installing water pipes as long as oil pipelines to reach Texas and Arizona, and even Georgia and Florida, where rapid groundwater depletion has led to saltwater substitution. The North American Water and Power Alliance foresaw using nuclear explosions to forge underground trenches and reservoirs and nuclear power stations to pump water across the continent. As mass urbanization coincides with existential levels of water scarcity, there could be no more sensible use of nuclear weapons and power today.
All of this would make the world’s expanding dry belts more survivable, but not necessarily pleasant. It is much safer to bet on human ingenuity than on political will, meaning we aren’t likely to muster the Congressional support or Canadian cooperation for endlessly slurping its freshwater supplies southward. Instead, the planet’s great northern expanses will likely gradually be colonized by climate migrants from around the world, both forced and voluntary.
As the earth’s overpopulated equatorial latitudes experience drought, crop failure, and desertification while the depopulated far northern latitudes experience thaw, warming, and abundance, will mass migrations to Canada and Russia turn them into internationally governed agribusiness colonies?
The current population of the entire Arctic circle—the cone of the planet north of 66 degrees latitude—is about a mere 4 million people. What if it reaches 400 million during the lifetime of today’s millennial generation? The precedent for what the Arctic region might look like as its population surges is South America, a continent first colonized by Iberian imperialists, then populated by African slaves, with waves of wanderers coming over the past two centuries due to the Irish famine of 1845–52, the German revolution of 1848, the Japanese World War I rice crisis, the Holocaust and the Lebanese civil war. South America today is a continent of bounteous biodiversity, almost completely urbanized and ethnically intermingled.
Of course, neither Canada nor Russia would suddenly accept the burden of massive numbers of new citizens. The financial and administrative costs that would need to be managed by international agencies and investors. But both countries would also benefit massively from doubling or tripling—or, in Canada’s case, quintupling—their populations. Climate migrants wouldn’t be moving into barren spaces: Russia has more than a dozen cities of under one million people whose death and emigration rates far exceed the birthrate. Even though new residents would not be national citizens, their presence could generate enormous economic activity for governments and businesses to service.
A belt of today’s chilly urban centers are the likely capitals of the “New North”: Vancouver and Toronto, Oslo and Helsinki, Moscow and Vladivostok—all resource-rich and growing fast. Risk-taking speculators might as well start buying up commercial and residential real estate in ports such as Murmansk, Russia; Churchill, Canada; and Nuuk, Greenland—soon to be the first country born of climate change when it declares independence from Denmark. Meanwhile, today’s American rust belt backwaters of Buffalo, Cleveland and Detroit could enjoy a Renaissance through warmer weather, plentiful freshwater from the Great Lakes and growing connectivity to thriving Canadian cities in a more integrated North American Union.
My children are still young; they want to be astronauts. That might be a good idea, too, but should they decide to remain on Earth, I’ll urge them to use the Mandarin they learn in Singapore and head north to Sino-Siberia—or to buy Canadian real estate and citizenship. The term “Manifest Destiny” was coined to capture the 19th century spirit of American expansion from coast to coast: East to West. Mankind’s 21st-century manifest destiny points in a different direction: South to North.