How Climate Change Will Be the Biggest Geopolitical Crisis of the Century

Global warming will force hundreds of millions of Africans to flee, forcing the West to make some tough choices.

Russian Arctic tanker
A United States Coast Guard icebreaker escorts a Russian tanker through the Bering Strait, January 6, 2012 (Coast Guard)

America is out of the environmental protection businesses; so says the haughty God-Emperor Donald Trump, whose word is apparently law.

Too bad even god-emperors cannot change facts. Too bad, especially, for the billions who are almost certain to be disrupted, displaced and decimated by the looming geopolitical effects of climate change.

That basic truth is denied heartily by many who have incentive to play games for short-term gain. These are old-school industrial concerns, for whom environmental regulation hammers a bottom line; alt-right, alt-truthers, for whom simple science is a threat to their incoherent worldview; and shattered working classes, seeking a simple scapegoat for the complicated story of their economic dissolution and disenfranchisement.

As written in Salon:

The executive order is another example of the Trump Administration’s ignoring basic facts in service of a right-wing ideology rooted mostly in a blind, irrational hatred of Obama.

Unfortunately for Trump, undoing Obama’s climate legacy will require more than the stroke of a pen.

The science of climate change is so basic, however, that it is shaping geopolitical forces on a global scale. Whether those forces will overcome the denialists remains to be seen.

Climate change will be the human event of the twenty-first century. It will be a shaping of our species unlike anything since the end of the last Ice Age. To presume that nation states, or their successors, will somehow carry on blithely in spite of it is naive in the extreme.

Rising seas, spreading deserts and fleeing millions

The developed world will initially avoid much of the catastrophe, though hotter summers, wilder storm systems and lower global agricultural yields will squeeze budgets and profit margins. But they will have the human capital, state organization and technological base to resist climate change. Some of them may have to retreat into something akin to bubble cities, yet so long as they remain developed, they will not be the heart of the great crises driven by climate change.

Instead, this is a story that will likely begin in Africa and end in the thawing Arctic states.

UN population projections place 4.4 billion people in Africa by 2100. Of them, perhaps 640 million will live in the Sahel, a zone ripe for climate disaster that stretches just south of the current Sahara Desert from the Atlantic coast to the Red Sea.

The Sahel is already a tough place to farm and survive: water supplies are stretched, agriculture is difficult and not one of its states are stable. From genocidal Sudan to civil warring Mali, the Sahel’s state institutions are among the planet’s weakest.

Already geopolitically stressed, the Sahel is a bomb waiting to go off. While we can and should presume that both states and nations in the Sahel will develop over this century, it’s extremely likely that that will not be enough.

Sahel states are still trying to cobble together nations underneath them. Sudan has done this most brutally with its genocides, but even more democratic states like Mali have fought ethnic civil wars to establish a national cultural compass. Mauritania is trying to Arabize its tribes on the cheap. Chad is a delicate ethnic and tribal balancing act by competing presidents who are routinely propped up by French interventions.

The lack of coherent nations siphons state resources into nation-building, diverting attention and capital away from other forms of development. Just to make themselves stable, these states must pay a steep, and generational, bill.

It took centuries for modern nations to emerge in Europe. Even with twenty-first-century education and technology, we shouldn’t presume that the Sahel can accomplish the same task within the century. That will leave large social cracks that will be readily exploited by ambitious upstart elites.

As climate change worsens conditions in the Sahel, as wells dry up and fields turn to sand, as the cruel Sahara creeps southwards, the still-developing Sahel states will struggle not just with identity but basic survival. Modern military technology already gives outsized influence to terrorists and dissidents: a lone wolf with an assault rifle is able to inflict much more harm than a man with sword. We should presume that terrorists and their like will have the same kind of jump in killing power as the century wears on.

This means violence will surely ensure on a scale hard to imagine. Syria may be a preamble. There are some who say bad crop seasons drove the rebellion, even now. Existing underlying tensions exploded with a ferocity driven by basic environmental fears. What might have been a shorter civil war between politically active factions instead burst into a societal war of extermination. This is murderous Malthusianism in action: when there is no bread but there are plenty of bullets, many must die.

And just like Syria these millions of the Sahel will flee. Presuming that only 25 percent of 640 million do so, that will still be 160 million. The world struggles to choke down 65 million today. Tack on a conservative extra 100 million and imagine the votes in Europe.

But 160 million is surely too low a number. The Sahara will expand. Sahel-bordering countries like Nigeria will also have exploding populations and still-developing nations. Northern African states, always tenuous, will also struggle to keep their heads above the sands. Once oil-rich states in Arabia will run dry of fossil fuel cash. There is abundant evidence their development programs will stall and fail too, leaving them weak and exposed. Top that off with fragile Yemen, which is almost certainly doomed by climate change.

So 160 million is surely a lowball. Perhaps we should overplan and imagine one billion climate change migrants desperately seeking routes north.

On to the Arctic

And they will go north, not south, because that will be the only real option. Driven by civil wars, collapsed states, hometown genocides, thirst, hunger and fear, they will stream to the cool Northern Hemisphere, where by then they will know that a thawing Arctic has created huge swathes of empty land.

The two largest countries on Earth are, after all, Russia and Canada, whose square mileages are driven by the frosty nature of their interiors rather than hard-driven, brutal conquests. They will not be alone, of course. The US, with its vast Alaska, Mongolia, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Greenland will all have creeping open grasslands.

These will be the hopeful final destinations of climate migrants. Some may find homes in the Southern Hemisphere as well: Argentina, Australia, New Zealand and others may be able to hold some. But the remoteness of those places will make them easier to defend. Even as space travel surely becomes a norm, the technology will also be the realm of developed states: crashing Sahel states will surely have few, if any, spaceports for refugees to swarm.

Thus we now have a scenario in which perhaps one billion people are bearing down on the developed world and most hungrily seek the empty lands of Russia, Canada and the United States. Now what?

The wall scenario

Vinn Diesel’s Babylon A.D. has a tremendous 6 percent on Rotten Tomatoes for its “weak script and poor action sequences.” Garbage film it may be, it does provide a glimpse of how future generations may decide to wall themselves off from climate change migrants.

In the film, Diesel and his co-star travel from Russia (which seems to have collapsed) to the United States via Alaska. They are attacked by drones designed to blindly hunt down and kill any trespassing refugees. There is no wall, no great fence. Merely roaming drones, which butcher any human that crosses the invisible line.

Is such a scenario so hard to imagine? Developed states could decide they need no Trumpian wall, which wouldn’t really work anyway. Deploying fleets of autonomous drones, they might decide they shall not be the saviors of these teeming masses. With bullet-ridden refugees both out of sight and out of mind, they might grapple with climate change at home while ignoring the rest of the world.

Of course, that implies they’d be willing to either kill or starve up to one billion people.

The resettlement scenario

Such murder might cause voters to balk and they might instead attempt to resettle these millions. Yet while seemingly humanitarian, this will also cause a geopolitical crisis. For one, the most freed up land will be inside underpopulated countries like Canada and Russia. That risks dwarfing native populations with incoming migrants — a recipe for a huge pushback and violence.

Moreover, and this will be a difficult truth, not all cultures are capable of cooperation with one another. The Hofstede Cultural Dimensions theory helps describe how national core values form around large groups of people within defined borders.

Some cultures are individualistic, others are conformist. Conformist cultures are often able to politically dominate individualistic ones; they have the social discipline necessary for the mass action needed to overthrow political systems. Dump a few million conformists into individualistic Europe and surely you will see them try to take power in one way or another.

Thus we have a situation where many might resettle and overthrow their masters. This has happened before: fleeing barbarians, seeking sanctuary from the murderous Huns, entered and then destroyed the Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries CE. Roman corruption was just as much to blame as cultural difference, yet the lesson remains the same: to accept too many outsiders could destabilize powerful nation states. Surely, those nation states will defend themselves. Imagine the body count when the modern armies of the developed world decide they do not want migrants.

Planning now

Wise statesmen would start to consider ways to resettle refugees in a rational manner. One can’t expect to dump a million future Sahel people into the heart of Russia and expect everything to work out.

Education will be key. If a host country manages its incoming refugees with an eye toward assimilating them, the program could be a greater success. The twenty-first century may have already evened out many differences and so this task is not as huge an ask as it might seem.

The United States has abrogated reason and futurism; that is state policy until the Trump Administration leaves office. It falls to other states, like Germany, France, Canada, Russia, China and others, to prepare for this inevitable future. They can decide to butcher the refugee movement or they can blindly embrace it and find themselves drowned in waves of human migration.

Or they start finding rational approaches to migration now, ones that accept that while human groups are different from one another, that does not necessarily mean they cannot coexist.

This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, March 29, 2017.