Sharon Burke is a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense and is currently the President of Ecospherics, a Washington, DC-based research and advisory organization focusing on environmental security. She can be found on Twitter @burkese and occasionally writes for the website tipofthesphere.substack.com and The Boston Globe. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
Title: Assessing that Canada will be the Last Superpower
Date Originally Written: May 26, 2022.
Date Originally Published: June 6, 2022.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author is a former U.S. defense official who believes that natural resource issues and industrial age legacy pollution will be shaping factors for the 21st century strategic landscape.
Summary: If the world’s industrial nations fail to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the near term, global environmental conditions will likely become increasingly inhospitable for human societies throughout the 21st and 22nd centuries. Canada, with its cold climate, vast territory, “green” mineral wealth, stable political culture, and its relative inaccessibility has the best prospects for adapting to a more extreme climate and becoming the next superpower, perhaps by default.
Text: Even as global consensus about climate change has strengthened, greenhouse gas emissions have steadily increased. Absent an abrupt geopolitical about face toward a massive global economic transformation, climate change will continue unabated for centuries to come. And while the Earth has experienced significant climate variability throughout its 4.5-billion-year geological history, humanity has not. Whether the changes unfurl slowly over the next 50-200 years or suddenly if certain tipping points occur, the effects and impacts will hit all parts of the globe, if unevenly within countries and across regions. Populations in sub-tropical, tropical, and dry or desert regions, for example, are already struggling with high heat and changes in precipitation, which result in everything from adverse human health impacts to prolonged droughts to an increase in wildfires. In disadvantaged communities or countries with weak underlying political, legal, social, and economic foundations, these conditions can be unaffordable and destabilizing.
The current “Great Powers,” the United States and China, are relatively well positioned to manage climate change, both in terms of adaptive capacity and the comparatively mild, mid-latitudes climate. Both countries, however, have vulnerable communities as well as dry and sub-tropical areas that are likely to be heavily impacted by high heat and volatile weather, with the possibility of significant internal displacement. In addition, shifts in access to resources, including water, arable land, energy, and critical minerals, will likely challenge economic growth and social cohesion for both nations.
While countries in the most northern latitudes will also have to contend with access to resources and more volatile natural conditions, including sea level rise, shifts in precipitation, and extreme weather events, they have more potential to absorb shocks. Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Finland currently rank among the most stable countries in the world, the most resilient to climate change, and all have low population density, given the cold temperatures and harsh conditions in much of their territory. These Arctic and boreal regions are warming at least twice as fast as the rest of the world, and the land left behind by retreating ice and melting permafrost may eventually be suitable for agriculture, forestry, and habitation. While the rest of the world will be struggling with managed and chaotic retreat from increasingly uninhabitable areas, the northern countries may well be contending with a managed advance into new territory. Though to be sure, this advance would be highly disruptive, too, given the release of additional greenhouse gases and destruction of existing Arctic ecosystems and native cultures.
Based upon the above mentioned global environmental conditions, Canada has the potential to not only adapt but emerge a superpower. The world’s second largest country, Canada’s population is today almost entirely clustered along the southern border. The vast majority of the land mass is uninhabited or lightly populated by indigenous peoples uniquely adapted to current, disappearing conditions. With the world’s longest coastline, Canada will have entirely new sea lines of communication through the Arctic Ocean. Furthermore, Canada’s only contiguous neighbor is the United States, which will be dealing with climate displaced populations but is unlikely to have as much northward out migration as more heavily impacted areas with lower adaptive capacity, such as sub-Saharan Africa. Canada also has significant natural resources, including digital age minerals critical to modern military and energy technology and agricultural adaptation. Again, no country will be immune to the negative effects of climate change, but with a stable, migrant-friendly political culture, Canada has the potential to manage this transition better than any other nation. As a high north country, Russia should enjoy these relative advantages, too, but the rigidity of their authoritarian form of government, the opportunity cost of their bellicosity, proximity to highly affected populations, lack of preparation for climate change, including the disruption to infrastructure built on permafrost, and unwelcoming culture for migrants all suggest a declining power.
The United States faces a range of options for how to deal with the geopolitics of climate change. First, it is always an option to do nothing, and either hope that the projections and models are incorrect, or that the current adaptive capacity in the United States is sufficient. Early experiences with extreme weather attributed to climate change suggest this would not be a prudent choice. Fatalism is also an option – the scope and scale of the economic transformation required to change course is daunting and arguably infeasible, though such fatalism could prove devastating for an already fractious and restive polity. Another option is for the United States to place the highest domestic and foreign policy priority on expediting global cuts in greenhouse gasses. That would involve significantly larger outlays for research and development and climate-resilient economic development at home and around the world, but may present unacceptable opportunity costs for other priorities, such as strategic competition with China. Another option is to focus resources only on adaptation to changing conditions, which ultimately is another form of fatalism. The United States could also pursue a mixed option, making energy transition investments, including in the diversification of critical minerals supplies, and also building resilience and preparedness for shifting weather patterns. Across all options, the United States could consider deepening the bilateral relationship with its closest ally, Canada, given the country’s relative strength for a disrupted future.
Note that this is a highly speculative assessment, given that this level of environmental change is unprecedented for humanity, and a thawing cryosphere will have unpredictable consequences.
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