Climate Change Is Inevitable

Ishan/Boathouse neighborhood in North Central Province, Maldives

Crises make or break regimes. In the face of an immediate and potentially destructive event, political power is forced to demonstrate real competency in solving a concrete problem. Faking success is difficult. But on the looming issue of global climate change, there are few prospects for a successful short-term response.

We do not currently possess the material capacities, let alone the social capacities, to adequately respond to the most immediate climatological crisis: carbon dioxide emissions. Unless there is an unprecedented shift towards widespread and rapid adoption of nuclear power, the reduction in carbon emissions at best is a long, slow taper. Even with the rollout of a full nuclear power grid, it would take time to build up electric car fleets, and replace fossil fuels in airplanes, shipping, and industry. The COVID pandemic, a far smaller and more easily solvable crisis, has already revealed the extent of political sloth and dysfunction, erased generational economic gains, and accelerated ideological conflict. In the very long-run, climate change is not even a single event. It is a crisis of crises that will play out in many different ways in different places and times. Its cumulative effects will be far greater than any recent pandemic, but not experienced in a singular way. Some may take lifetimes to fully unfold. But unfold, they will.

The world’s major governments lack the will to institute the types of reforms that would be required to achieve net neutral carbon emissions. Some solutions, like mobilization to rebuild the energy grid, are undermined by worries about expense and conflict on questions like nuclear power. Others, like radical quality of life decreases, are undesirable and politically impossible—particularly if the prediction is that they will happen anyway, without politicians ending their careers to speed the process up. Regions midway through the process of industrialization will not willingly allow the fruits of modernity to be seen but not tasted. The consequences of ignoring global climate problems are far less salient, and far less controllable, than the local issues of being unable to adequately provide for growing populations.

All this makes it increasingly unlikely that we will address the effects of climate change until long after the upper threshold proposed by the IPCC. The consequences over the next century or two will be grave: population displacement, extreme weather events, and temperature changes. There will be chaotic disruption as downstream crises rear their heads. But likewise, we will see a range of adaptive responses. Rather than apocalyptic extinction scenarios, we will likely see transformed societies finally emerge into a new normal. Moreover, they will be societies that are recognizably descended from our own—the timescale here is only a few generations. Their political order will be built upon a technological and scientific infrastructure marked partially by its development in response to various climate crises. In addition to these tools, circumstances will also force the major powers to not only mitigate climate change, but actively shape their environment in response. In other words, they will be consciously engaged in terraforming Earth. By understanding the trials ahead, we can also imagine the new possibilities that will emerge in overcoming them.

A World Born From Crisis

The year 2100 is a good marker for the firmly post-warming world, although the full process will take much longer to unfold fully. What will we see? At this point, 80 years of business as usual will have caused a continued rise of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Following current measurements and predictions, it will have reached around 800ppm, with an accordant rise in the average temperature of about 4 degrees, although with uneven spread. Some areas will have seen only a small rise in temperature. In colder parts of the world, the rise will even be a beneficial one for weather and agriculture. Others will have seen large temperature increases, drought, crop failure, and other disasters. Some of the more hospitable areas will have faced generations of inflow by displaced people. Others will have adopted hardline stances and be more or less closed.

Sea levels could rise up to 3 feet if emission rates continue to grow as projected, or even more if the melt rates of terrestrial ice sheets increase. Roughly 11% of the world’s total population lives within 10 meters of sea level. In regions that already experience perennial flooding, even small changes will greatly exacerbate the problems in affected areas. Additionally, there is evidence that global warming may exacerbate the monsoon cycle in Southeast Asia and China. The change in precipitation patterns and summer temperatures will alter what food stocks can be grown where, and regions prone to desertification may further dry, rendering them less habitable.

Chinese and Southeast Asian cities are already introducing radical adaptation measures to these changes. Shanghai and Jakarta, amongst others, have rolled out massive projects to strengthen and expand seawalls. Some countries are adopting “sponge city” strategies: using infrastructure like artificial wetlands, tunnels, permeable roads and sidewalks, and other measures to maximize the collection of rainwater. By 2100, we can expect that major coastal cities will have undergone radical changes in their built environments. In other areas, the risk will prove too much. Bad weather and decline in habitability will drive ongoing mass relocations. In the best-case scenario, some states will have developed fairly reliable practices in moving people quickly and scaling up new towns and cities in more hospitable regions. But we can expect increased conflict and reactive out-migration in places that don’t have the capacity to absorb inflow. The worst-affected regions will be those undergoing desertification.

Such demands will render a lot of standard infrastructure obsolete. Regions accustomed to cool temperatures, or where heating has become intolerable, will prioritize central cooling. Shifting wind and precipitation patterns will require new construction standards, and cities that failed to safeguard against rising tides will sink resources into costly, rapid construction of new levees. The infrastructure disruption in major harbors may disrupt trade routes, but also create a window in which underdog cities and countries could come to the fore with replacements.

A number of attendant ripple effects could accelerate the process of warming beyond our current estimates, resulting in a diminished capacity to mitigate negative effects. It is precisely these predictably unpredictable effects that make the task of safeguarding the climate against sudden change so difficult. The melting permafrost will likely release buried CO2, expediting the warming process. At extremely high levels—above 1000ppm—many people begin to experience cognitive decline. At ground level, there can be regions of higher than average CO2 levels, and the effects will be worse in these locations. Additionally, clathrate hydrates can be released from the ocean floor and permafrost regions resulting in increased methane levels. Methane is an even more effective greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. The cumulative effects of these additional gases will accelerate the pressures on societies around the world to adapt and increase the consequences of failure.

But the best-adapted societies in 2100 will not only have to overcome the effects of warming. Ocean acidification caused by the absorption of atmospheric carbon dioxide can have devastating effects, by both diminishing the capacity for fish stocks to replenish and killing off the corals that form shelf breaks along coasts. Worsening diets could diminish the health of affected populations, especially in the short run. But dietary adaptation only goes so far. A more universally applicable problem facing global food procurement is pollinator loss. The effects of a collapse in pollinator species will be immediately felt, and trophic cascades could easily lead to widespread destabilization of biomes. This will drastically alter what can be grown unaided over much of the Earth. Our options will be manual pollination in climate-controlled greenhouses, if we want to continue growing what we have been used to, or shifting food production north as new arable land opens up in Canada, Northern Europe, and Russia.

A more realistic long-term path will be to actively create human-friendly biomes. The logic of large-scale tree planting programs, already well-established, can easily expand to regrowing pollinators and other biologically important populations. A shift of this sort is especially important, since it centers the human role in actively creating large-scale ecosystems, instead of merely corrective measures like endangered species protection. Such infrastructure would go hand in hand with the creation of active decarbonization structures on an industrial scale. Just as oil, mining, and other natural resource companies today transform the landscape, decarbonization and biome-building at scale would require “oil companies in reverse.”

By its nature, the precise details and fallout of the climate crisis cannot be fully predicted. But we know enough for broad strokes. The great cities of 2100 will be those which have either benefited from climate change, or those which have carried out successful adaptation. The latter will be politically geared towards enduring and adapting to crisis events. Likewise, their very architecture will make them resilient. The best-positioned ones will find out how to dominate new trade routes. On a larger scale, some states will have learned how to more quickly mobilize and resettle populations internally. However, many will be suspicious and adversarial towards migration from outside after years of population displacements and resultant social conflict and disruption. The best-adapted ones will have developed an infrastructure for actively shaping both climate and biosphere. The political consciousness that results is one that takes terraforming the Earth as a given—an active reality, at least for the local region, rather than a theoretical goal.

The Great Game of Climate Control

The long-term prognosis for human civilization is grim, but hopeful. The crises we will face do not generally pose an existential threat to human civilization on Earth. But it is undeniable that the risks of climate change, which include a range of unpredictable nonlinear effects, could radically and quickly change the face of the Earth and our ability to sustain our current civilization. Modern humans survived many rapid climatological upheavals in the millennia immediately leading up to the beginning of the Holocene. The Younger Dryas, Meltwater Pulses 1A and 1B, and the desertification of the once-green Sahara all changed the face of the Earth in ways observable in a single human life. And yet, human life went on.

But civilization will only go beyond adaption, and possibly a slow decline, if its social technologies keep pace with its material adaptation. Particular cities and states might figure out adaptation, but what kind of global political order will grow out of these embattled responses? While there is already a great deal of effort going into the production of the required material technologies, they will prove useless without the social framework to use them responsibly. Today, we are dealing with the political fallout of large-scale apparatuses which generate data, but with no real strategy for governing them or using said data. The challenge for 2100 will be a similar one, but for the technical apparatuses designed to monitor and control the climate and develop stable, human-friendly ecosystems.

The exact method by which the climate is stabilized and control is achieved will be determined by the order in which the material technologies are invented—and by whom. Regardless, certain predictions can be made. First, the obstacles to global government will probably not abate, and there is no reason to think that any major power will attain total global hegemony in the next generation or two. We can safely assume that no synoptic global power will fully control the global climate; instead, there will be several hands on the steering wheel, potentially pulling it in different directions. The interplay between those in control, and their internal politics, will create a very different set of incentives than we have grown accustomed to. Medium-sized or strategically important states will be able to pressure and lobby the largest ones. Small or irrelevant states will likely be forced to accept these measures and adapt as best they can—though this may be a powerful spur toward biome-building for some.

The first stage in any long-term plan is to define your goal. Consequently, the first complication is that this goal will not be agreed upon universally. This is where the capabilities of our social technology begin to supersede the technical capability of our material ones. Building a “climate dial” of atmospheric carbon dioxide content is entirely feasible, even with current technologies. But determining the appropriate level of global carbon emissions is decidedly not. A dial with no one to keep it steady is of little help and brings many new dangers with it.

This may seem somewhat trivial: why not just set it to pre-industrial levels? The first issue is that not all powers will agree on what this ideal carbon level is. In the short-term, this would primarily be an issue of political control: some countries would protect their growing seasons or safeguard from drought, while others would find themselves shunted aside. But on longer time scales, this global balance will literally shape the Earth. As the levels of carbon drop and the global temperature decreases, the poles glaciate and sea levels fall, exposing more land along the coasts. Though it might sound convenient to Floridians to expose a great deal of beachfront real estate, the implications are less attractive for the average Russian or Canadian, now buried under a thick blanket of ice. There will certainly be those who prefer the climatological state of the earth in 2100 to how it is now, and there will be those insistent on returning to 1850’s levels of carbon dioxide.

A second complication is whether the climatological control is directed at controlling carbon levels or at maintaining a constant temperature. Keeping carbon levels as close to 200 ppm as possible is a different goal than maintaining the average global temperature of 1960. Will we use some sort of control scheme to adjust for the effects of climatological cycles? In the very long term we must, or else risk further glaciations. But will we try to even out the effects of shorter cycles, like the El Niño southern oscillation and Pacific Decadal oscillation? What takes priority will not just depend on who can best define the goal, but who can best communicate it and align the relevant powers around it. This involves the classic tools of statecraft: building functional institutions at home and projecting material and ideological power abroad.

It is likely that several great powers will have differing goals and means of climate control. The apparatuses under their control take on a double role in this scenario: a means of securing ecological stability for themselves, and a means of projecting power in diplomatic negotiations and conflict. This implies that, in part at least, they can take on the logic of weapons systems. If a state drastically raises or lowers carbon levels, its rivals will be forced to demonstrate their actual ability to counter such an effect—or else, to respond with more traditional methods ranging from sanctions to military force. Conversely, a rising power may prioritize developing a high-impact climate control infrastructure to signal its growing place in the same way that such states currently prioritize military capacity, high technology, and media.

Established great powers tend to reach some kind of accord. Instead, the countries under the most pressure and scrutiny will be middle powers who are large enough that their domestic ecosystems can impact the global climate, and whose desires may sharply deviate from the established global norm. Russia and Brazil affect the carbon content of the global atmosphere through, respectively, the mechanisms of permafrost melting and carbon uptake in the Amazon Rainforest. The ability for northern countries to release a large amount of carbon dioxide, which could be in their interest, is a very serious point of leverage. Southern countries dealing with high temperatures and social disruption are unlikely to sit idly by while their more temperate rivals benefit. There are few barriers to the use of atmospheric aerosols to dramatically reduce both temperature and crop yields through reduced radiation.

What might be expected to arise from this climatological Cold War is a system of norms stronger than toothless climate accords, but more like our current systems of international law than any real global government. No higher authority exists to prosecute great powers. Moreover, no such power is really needed. Since it is the great powers themselves that arbitrarily establish these norms, they are happy to more or less follow them, or to simply write in their own preferred exceptions. Many small violators can exist in such a system as well, since punishing most small violations is simply not worth the effort. The incentives for baseline cooperation are real enough that the system survives. In practice, this system of climate control would punish mainly those mid-size defectors who lack sufficiently powerful allies. Embargoes and sanctions might well punish defector nations well enough that, for example, opening their borders to companies fleeing environmental regulation stops being worth it. In regions where really existential resources or ecosystems exist, we can realistically predict the same kinds of proxy conflicts, coups, and instability we currently see in countries rich in oil or other precious resources.

Mapping the precise contours of the world order in 2100 is an impossible task. But one dividing line is certain: conflict between the international norms of climate control and adversely affected countries that still retain power and influence. India and Nigeria—both of which are expected to face steep temperature rises and droughts—already have large diasporas around the world, and these migration flows will only continue throughout the century. Such diaspora power may be an important asset for these countries in influencing the climate control norms set by their northern counterparts if they have the organization to take advantage of it. This will no doubt sow discord, particularly in those regions where climate refugees are most readily enfranchised. But without being able to ascend to the status of great powers, the carbon and temperature rates set by a global agreement will not be sufficient to offset drought and extreme weather, along with the economic and social disruption they bring with them. Climate may be blind to borders, but the differentials in its local effects will entrench many current divides between populations, regions, and hemispheres.

Authority and Succession

Crisis periods are times of testing for authority structures. They must succeed both in coordinating a regime’s actual response and in maintaining their political dominance. Even if a particular ruling class survives, the authority structure may not. In this scenario, a new ideological basis for political power needs to be constructed. Japan underwent a full imperial restoration and reform after it was forced open by the U.S. in the 19th century. Decades later, China underwent multiple upheavals, which ultimately led to the establishment of the People’s Republic. Today, the COVID pandemic has threatened to finish off many of the neoliberal era’s remaining political norms about government restraint in coordinating society. As climate change goes on, the world’s most powerful authority structures will be continually tested—and sometimes, they will fail the test.

The pandemic has also served as a good indicator of how Western democracies may update their authority structures: the appointment of a climate czar whose word is taken as the truth. However the synthesis between expertise and democracy is fleshed out, the result will accommodate this permanent evolution of Western authority structures. They will likely be backed by the majority of the relevant scientific establishment, as well as a sizable portion of public intellectuals. This alignment will only exacerbate populist tensions, particularly when the climate is invoked to justify a downturn in jobs, wages, and quality of life as a social necessity. On the other hand, public trust in the dominant intellectual and expert class has been collapsing, often for good reason. The authority structures that emerge from the coming decades may look quite different even before climate issues become the central focus.

The situation will be different in China, at least ideologically. The imposition of new regulations top-down is far more palatable in the context of an authoritarian party-state that already has a mature system of central planning. Its real test will be how that system survives the end of the skyrocketing living conditions which have underpinned its legitimacy for decades. If Beijing turns to external threats rather than internal development as its new rallying point, its neighbors will feel the political brunt of the move.

Once an agreement and information pipeline is constructed on a global scale, the issue becomes one of punishing defectors to ensure the sacrifices and civil unrest caused by centrally orchestrated solutions is worth it. Even assuming all the above, the issue of climate control is exacerbated by the fact that it is a continuous problem. Once climate control is politically established and ideologically normalized, there is no going back. This creates the necessity of competent succession. Trump’s departure from the Paris Agreement climate accord, while less impactful in this less acute phase of the climate crisis, is the type of defection that will have much more severe consequences at later stages.

Doubtless, endless debates will occur about whether climate commitments should be entered into constitutions, international legal codes, and the like. But the succession problem isn’t one of systems. The real question is to what degree the world’s major ruling classes will sustain both their commitments to stable climate control, and to what degree they can credibly communicate it and cooperate. The system will only last as long as it can be updated to match new realities, both environmental and political. If climate norms become an inherited law with little connection to the real goals and problems societies face, they will be abandoned or useless, and a new era of climate disruption will likely commence. This may happen repeatedly or even periodically as we learn to manage the issues and negotiate settlements. After all, for all the enormous human cost of international coordination failure and the great depth of history for which it has been a known problem, war itself is far from a solved problem.

In large part, elite consciousness will be formed by living through active responses to climate crises and through the development of climate adaptation infrastructure. Should weather control and adaptation technology become sufficiently advanced that an area the size of a city could be effectively controlled, one possibility is the increase of relatively autonomous great cities and local powers who need governmental dynamism to handle local climate adaptation issues. One could easily imagine cities on the eastern seaboard—still under federal control, but with even higher populations and greater political leeway than at present—cooperating for the purposes of minimizing Atlantic hurricanes. Generations growing up in these cities will be personally affected by this process. This means that as long as the climate crisis continues to have real fallout, new generations of political elites will remain highly conscious of why the complex infrastructure they have inherited exists. Ironically, it will be the extended periods of stability in which succession becomes a real test.

The eventual form of the political yin to the technological yang remains an open question. But what is certain is that creating social tools to coordinate a response and taking control of the terraforming of the Earth is as imperative as the development of material technology. A disordered and immature society wielding the power of the climate runs the risk of realizing the worst fears of the atomic age. A socially mature society wielding vast technological powers to pull itself and the natural environment back out of a climate crisis could, on the other hand, go on to create a great future.

Jesse Velay-Vitow is a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto Department of Physics, researching paleoclimate and ice-ocean interactions. He tweets @JesseVelay.