12 November 2012
This report, compiled by Chief Analyst Dr. Thomas P.M. Barnett and edited by Chief Editor Steve Keller, presents the top insights from Wikistrat's latest simulation. This report is based on the collaborative efforts of over 60 Wikistrat analysts from around the world.
In September of 2012, Wikistrat ran a two-week simulation that explored what it would take, in terms of a crystallizing event, to push either climate change or the environment in general to the top of the global political agenda. So far, the global climate change debate has been centered on historical trends, unfolding data points, and hotly-contested computer modeling of different global futures. Plenty of people are convinced and plenty are skeptical, but more simply don’t care or pay much attention because it just doesn’t matter–enough. Simply put, what this global debate has lacked to date is a truly crystallizing event that forces humanity to admit it has entered The Age of X. This brainstorming mini-simulation aimed to generate a range of plausible scenarios of just such an event–not a trend, but a globally-recognized event of 9/11-like, “this-changes-everything” magnitude.
In this simulation, Wikistrat stipulated that climate change is real and accelerating, while leaving open how it is ultimately interpreted and responded to, by humanity as a whole. Wikistrat also stipulated that, while climate change may well evolve into a life-dominating variable on Earth, that impact is not necessarily wholly good or bad–just inevitable. Taking into account all of these long-term trends, this Wikistrat simulation generated roughly two-dozen scenarios of various globally crystallizing environmental events. This short report presents the highlights of these analytic brainstorming efforts.
Overview of Master Narratives
The chart (right) presents the four baseline Master Narratives constructed from the scenarios generated in the simulation. These narratives serve as organizing “bins” for the constituent scenarios. The quartet is organized along two fundamental questions/axes that correspond to the common constructs of the scenarios generated:
- Does the event thrust climate change to the top of the global political agenda, or is climate change superseded by a larger general concern for the environment?
- Does the world respond to this event in a unifying or divisive manner?
The primary determinant on the vertical axis is the perceived causal linkage between the disaster in question and the overall historical rise in CO2 emissions (i.e., are CO2 emissions the primary reason why this event occurred or just a “fellow traveler”?).
On the horizontal axis, the primary determinant is regional differentiation in impact: A winners-vs-losers dynamic (i.e., some regions benefit/suffer more than others) tends to trigger divisive responses while broadly distributed/inescapable impact tends to create more “we’re-all-in-this-together” perspectives that foster collaborative responses.
Representative Scenario Dynamics by Master Narratives
Master Narrative I: Hobbesian States vs. Nature
[Climate change superseded + Divisive response]
This quadrant captures scenarios in which some “fellow traveler” environmental dynamic trumps climate change while simultaneously elevating environmental issues–by default–to the top of the global political agenda. However, because the impact of the disaster differs by region, a rather Hobbesian free-for-all competition results, pitting states against nature in a mad scramble to see which powers cover their resource requirements while subjecting others to long-term environmental degradation.
- The Persian Gulf suffers a nuclear exchange: Peer far enough down the road to a time when Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia all have nuclear arsenals in a mutually-assured-destruction stalemate that facilitates a strike-first mentality in a crowded strategic environment. Then imagine the possible damage to the region’s vulnerable energy production/distribution infrastructure, and how that outcome would simultaneously reinforce a fear of nuclear power in general and a desire among import-dependent great powers (located mostly in Asia) to move off of oil after such a price/supply shock. A world desperate to avoid reliance on an unstable nuclearized/contaminated Persian Gulf would likely turn its ravenous eyes ever more to the environmentally fragile Arctic Circle–again, with rising (and non-Arctic) East Asia in the aggressive lead.
- A Himalayan dam boom: South and Southeast Asia are set to enjoy decades-long demographic dividends, surpassing China’s labor pool and triggering an intense wave of both industrialization and urbanization thanks to a rapid expansion of the middle class. That middle class–just like every other one that has emerged–has an unlimited appetite for electricity, pushing nations to pursue aggressive dam schemes on the rivers coming out of the Himalayan Mountains. This profound alteration of the environment is encouraged by a climate-change-induced uptick in snowpack melting, rendering this type of local ecosystem manipulation unsustainable. But South and Southeast Asian nations, shut out of the Arctic’s resource riches, counter-claim that such exploitation is merely their effective adaptation to climate change’s many challenges.
- Rogue geo-engineering: It does not take a “Dr. No” for this scenario to come about. Imagine a great power suffering massive droughts and thus being forced to rapidly increase food–and even water–imports. Once a China or India (or even a coalition of climate-challenged states) starts experimenting with regional geo-engineering, citing its own humanitarian disasters, what stops others from copy-catting that behavior to the point of possibly triggering weather disturbances for neighboring regions or the planet as a whole? Simply put, the urge to “fix” will be profound.
- The right oil-industry disaster in the Arctic: With up to one-fifth of the world’s known energy reserves trapped in its seabed, the Arctic will attract all manner of environmentally-risky oil production schemes in coming decades. That mad rush will inevitably result in some mega oil-spill that the whole world will condemn–but especially those great powers shut out of the Arctic’s exploitation. It could also easily pit those Arctic powers more concerned with the environment’s preservation against those far more eager to exploit its mineral and energy wealth at all costs. The “Ice Station Zebra” scripts almost write themselves. But, again, the larger likely dynamic pits the geographically-privileged “New North” powers against the resource-stressed “Rest” who will use any excuse to internationalize the exploitation of the Arctic’s vast riches.
- The “Eco Al-Qaeda”: This one is as “inevitable” as globalization’s continued expansion. Right now the primary anti-globalization global insurgency (Al-Qaeda) is centered on identity politics–i.e., countering what globalization is perceived to inflict upon traditional societies. But as climate change’s global impacts pile up, it is only natural that a violent global insurgency will arise with the goal of sabotaging globalization’s “despoiling” of the planet, as identity is historically and frequently tethered to the land. Toss in a global energy industry increasingly reliant on computer networks and the related rise of “hacktivism” in the name of faceless agendas (e.g., Anonymous), and we have all the makings of the next “long war.”
Master Narrative II: Rousseauian General Willfulness
[Climate change superimposed + Divisive response]
This quadrant captures scenarios in which the desired rule-sets of various great powers/regions/coalitions of states compete against one another to define humanity’s response to a climate-change challenge now recognized as supreme. The notion of “general will” comes from the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau and his notion of a society’s natural agreement concerning the laws that should govern it.
- The “son of Katrina” humbles America’s northeast urban corridor: America’s Boston-New York-Washington urban corridor represents the closest thing America has to an elite-driven “general will,” so when a plus-sized Hurricane Katrina devastates that combined coastal region, its humbling effect erases all ambiguity in the public debate about climate change. Having thus found “religion” on the subject, America, in its usual manic fashion after a disaster, goes on a global crusade regarding the “defeat” of climate change. And, as so often is the case when America launches a classic “War on X,” its actions engender significant global friction and even outright resistance.
- A catastrophic El-Nino-Southern-Oscillation (ENSO) season: The ENSO weather phenomenon is quasi-periodic event that runs on roughly a five-year cycle and triggers extreme short-term climate conditions across the Pacific Rim. In this scenario, after a couple of mild cycles, the Pacific is socked by back-to-back supercharged ENSOs that facilitate extreme droughts in the northern hemisphere and extreme precipitation in the southern hemisphere. The end result: Fisheries and coral reefs are effectively wiped out. As the pain is felt more in the South, the resurrection of North-South ideological divisions highlights a world growing more skeptical of the benefits of industrialization and globalization.
- The emerging climate change “R2P” imperative: A normally-stable emerging economy (Mexico) is destabilized by cumulative climate-change weather shocks to the point of becoming a de facto failed state. Never-ending droughts and unprecedentedly damaging hurricanes devastate the length of Central America, generating an intense migratory wave of climate-change refugees into the quickly-overwhelmed Mexican state. While America continues its hardline stance on immigration, it is eventually forced to intervene militarily to stop the unfolding chaos. This is the first time a great power exercises a “responsibility to protect” doctrine solely on the basis of climate change, signaling a shift to Parag Khanna’s notion of a “new Middle Ages” in which state sovereignty comes close to disappearing in large swaths of the world.
- Inuit of the world – unite!: As the planet’s equatorial regions come under extreme climate duress, mass migratory pressures build on top of already-aggressive extractive efforts by great powers to “plunder” the Arctic regions of its mineral/energy wealth. This unprecedented “invasion” of lands previously left overwhelmingly in the hands of indigenous populations invariably triggers an insurgency of sorts that begins with protests and then expands into all manner of resistance. Reminiscent of the periodic rebellions of Nigeria’s “delta” peoples, this transnational insurgency is immediately supported by great powers seeking an internationalization of “sustainable development” in the Arctic, resulting in the coldest of Cold Wars.
- Whose hand is on the wheel?: As an emerging global middle class naturally seeks expanded mobility, it wants that mobility on the cheapest terms possible. That means that while the advanced economies of the North go all in for post-gasoline combustion engines (e.g., hybrids, electrics, compressed natural gas, hydrogen), the developing regions of the South pursue the path of least developmental resistance and continue to content themselves with current – and cheaper – technologies. As the vast bulk of new car ownership comes in those developing regions, a global fight ensues over emission/mileage standards wherein the South rejects submission to the North’s demands that “dirty” car fleets either be phased out or retrofitted with next-generation powertrains.
Master Narrative III: Lockean Greater Bad
[Climate change superseded + Unifying response]
This quadrant captures scenarios in which climate change registers undeniably in the eyes of the global community of states as the preeminent change agent/enduring political crisis of the era. Per John Locke’s notion of the “greater good,” climate change is prioritized on the global agenda as the “greater bad.”
- The collapse of globalization: Pick your culminating damage point, but it all began with the Great Recession of the late 2000s, which segued into the West’s slow descent into demographic “retirement,” only to be followed by China’s getting old before it truly gets rich. Over time, super-saver Asia just was not able to simultaneously finance the West’s old age and the South’s start-up economies. As the world retreated from globalism, a new localism emerged, and this became the primary conduit for an environment-centric progressive age to unfold. The turning point was the democratization wave that swept China and was led by the Greens–the only “color revolutionaries” able to trump the Reds.
- The “great humbling” of humanity: A seemingly exogenous event befouls the atmosphere with particulates at a level never before witnessed in recorded human history, thus super-charging the ongoing evolution triggered by humanity’s two-century-long industrialization. The two primary candidates for such a mild “nuclear winter” are an asteroid strike of significant proportions or the eruption of a super volcano, such as that found in America’s Yellowstone National Park. The event becomes the global equivalent of a fifty-five-year-old’s surprise heart attack: shocking humanity into the realization of just how fragile its existence on Earth has become.
- The insect-borne “contagion”: Per the recent Hollywood film “Contagion,” an unprecedented swath of humanity is struck down by a inexorably spreading virus that attacks our species with the deadliness that the canine parvovirus once did with dogs on a global scale in the late 1970s/early 1980s. Crucial to the storyline: It is borne by insects made unusually plentiful and wide-ranging by climate change. The cumulative effect is a new sense of humanity’s vulnerability amidst too-rapid environmental change, and a fear that our species can in fact be made extinct.
- GMOs turn iatrogenic in a big way: In a nutshell, the cure (GMOs) turns out to be worse than the disease (climate change-induced droughts). The global experiments run awry, and as things go from bad (resource-constrained growth) to worse (new widespread health problems caused by GMOs), this vicious cycle pushes humanity to ever more desperate attempts to reverse-engineer the damage already done throughout nature. These great-power “interventions” become as divisively controversial as today’s wars between militaries.
- The first breath of Martian air: Within three decades, humans have made it to Mars and are living there under rugged conditions, but fast-forward another three decades and humanity is engaged in substantial terraforming of that planet. Before the century’s end, the first genetically-enhanced human draws a breath on Mars, instantly elevating mankind’s sense of God-like mastery over nature. By this time back on Earth, genetically-modified organisms (crops, animals, humans) are the norm; hence, the movement toward a “GME” (genetically-modified earth) is taken in stride by a humanity that expects to “hack” every aspect of nature.
Master Narrative IV: Kantian Categorical Catastrophe
[Climate change superimposed + Unifying response]
This quadrant captures those scenarios in which an undeniably global disaster has unfolded or is unfolding, creating, in the phrase of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, a “categorical imperative” for doing the right thing–universally–in response.
- The rapid rise of sea levels: While considered a global phenomenon, this scenario naturally unfolds with great differences by nation and even region, with Pacific Rim states most likely to experience the greatest overall challenges and, quite naturally, low-lying littoral states being the ones primarily impacted. But since the majority of the world’s population lives along coastlines, such disasters do create the categorical imperative for nations/regions/humanity to reorganize themselves along lines more appropriate to the common challenges that ensue. Not only will there be both substantial migration of populations, but those states most impacted will seek aid from those less challenged, creating a new global aid pattern that may or may not sync well with basic macroeconomic difficulties.
- Region-specific droughts: Take your pick here, but clearly the most compelling cases would involve great powers that are among the world’s great exporters and importers of food. On the export side sits the United States, Canada, Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, and Australia as possible victims. Disable enough of their production capacity on a repeating basis (especially America’s), and humanity faces a vastly greater challenge in feeding itself. Peering into the future, it is not hard to imagine both China and India, with their burgeoning middle classes, being extraordinarily vulnerable to such dynamics, being large-scale importers. In the shorter term, fragile-but-populous states like Pakistan and Egypt (the world’s biggest importer of wheat) deserve special consideration. Then there are the developing regions of the Equator, where climate change is expected to have the strongest negative impact and where, already, we see regions requiring very large grain imports. Likely outflows from such scenarios include the vast privatization of water resources, widespread adoption of genetically-modified crops, possible “water wars”, and an exacerbated “space race” when it comes to arable land.
- Widespread oceanic die-offs: These can be achieved through extraordinarily rapid (in evolutionary terms) acidification of maritime expanses or, even more quickly, the massive accumulation of nutrients enabled by rapid melting of ice packs in Greenland or the polar regions (triggering anoxic circumstances akin to “red tide” explosions of algae). In any event, the scenario here is one where certain coastal regions suffer a massive die-off of neighboring fisheries that have long been relied upon for food. In the acidification scenario, the dying-off of corals has the additional effect of making hurricanes and typhoons more impactful when striking land. Probably more than any other, this class of scenarios suggests to humanity that an irreversible tipping point has been reached, even as, again, some nations and regions suffer more immediately than others.
- Air pollution epidemics: With smoking pervasively outlawed in the future, advanced and “advancing” nations next target air pollution as a major killer, due to its exacerbation of pulmonary and heart diseases, asthma and allergy suffering. And with global urbanization set to roughly double over the next four decades, expect coastal megacities to both suffer these challenges in abundance–and then eventually tackle them with the vigor now spotted in New York City, where current Mayor Michael Bloomberg attacks such health issues with zeal reminiscent of America’s turn-of-the-20th-century Progressive Era. With more than half of the world’s population living in coastal megacities, the decisions made by those vast urban centers will invariably reshape the global environmental agenda.
- The great computing/sensor (i.e., singularity) breakthrough: As quantum computing expands from mere promise to reality, humanity blankets its many environments with nanosensors that enable unprecedentedly sophisticated modeling of the impacts of climate change. But it is more than just humanity’s ability to measure what is going wrong. As life-extension/augmentation technologies flower (see futurist Ray Kurzweil’s notion of a technological “singularity”), humanity’s willingness to manipulate its own biology soon extends to nature as a whole, meaning everything becomes “fixable” with enough technology. Climate change is thus addressed on a global scale primarily because humanity can address it, and because it no longer fears those “sins of commission.”
- The race to carbon zero:Despite the planet-wide spread of industrialization, humanity has nonetheless progressively moved “down” the carbon chain of energy use from wood to coal to oil to natural gas and beyond. As nanotechnology, additive manufacturing (aka, 3D printing) and renewable energy technologies mature across this century, the children of an expanding global middle class come to see themselves as the first human generation truly freed from want, thus empowering them to tackle climate change in a universal manner that their grasping-for-a-better-standard-of-living parents never could have been expected to attempt.
- Much depends on how the “New North” nations realize the power that naturally accrues to them over time–thanks to climate change. If they handle it well, remaining open to outside influences and, especially, immigration, then this power shift may bode well for the planet as a whole. Look at the Arctic Council “eight” (United States, Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia) and that’s a solid group of well-meaning democracies...plus Russia. But if this group turns in on itself, long-held fears about “resource wars” may well come to pass, especially as rising “excluded” powers (China, India, etc.) press their case for inclusion.
- Demographics almost preordain a growing global fixation on the environment. First is the rise of the planet’s environmentally-minded Millennial generation, which is growing up under the most globally-networked conditions yet experienced by anyone. Then there’s the rapid accumulation of elders around the planet. As this group lives out its final years (and years...and years) thanks to life-extension technologies, expect these elders to push even harder for more consensus on preserving the planet’s environment for posterity.
- Our planetary “die” is largely cast. As much of future climate change has already been “inputted” into Earth’s atmosphere by humanity, the 21st Century will be defined primarily by our living with the resulting consequences. Just like European colonialism left behind all manner of “time bombs” in developing regions (uneven power distributions among tribes, fake borders, artificial states, etc.), Western industrialization has already set in motion most of the climate change yet to come, meaning globalization is essentially in a race with nature to empower enough of humanity through wealth creation/accumulation to adequately manage the many–and rapid–evolutions to come.
- Globalization’s current, and near universal, bout of populism actually bodes well for the planet’s future, for it is the necessary precursor to the progressivism required by the myriad of challenges yet to come.
Wikistrat is the world's first massively multiplayer online consultancy. It leverages a global network of subject-matter experts via a patented crowd-sourcing methodology to provide insights unavailable anywhere else. This online network offers a uniquely powerful and unprecedented strategic consulting service: the internet's only central intelligence exchange for strategic analysis and forecasting, delivered, for the first time, in a real-time, interactive platform. It is both a global community of strategic thinkers and, in content, a scenario-driven model of globalization itself.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's November/December 2012 print edition.