Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.
- Rosa Luxemburg, "Junius Pamphlet" 1916

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mega-drought in the 2030s: some geopolitical implications

From a recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, a map of expected drought conditions across the planet, 2030-2039. The map assumes a moderate level of greenhouse gas emissions, per climate models used in the 2007 Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Click on the image below for full resolution.

A drought index of -4 is considered extreme. More on the study from Joe Romm of the Center for American Progress.

Some notes:

1) Much of the U.S. is under extreme drought conditions.

2) Much of Canada is not.

I expect that the United States will annex all of Canada by 2050. I'm not joking. We will need Canada's farm land, and its food, as well as the more temperate conditions.

Given the level of economic distress implied by the above map, and by peak oil, importing Canadian food will not be enough. The U.S. government and a desperate U.S. population will want direct control over Canada's food supply. Millions of impoverished, heat-stricken Americans will also want free access to temperate Canadian lands. Canadian immigration restrictions won't allow that, so the U.S. government will undoubtedly remove those restrictions, by removing Canada's existence as an independent nation-state. The only question is whether Canadian territory will be incorporated directly into the Union as new states or instead be administered as a conquered area under emergency rule.

The U.S. military of the 2020s and 30s won't be the same global colossus we see today, given the decline in energy supplies. But I expect it will continue to exist, with numbers and cohesion sufficient to take Canada. And also strength enough to lock out millions of refugees fleeing the extreme drought zones of Mexico and Central America. The people of those countries will be forcibly confined in their uninhabitable homelands, I expect, by the military forces of the United States. U.S. military power will serve the same function as Stalin's armies in the 1930s, which enforced deliberate, genocidal starvation in the Ukraine.

Looking at the map above, it's easy enough to project the same grim events in other parts of the world. In the age of energy decline and climate disintegration, politics and international relations will depend crucially on the ability to wield effective military force. I don't like that conclusion, but I don't really see any way to escape from it.

If I'm wrong about this, though, then somebody would have to come up with a different, more persuasive scenario covering, for example, U.S.-Canadian relations in the 2030s. Given that the levels of drought on the above map are a near certainty, how might the geopolitics of North America evolve in a relatively benign way? Hundreds of millions of Americans suddenly deciding to live with a lot less water doesn't seem likely. Nor does a drought-stricken United States seem likely to open its borders to the virtually inevitable waves of refugees from the south. Nor does a United States suffering from drought unprecedented in modern history seem likely to settle for some clunky, European Union style of peaceful integration with its bountiful, temperate neighbor to the north.

No. The age of climate and energy collapse will be the age of war. And government of the warlords, by the warlords, and for the warlords.


  1. About Canada: I'm really not sure. Even if things get really, really bad for the individual American (and they will), a straight up unilateral invasion and conquest of Canada would be a very, very hard sell to the American public. As I see it, the US military would have to do one of the following:

    1.) Quietly inform the Canadian government that we expect concessions in the form of a wide-open border and unlimited food exports, and that if we don't get them, we'll move on to the next options.

    2.) Simply ignore what would be a massive public outcry and steamroll both Canada and the war opposition. This would require a brutal crackdown on the American populace and a total media blackout.

    3.) Induce a string a vicious and debilitating "terrorist attacks" in Canada. "Poor canucks with their porous border and small military, they can't defend themselves from the evil Muslims! We must send our troops in to help them secure their border and deal with their internal security! They're our friends, aren't they?" Canada's government, swamped by the emergency (and perhaps notified quietly that, ahem, the attacks will surely continue if protection money is not paid to the US), will gladly accept the "help" and become a de facto occupied territory while everyone, American and Canadian alike, can pretend that it's all just a friendly helping hand. No nasty protests, no (or little) resistance from the Canadian populace. Path of least resistance.

    I'm going with option 3.

  2. I notice I have a split personality when blogging... When writing a post in the main body of the blog, I tend to overstate whatever case I'm making, or otherwise express myself in a fairly extreme manner. Whereas here in the comments section, I tend to be much more circumspect. Especially when a commenter makes clear that I've, um, way overstated my case. Ah, well.

    So, indeed, for me to willy-nilly predict an overt, armed U.S. takeover of Canada decades ahead of the fact is kind of silly. It could be argued that in the post above I basically sketched out a science fiction story and tried to pass it off as semi-academic policy analysis of long-term trends.

    If I were to restate the post in more modest language, I'd have to say: it seems to me uncomfortably possible that the high probability of extreme drought conditions in North America will generate serious geopolitical tension between the United States and Canada, with a range of unpredictable outcomes, some of which could include varying degrees of U.S. coercion against Canada, perhaps even, in the most extreme case, an armed conflict which has long been regarded as unthinkable, given the long process of demilitarization following the U.S.-Canada (and Britain) war of 1812-1815.

    But that's so much less fun to write. And read. I can see why I never became an academic.

    Despite my tendencies to exaggerate, I really am beginning to think that domestic and international politics for the rest of this century will be far more warlike than what we've been used to.

    And conditions in the United States or its successor(s), being far more harsh, are likely to produce a population even more ignorant and subservient than the one we see today. I confess it's really hard for me to imagine a future American population with any serious inclination to question wars launched by its government. Part of my attitude comes from cynicism about American political culture today. [CONTINUED BELOW]


    But part of it, too, comes from my general reading of history. It's hard for me to think of major cases where a desperate, impoverished population put up much of a resistance to wars launched by its own government -- unless the war started to go badly and the government seemed weak enough to be vulnerable. Main examples: Russia in 1905 and 1917, Serbia in 1999, Iraq in 1991 (where the revolts were crushed).

    There are other examples of governments facing internal resistance to external wars, but those tend to involve relatively affluent populations that can afford to be more assertive. Examples: significant resistance in the U.S. to wars against Britain/Canada (1812-15), Mexico (1846-48), the Southern Confederacy (1861-65), Spain (1898), and Vietnam (1965-1973). Perhaps also resistance in France to the Algerian war (1950s) and in Israel to the 1982 Lebanon invasion.

    In all of these cases, a fairly affluent population was able to agitate against a war, without much fear of a brutal crackdown or of otherwise seriously worsening their own day-to-day existence.

    It's hard for me to imagine that the situation in the U.S. around mid-century will be like that. I think our government will be brutal and our people stuck in a Hobbesian nightmare.

    To briefly attack my own scenario, though: if the U.S. government of the 2020s, 30s and beyond is weak, corrupt, and incompetent, with a demoralized and ineffectual military, maybe that would create an opening for some kind of popular uprising. I'm assuming the government and the military will be strong and effective, but maybe that won't happen.

    The only scenario I find truly impossible is for any sort of peaceful, democratic society, or system of societies, to last through this century. I just don't see how that could happen in a world of numerous resource scarcities and wide-ranging ecological collapse. I can't imagine it because I don't know of any major historical precedents for that kind of scenario. Not with complex, urban, technology-intensive societies.

    Still, I'd like to be wrong. A graduate seminar in history that I once took made the point, repeatedly, that sometimes the truly unprecedented does happen in human history. The rise of agriculture and cities were examples. The emergence of the first primitive republics in the ancient world was another. The industrial revolution was another, along with space travel, nuclear weapons, and much else.

    Maybe the twenty first century will see something equally unprecedented. For the better. I would like that. I really would.

  4. I do think it is inevitable that Canada will be forced to accept more US control, if for no other reason at all that we simply outnumber them and we will be very desperate. It may be that Canada is overrun, not by the brutal coal-helmeted armies of a fascist US government, but simply by hordes of starving Americans fleeing their ineffectual, Balkanized country. So I wouldn't say that you overstated your case, I was simply stating my belief that our future government may still be in a position to use lies, proxy attacks, and diplomatic maneuvering backed up by the implicit threat of force short of actually bombing Ottawa and rolling in the tanks. You're probably right that the leaders of the US in the future will be able to ram a certain amount of unpleasant bullshit down our collective throats, you have to keep in mind the the American people, bless their shit-kicking hearts, are a tad more restive than many other peoples in recent history. Americans, in general, are much easier to deceive than dominate. I don't think it will be a case of our military overlords avoiding antagonizing us at all costs, so much as only doing so when they cannot achieve their aims through subtler means. We're dealing with something similar in character to the rise of the Roman Empire from the fat corpse of the Republic, and even the Emperors knew to spend the goodwill of the plebs carefully. If it comes to it, all they'll have to do is give the Canadians a way to save face and they will roll over, allowing Americans to convince themselves we are liberators, not conquerors.