America is out of the environmental protection businesses; so says the haughty god-emperor 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 21st 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 amongst 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.

The greatest danger zone: the Sahel.

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 21st-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% 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 1 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 U.S., 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, Austrailia, 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 1 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% 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.


How many of these refugee camps can humanity tolerate?

Of course, that implies they’d be willing to either kill or starve up to 1 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 4th and 5th 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 towards assimilating them, the program could be a greater success.  The 21st 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.

(Want to know more?  Pick up a copy of my book, which discusses in detail how climate change, generational shifts, and shifting boundaries will bring about a great crisis of the 2070s, 80s, and 90s.)

10 thoughts on “How Climate Change Will Be the Biggest Geopolitical Crisis of the 21st Century

  1. Hi Ryan .This article is one of the best. Although this bleak future is worrying. Do you think some of these migrants will go south (South Africa, Botswana, Kenya) if these countries are not also affected by climate change?


    1. I suspect some will, and I suspect they will crack apart and fail, driving many north anyway. The solution is preparation and an acknowledgment that this could really happen, and being honest about our human nature and how we perceive our differences. Otherwise we will end up killing many.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Preface: I’m not part of the alt right( I’m what they call a “race traitor”) . but I’ve talked to several inhabitants of this political sphere.
    interesting article. i would like to add some point.
    to give more context on the claim that the alt-right disregard science. as someone working in the stem field i notice that science denial is a human universal trait. different political leaning deny different scientific fact. the right doesn’t admit climate change the left sweeps under the rug difference in IQ between human groups.

    Moreover, and this will be a difficult truth, not all cultures are capable of cooperation with one another.

    Dump a few million conformists into individualistic Europe, and surely you will see them try to take power in one way or another.

    can the nationalist rise in all of the eu be explain as some sort of immune system to counter the action of a [redacted] highly collectivist group?


    1. IQ differences aren’t based on a scientific grounds: there are different education levels, but that has a lot to do with state management and power rather than inherent differences between populations. Take a person from Somalia young enough and raise them in the United States and, besides potentially looks, you wouldn’t know the difference between them and any other American.

      What we now know – through cultural dimensions theory, long-range studies on educational attainment at different age groups, and studies on how location affects economic achievement – is that people past certain ages are less able to change and adapt to new circumstances. It would be one thing if the future took all children from crashing states under the age of 5 and raised them – that would be a pretty straightforward task. What is much harder is taking fully formed adults and throwing them into different cultures expecting them to be able to adapt. That’s the culture shock anyone who travels feels: yet children under a certain age don’t feel that same level of shock, mostly because they don’t have the cultural hardwiring in place yet. I wouldn’t call therefore the rise of nationalism in Europe as an “immune” response, implying that it’s grounded in survival: I’d say it’s a culture-shock based reaction that any other group of humans, swamped by newcomers without the same national values as they, would feel. This doesn’t mean that they cannot find ways to manage their newcomers: they can, provided they use the right tools and target the very specific behaviors they want to see from newcomers with reasonable incentives and punishments.

      For example, Germany has sort of started to realize that many of their refugees come from places where the collectivism of their cultures devalues female sexual rights. That resulted in the Cologne sex attacks: nobody told refugees such behavior was beyond the pale in Germany. Now they’re targeting refugee sexual behavior very specifically, with appropriate sanctions. But they must go wider: if refugees want a place in Germany, it will mean abandoning their collectivist practices and embracing individualistic ones, which will mean giving up power of their children, spouses, and community members that they may be used to. That can work: with enough high profile arrests in the media for law breakers, and enough direct education in schools and adult training centers, these folks can be brought into Germany’s body politic. But it requires direct targeting of behavior, with an acknowledgement that not all humans are raised the same.


      1. Thank you very much for the response and the articles.

        IQ has been shown to be hereditary… your argument about a single person doesn’t invalid the fact that the distribution curve has a lower mean value… in other words you cannot make a prediction about an individual but you can make it about a population , similar differences are seen between man and women. I’m a chemist and not a psychologist and therefore all that I’ve said it’s from what I’ve read and some lecture by Prof, Steven Pinker.
        Fun fact about the Alt-right: from what I’ve understood they hold “white” ( a term that I’ve never found a clear definition ) nationalism on the base of IQ only to be squashed by the fact that east Asian and Jewish IQ curves have a higher mean value. I’ve read your article on the alt right and in my opinion either you didn’t go to the sources of the alt right or you wanted to extrapolate into a more general description on the reactionary movements in the western world,

        regarding the fact that people can be changed into European values: i think the main problem comes from the native European intelligentsia itself…admitting the premise that the people have to change in order to adapt would be rooted in the “racist” conclusion that in contemporary history the culture of newcomer is a lesser culture that the European ones.

        regarding the question of putting the response of native Europeans in term of survivals or not : i think it’s a metaphor that came up unnecessarily rhetorical.
        Premise for the several points here after : i try to read news from all over the political spectrum and there is the problem that certain facts are gonna be reported only if it helps the Weltanschauung of the paper in question so i don’t know the size of these problems. is there a place where to find reliable statistics on the issue that will follow?

        On the point “about past certain age” : there seems to be a problem due to the fact that adults are passing for children (not casting moral judgment here: if their goal is enter to Europe and benefit from it passing for a child is an effective shortcut) how much can this fact harm the effort to educate the new generation?

        Also I’ve read that there have been some rapes even in “how to not rape ” classes. but I’ve not seen any statistic on the incidence of these events happening so I could admit that that is a horrible red herring.

        Here is some reasoning that came from my anecdotal experience,so feel free to point out if I’m overestimating the issues.
        I’ve worked in Germany for some years and one of the things that shocked me the most was when a colleague of mine (from Turkish descent) complained how many Turkish (but German born) people in Germany never bothered to learn German because they lived in large enough Turkish communities that made learning German you think that Germany is repeating this mistake again?

        Another problem that I can foresee based on the history of what happened during the migration from Romania, Albania and north Africa to Italy of the late 90s early 2000s. I was volunteering at the er and a lot of cases of ethnically motivated assault were clashes between these groups more than Italian- vs migrants. How much does accepting people from different conflicting backgrounds complicate the process of assimilation? Returning to the case of Germany from what I’ve come to know there is “animosity” between Turks and Arabs, could that become a problem even in the case the relationship between German and “new Germans” are gonna be the same?


      2. The Hofstede Center’s framing of national values makes much of what you’re looking for make a lot of sense. Essentially, if you’re looking for true assimilation, you’re seeking to make newcomers able to thrive within the national values of a given country. You can overlook things like rituals and heroes in that sense; those are just surface behaviors. What you want instead are the same national core values in each citizen, with the outliers being just outliers.

        The United States used to be very good at this: it assimilated its German immigrants so well, for example, that they’re barely noticeable today. Language does matter, but there is no reason to necessarily eradicate a second language; people can balance both. Religion can matter, if it distorts someone’s core values away from the given national values. But what matters are those national values based on Power Distance, Individualism, Long-Term Orientation, etc., more than anything else.


  3. Hello, I am from Canada and really think this article deserves more attention. It goes straight to the biggest challenge of our times. What would you think of assigning a special type of citizenship status and reserved land to refugees of climate change? In Canada at least, most criticism of immigration falls into one of the following categories:
    1) They cost too much to the society in terms of social welfare programs;
    2) They threaten core values, symbols and lifestyle of dominant cultural group;
    3) They threaten political power of dominant cultural group.

    I think a special citizenship status could help alleviate some of these concerns. For example, this special citizenship may offer security and right of residence but would not allow the refugee to access as much social welfare programs as a native citizen or right of vote. This kind of suggestion typically shocks our universalist conscience but on the other hand a “second-class” citizen status in a developed country is much better than death at home. Eventually the descendants could be integrated into the host culture and converted to “first-class” citizenship.


    1. Thanks very much! Shares of such articles on platforms like Reddit always help them get more attention and traction – I genuinely hope this becomes a larger conversation.

      That being said, I agree a notion like a temporary citizenship might work towards developing the right incentives for people to assimilate. But that runs the risk of a widespread backfire: what happens if many fail and they’re already in the country? Would future generations be willing to deport tens of thousands, even millions, to certain death sentences?


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