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How Climate Change Could Turn Canada into a Global Superpower

Geoff Dembicki

A gigantic supply of freshwater, an ice-free Arctic Ocean and an agricultural “sweet spot” temperature could be the envy of scorched and unlivable countries like the US.

Art by Noel Ransome

Climate change is going to suck for every country on the planet. But it may suck slightly less for Canada.

If humanity can't reduce its greenhouse gas emissions to effectively zero by the end of this century, the doomsday impacts are difficult to fathom. The mass extinctions, crushing heat waves, exotic diseases, clouds of death smog and poisoned oceans described in a viral New York Magazine story by David Wallace-Wells would make our natural world unrecognizable. Yet climate change may also significantly affect the geopolitical world. By 2100, it's conceivable that the US economy will nosedive, dozens of developing countries will collapse and a new global superpower will arise to fill the power vacuum: Canada. No, seriously.

Canada's economic dominance could be built on its gigantic supplies of freshwater, an ice-free Arctic Ocean that revolutionizes international trade and a mild-to-moderate climate that will be the envy of scorched and unlivable countries in more southern latitudes.

But here's the thing: life won't be all that pleasant for many Canadians. We will be under constant threat of flooding, wildfires, tornadoes, heat waves, infestations and other disasters. National economic gains will mask stark and growing inequalities. Waves of immigrants and refugees will make us intolerant of outsiders. Amidst the chaos we will turn to authoritarian strongmen like Donald Trump to lead us. Yet compared to the rest of the world, Canada could look like a progressive utopia.

To help us understand how this scenario may come to pass, VICE reached out to experts who study the future from the biggest of perspectives. They stressed the scenario above is one of many that could occur in a century of abrupt and nonlinear change. But the longer we delay on climate action, the likelier it becomes.

One of those experts is Stanford University's Marshall Burke, who is among the world's top researchers on climate and economic productivity. He also studies the impact of global warming on armed conflict. Burke and several of his colleagues published a paper in the prestigious scientific journal Nature postulating that if climate change continues unabated there could be a 23 percent decline in average global income by 2100—compared to a world where global warming doesn't exist. Canada's average national income, meanwhile, could increase by 247 percent.

Burke's team produced these astounding figures by studying the past. "We're using history as a laboratory," he said. They looked at the impact of temperature changes on 50 years of economic activity in 166 countries. They examined whether the GDP in places as diverse as the US, Brazil, and Cameroon went up or down in years with unusually warm or cold weather. They found that economies tend to perform best in areas with average annual temperatures of 13 degrees Celsius—which, as it turns out, pretty much exactly describes a place like Silicon Valley. "Coincidence or not these also tend to be some of the wealthiest locations in the world," Burke said.

His team then extrapolated those findings into the future. They imagined a world where climate change proceeds unabated until the year 2100. Already-hot countries suffer drastic impacts. Moderately warm ones decline. And cold nations like Canada see potentially large economic gains as their average annual climates approach the 13 degrees "sweet spot."

These shifts won't be immediately visible to most people. "In any given year it's going to be hard to detect the specific contribution of climate to economic performance," Burke noted. "But what you're likely to see is sort of a death by thousand cuts." No country—rich or poor—will be immune from them.

The most obvious way climate change affects an economy is through agriculture. Drought, storms, heat waves and invasive pests make it harder to grow food. Yet in an advanced economy such as the US, climate change could hamper growth in less apparent ways. Sweltering temperatures cause death and hospitalization, resulting in a financial drag on the healthcare system. Natural disasters hurt the insurance industry. People are less effective at their jobs in extreme heat. Factories produce fewer goods. The aggregate impact, according to Burke's research, could be a 36 percent decline in US income by 2100. The South will be hit particularly hard.

And these are the impacts we could expect in one of the world's richest and most powerful countries. Places that are already struggling economically are going to be absolutely pummeled. Dehydration and chronic kidney disease could ravage Latin America's farm workers. Drought may set off civil wars in Africa. Entire cities and regions of the Middle East might become too physically hot to survive in. National income declines of 80 to 90 percent would become common across the developing world—that is, compared to growth scenarios without climate change. And this isn't even accounting for the one-off disasters—say, for instance, a surge of superstorms that destroy New York and London—which could send the global economy into a tailspin. "Our estimates can be considered a bit conservative," Burke said.

Canadians will be watching the world burn with a mixture of relief and anxiety. In no way are we going to be immune from the physical effects of climate change. Polar bears and seals will go extinct across the North. Towns built on melting permafrost might literally collapse. Wildfires will rage out of control. Natural disasters caused by climate change could cost Canada up to $43 billion per year by mid-century, TD Economics estimated in 2014. Yet each dollar spent right now on adaptation could prevent up to $38 in future damages. And northern countries like Canada could see economic benefits from warmer temperatures. "Canada is going to have multiple geographic advantages," Burke said. "The evidence would suggest that Canada is likely to do well relative to many of its trading partners and competitors."

One way that could happen is if melting ice opens up shipping routes in the Arctic Ocean. This would significantly reduce the time and cost of international trade. It could revolutionize the industry, the same way that container shipping did over the past 60 years, explained Rob Huebert, a University of Calgary associate professor who's studied the impact of climate change on the Arctic. "The ice will be gone and all of a sudden this becomes a passage and it becomes a passage through a country that will be considerably more stable than what you see in, say, Egypt," he said.

Climate change could at the same time bring more fish into the Arctic Ocean, and into the northern reaches of the Pacific and Atlantic. During these same decades global trade is expected to triple, while the economic value of the planet's oceans doubles to $3 trillion. By taking advantage of these trends Canada could become a "global superpower," as Ocean Networks Canada leader Kate Moran has argued. That's an assessment shared by UCLA scientist Lawrence Smith, who's speculated that the small Manitoba city of Churchill could be one of 10 "ports of the future." "In many ways, the New North is well positioned for the coming century," he wrote. And Stony Brook professor Noah Smith has urged Americans to, "keep an eye on the big country to the north—it could be headed for very important, very good things."

Yet those gains may come with a huge human cost. Indigenous peoples living in Canada's North face social injustices—including substandard housing and high unemployment—that "tend to be magnitudes larger than those faced by people in most other parts of Canada," read a report from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, a group representing 60,000 Inuit. Global warming is amplifying those challenges. Melting permafrost makes it harder to hunt, cuts off transportation between communities and has been linked to severe declines in mental wellbeing. "The environment of risk that Inuit are born into is intensified by climate change," reads the report.

This is a dynamic we could expect to see more frequently across the country in coming decades: financial benefits for some and devastating losses for others. A warmer climate and longer growing season in Ontario may, for example, "benefit many crops including corn, soybeans, forages and horticultural crops," predicted one report. (Assuming these gains aren't neutralized by extended droughts). Yet hotter temperatures could be calamitous for certain southern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where food production already occurs in a semi-arid climate. "You move over to the arid zone, which is very conceivable, then you start seeing widespread destruction of agriculture and cattle farming," Huebert said.

Canada will still be much better off than most countries. We have access to more than 20 percent of the world's freshwater reserves—a resource that will be more valuable than gold over coming decades. Climate change will surely impact those reserves. It will melt glaciers and alter precipitation. But compared to the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and even the Southwest US, we'll have it easy. Our real challenge will be defending our freshwater from others. "In a United States that is water-deprived, they're automatically looking northward," Huebert has argued.

By 2100, Canada will be the focus of much of the world's attention. As regions and countries across the planet collapse, millions of refugees and other migrants could head north. The vast oceans separating Canada from Asia and Africa will mean that "those who want to come here face greater difficulties than if they're wanting to get to Europe," Huebert said. Yet desperate people will make the journey. Government agencies will attempt to admit only the most skilled or in-need migrants—and the country's population could swell to 100 million people as a result. Many migrants will be turned away, however. And as more people arrive, Canada's land borders may become heavily militarized, while drones and gunboats patrol our shores.

This siege mentality could make Canadians intolerant of outsiders. We may come to believe we have earned the right to control and exploit the planet's last remaining resources. Foreigners, we'll tell ourselves, are coming to take our resources away. This zero-sum view of the world will in turn shape our political system. We'll hand over our civil liberties to authoritarian leaders who promise to keep our borders strong. "The election of people like Donald Trump becomes the norm rather than the exception," Huebert said. "It doesn't paint a picture of a very nice future."

This is one picture of the future among many, of course. But what's scary about global warming is that we really don't know what changes it will bring. "The biggest problem we face with the increasing temperatures is that they are not producing linear effects," Huebert explained. "We're not quite sure what will be accelerated, what will be countered." All we can say with certainty is the physical impacts of climate change on our world will be huge and destabilizing. Those impacts could profoundly reshape our global economy. And even if Canada emerges from the chaos as a new global superpower, we won't have all that much to celebrate.

Geoff Dembicki is author of the forthcoming book, Are We Screwed? How a New Generation is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.