This not-so-positive prediction will focus on Chinese geopolitics as it relates to climate change between the year 2040 and 2050. As you read on, you’ll see a China that’s taken to the brink of collapse by climate change. That said, you’ll also read about its eventual leadership in the global climate stabilization initiative and how this leadership will position the country in direct conflict with the US, possibly resulting in a new Cold War.
But before we begin, let’s be clear on a few things. This snapshot—this geopolitical future of China—wasn’t pulled out of thin air. Everything you’re about to read is based on the work of publicly available government forecasts from both the United States and the United Kingdom, a series of private and government-affiliated think tanks, as well as the work of journalists like Gwynne Dyer, a leading writer in this field. Links to most of the sources used are listed at the end.
On top of that, this snapshot is also based on the following assumptions:
Government investments to seriously and sizably limit or reverse climate change will remain moderate to practically non-existent.
By 2040 to 2050, climate change will have progressed to a stage where greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in our atmosphere exceed 450 parts per million. In this scenario, the world is now at least two degrees Celsius warmer, probably more.
You read our intro to climate change and the not-so-nice effects it‘ll have on our drinking water, agriculture, coastal cities, and plant and animal species if no action is taken against it.
Now, let’s get right into it.
China at a crossroad
The 2040s will be a critical decade for the People’s Republic of China. The country will either disintegrate into fractured regional authorities or strengthen into a superpower that steals the world from the US.
Water and food
By the 2040s, climate change will have a severe impact on China’s freshwater reserves. Temperatures in the Tibetan Plateau will rise between two and four degrees, shrinking their glacial ice caps and reducing the amount of water released into the rivers flowing through China.
The Tanggula Mountain Range will also suffer huge losses to its ice caps, causing the Yangtze River network to shrink considerably. Meanwhile, the northern summer monsoons will have all but disappeared, shrinking the Huang He (Yellow River) as a result.
These losses of freshwater volume will cut deeply into China’s annual farming harvest, especially of staple crops like wheat and rice. Farming land purchased in foreign countries—particularly those in Africa—will also be forfeited, as violent civil unrest from those countries’ starving citizens will make exporting food impossible.
Instability in the core
A population of 1.4 billion by the 2040s coupled with a severe food shortage will most likely trigger major civil unrest in China. Additionally, a decade of severe climate change-induced storms and an increase in sea levels will result in massive internal migrations of displaced climate refugees from a few of the country’s most populated coastal cities. Should the central communist party fail to provide enough relief to the displaced and hungry, it will lose all credibility among its population and in turn, the richer provinces might even distance themselves from Beijing.
To stabilize its situation, China will both strengthen current international partnerships and build new ones to secure the resources it needs to feed its people and to keep its economy from collapsing.
It will first look to build closer ties with Russia, a country that by the 2040s will be regaining its superpower status by being one of the few nations able to export a food surplus. Through a strategic partnership, China will invest in and upgrade Russian infrastructure in exchange for both preferential pricing of food exports and permission to relocate surplus Chinese climate refugees to Russia’s newly fertile eastern provinces.
Moreover, China will also exploit its leadership in power generation, as its long-term investments in Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactors (LFTRs: the safer, cheaper, next-gen nuclear power of the future) will finally pay off. Specifically, the widespread construction of LFTRs will mothball hundreds of coal power plants in the country. On top of that, with China’s heavy investment in renewable and smart grid technology, it will have also built one of the world’s greenest and cheapest electricity infrastructures.
Using this expertise, China will export its advanced LFTR and renewable energy technologies to dozens of the world’s most climate-ravaged countries in exchange for favorable commodity buying deals. The result: these countries will benefit from cheaper energy to fuel widespread desalination and farming infrastructure, whereas China will use the acquired raw commodities to further build its modern infrastructure, alongside that of the Russians.
Through this process, China will further edge out Western corporate competitors and weaken US influence abroad, all while developing its image as a leader in the climate stabilization initiative.
Finally, Chinese media will direct any remaining domestic anger from the average citizen towards the country’s traditional rivals, such as Japan and the US.
Picking a fight with America.
With China pressing the gas pedal on its economy and international partnerships, an eventual military confrontation with the US may become unavoidable. Both countries will seek to stabilize their economies by competing for the markets and resources of those remaining countries stable enough to do business with. Since the movement of those resources (mostly raw commodities) will largely be done over the high seas, China’s navy will need to push outward into the Pacific to protect its shipping lanes. In other words, it will need to push out into American controlled waters.
By the late 2040s, trade between these two countries will have shrunk to its lowest level in decades. The aging Chinese workforce will become too expensive for US manufacturers, who by then will have either completely mechanized their production lines or moved on to cheaper manufacturing regions in Africa and Southeast Asia. Because of this trade slump, neither side will feel overly beholden to the other for its economic prosperity, leading to an interesting potential scenario:
Knowing its navy could never compete against the US head-on (given the US fleet of twelve aircraft-carriers), China could target the US economy instead. By flooding the international markets with its holdings of US dollars and treasury bonds, China could devastate the value of the dollar and cripple US consumption of imported goods and resources. This would temporarily remove a key competitor from the world commodity markets and expose them to Chinese and Russian dominance.
Of course, the American public would become furious, with some in the extreme right calling for all-out war. Luckily for the world, neither side would be able to afford it: China will have enough problems feeding its people and avoiding a domestic revolt, while the US’ weakened dollar and unsustainable refugee crisis would mean that it would no longer be able to afford another long, drawn-out war.
But on the same token, such a scenario would not allow either side to back down for political reasons, eventually leading to a new Cold War that would force the world’s nations to line up on either side of the dividing line.
Reasons for hope
First, remember that what you’ve just read is only a prediction, not a fact. It’s also a prediction that’s written in 2015. A lot can and will happen between now and the 2040sto address the effects of climate change (many of which will be outlined in the series conclusion). And most important, the predictions outlined above are largely preventable using today’s technology and today’s generation.
To learn more about how climate change may affect other regions of the world or to learn about what can be done to slow and eventually reverse climate change, read our series on climate change via the links below:
WWIII Climate Wars series links
WWIII CLIMATE WARS: NARRATIVES
Southeast Asia, Drowning in your Past: WWIII Climate Wars P9
South America, Revolution: WWIII Climate Wars P11