This not-so-positive prediction will focus on South American geopolitics as it relates to climate change between the years 2040 and 2050. As you read on, you’ll see a South America that’s struggling to combat drought while trying to prevent both resource shortages and a widespread return to the military dictatorships of the 1960s to 90s.
But before we begin, let’s be clear on a few things. This snapshot—this geopolitical future of South America—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:
Worldwide government investments to sizably limit or reverse climate change will remain moderate to non-existent.
No attempt at planetary geoengineering is undertaken.
The sun’s solar activity does not fall below its current state, thereby reducing global temperatures.
No significant breakthroughs are invented in fusion energy, and no large-scale investments are made globally into national desalination and vertical farming infrastructure.
By 2040, climate change will have progressed to a stage where greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere exceed 450 parts per million.
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.
With these assumptions in mind, please read the following forecast with an open mind.
By the 2040s, climate change will cause extreme declines in annual rainfall across South America due to the expansion of the Hadley cells. The countries most affected by these ongoing droughts will include all of Central America, from Guatemala right through Panama, and also across South America’s northern tip—from Columbia to French Guiana. Chile, due to its mountainous geography, may also experience extreme droughts.
The countries who will fare the best (relatively speaking) in terms of rainfall will include Ecuador, the southern half of Columbia, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Brazil sits in the middle since its massive territory will contain larger rainfall fluctuations.
Some of the westernmost countries like Columbia, Peru, and Chile, will still enjoy a wealth of freshwater reserves, but even those reserves will start seeing declines as their tributaries begin to dry out. Why? Because lower rainfall will eventually result in lower freshwater levels of the Orinoco and Amazon River systems, which feed much of the freshwater deposits in the continent. These declines will impact two equally vital parts of the South American economies: food and energy.
With climate change warming the Earth up to two to four degrees Celsius by the late 2040s, many parts of South America simply won’t have enough rainfall and water to grow enough food for its population. On top of that, some staple crops simply won’t grow at these elevated temperatures.
For example, studies run by the University of Reading found that two of the most widely grown varieties of rice, lowland indica and upland japonica, were vulnerable to higher temperatures. Specifically, if temperatures exceeded 35 degrees Celsius during their flowering stage, the plants would become sterile, offering little to no grains. Many tropical countries where rice is the main staple food already lie on the very edge of this Goldilocks temperature zone, so any further warming could mean disaster. This same danger is present for many South American staple crops like beans, corn, cassava, and coffee.
William Cline, senior fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics, estimates that the climate warming South America may experience could lead to a decrease in farm yields by as much as 20 to 25 percent.
It may surprise people to know that many South American countries are leaders in green energy. Brazil, for example, has one of the greenest energy production mixes in the world, generating over 75 percent of its power from hydroelectric plants. But as the region begins to face increasing and permanent droughts, the potential for devastating power disruptions (both brownouts and blackouts) may increase throughout the year. This prolonged drought would also hurt the country's sugarcane yields, which will increase the price of ethanol for the country's flex-fuel car fleet (assuming the country doesn't switch to electric vehicles by then).
Rise of autocrats
Longer term, the decline in water, food, and energy security across South America, just as the continent's population grows from 430 million in 2018 to nearly 500 million by 2040, is a recipe for civil unrest and revolution. More impoverished governments may fall into a failed state status, while others might use their militaries to maintain order through a permanent state of martial law. Countries that experience more moderate climate change effects, like Brazil and Argentina, may hold on to some semblance of democracy, but will also have to heighten their border defenses against floods of climate refugees or less fortunate but militarized northern neighbors.
An alternate scenario is possible depending on how integrated the South American nations become over the next two decades through institutions like UNASUR and others. Should South American countries agree to collaborative sharing of continental water resources, as well as shared investment in a new continent-wide network of integrated transportation and renewable energy infrastructure, South American states may successfully maintain stability during the adaptation period to future climate conditions.
Reasons for hope
First, remember that what you’ve just read is only a prediction, not a fact. It’s a prediction that’s written in 2015. A lot can and will happen between now and the 2040s to 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