Consider us at the edge of the sort of epochal change not seen for centuries, even millennia. By the middle of this century, we will be living under such radically altered circumstances that the present decade, the 2020s, will undoubtedly seem like another era entirely, akin perhaps to the Middle Ages. And I’m not talking about the future development of flying cars, cryogenics, or even as-yet-unimaginable versions of space travel.
After leading the world for the past 75 years, the United States is ever so fitfully losing its grip on global hegemony. As Washington’s power begins to fade, the liberal international system it created by founding the United Nations in 1945 is facing potentially fatal challenges.
After more than 180 years of Western global dominion, leadership is beginning to move from West to East, where Beijing is likely to become the epicenter of a new world order that could indeed rupture longstanding Western traditions of law and human rights.
More crucially, however, after two centuries of propelling the world economy to unprecedented prosperity, the use of fossil fuels—especially coal and oil—will undoubtedly fade away within the next couple of decades. Meanwhile, for the first time since the last Ice Age ended 11,000 years ago, thanks to the greenhouse gases those fossil fuels are emitting into the atmosphere, the world’s climate is changing in ways that will, by the middle of this century, start to render significant parts of the planet uninhabitable for a quarter, even possibly half, of humanity.
For the first time in 800,000 years, the level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has blown past earlier highs of 280 parts per million to reach 410 parts. That, in turn, is unleashing climate feedback loops that, by century’s end, if not well before, will aridify the globe’s middle latitudes, partly melt the polar ice caps, and raise sea levels drastically. (Don’t even think about a future Miami or Shanghai!)
In trying to imagine how such changes will affect an evolving world order, is it possible to chart the future with something better than mere guesswork? My own field, history, generally performs poorly when trying to track the past into the future, while social sciences like economics and political science are loath to project much beyond medium-term trends (say, the next recession or election). Uniquely among the disciplines, however, environmental science has developed diverse analytical tools for predicting the effects of climate change all the way to this century’s end.
Those predictions have become so sophisticated that world leaders in finance, politics, and science are now beginning to think about how to reorganize whole societies and their economies to accommodate the projected disastrous upheavals to come. Yet surprisingly few of us have started to think about the likely impact of climate change upon global power. By combining political projections with already carefully plotted trajectories for climate change, it may, however, be possible to see something of the likely course of governance for the next half century or so.
To begin with the most immediate changes, social-science analysis has long predicted the end of US global power. Using economic projections, the US National Intelligence Council, for instance, stated that, by 2030, “Asia will have surpassed North America and Europe combined in terms of global power,” while “China alone will probably have the largest economy, surpassing that of the United States a few years before 2030.” Using similar methods, the accounting firm PwC calculated that China’s economy would become 60 percent larger than that of the United States by 2030.
If climate science proves accurate, however, the hegemony Beijing could achieve by perhaps 2030 will last, at best, only a couple of decades or less before unchecked global warming ensures that the very concept of world dominance, as we’ve known it historically since the sixteenth century, may be relegated to a past age like so much else in our world.
Considering that likelihood as we peer dimly into the decades between 2030 and 2050 and beyond, the international community will surely have good reason to forge a new kind of world order—one made for a planet truly in danger and unlike any that has come before.
The Rise of Chinese Global Hegemony
China’s rise to world power could be considered not just the result of its own initiative but also of American inattention. While Washington was mired in endless wars in the Greater Middle East in the decade following the September 2001 terrorist attacks, Beijing began using a trillion dollars of its swelling dollar reserves to build a tricontinental economic infrastructure it called the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that would shake the foundations of Washington’s world order. Not only has this scheme already gone a long way toward incorporating much of Africa and Asia into Beijing’s version of the world economy, but it has simultaneously lifted many millions out of poverty.
During the early years of the Cold War, Washington funded the reconstruction of a ravaged Europe and the development of 100 new nations emerging from colonial rule. But as the Cold War ended in 1991, more than a third of humanity was still living in extreme poverty, abandoned by Washington’s then-reigning neoliberal ideology that consigned social change to the whims of the free market. By 2018, nearly half the world’s population, or about 3.4 billion people, were simply struggling to survive on the equivalent of five dollars a day, creating a vast global constituency for Beijing’s economic leadership.
For China, social change began at home. Starting in the 1980s, the Communist Party presided over the transformation of an impoverished agricultural society into an urban industrial powerhouse. Propelled by the greatest mass migration in history, as millions moved from country to city, its economy grew nearly 10 percent annually for 40 years and lifted 800 million people out of poverty—the fastest sustained rate ever recorded by any country. Meanwhile, between 2006 and 2016 alone, its industrial output increased from $1.2 trillion to $3.2 trillion, leaving the United States in the dust at $2.2 trillion and making China the workshop of the world.
By the time Washington awoke to China’s challenge and tried to respond with what President Barack Obama called a “strategic pivot” to Asia, it was too late. With foreign reserves already at $4 trillion in 2014, Beijing launched its Belt and Road Initiative, while establishing an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with 56 member nations and an impressive $100 billion in capital. When a Belt and Road Forum of 29 world leaders convened in Beijing in May 2017, President Xi Jinping hailed the initiative as the “project of the century,” aimed both at promoting growth and improving “people’s well-being” through “poverty alleviation.” Indeed, two years later a World Bank study found that BRI transportation projects had already increased the gross domestic product in 55 recipient nations by a solid 3.4 percent.
Amid this flurry of flying dirt and flowing concrete, Beijing seems to have an underlying design for transcending the vast distances that have historically separated Asia from Europe. Its goal: to forge a unitary market that will soon cover the vast Eurasian land mass. This scheme will consolidate China’s control over a continent that is home to 70 percent of the world’s population and productivity. In the end, it could also break the US geopolitical grip over a region that has long been the core of, and key to, its global power. The foundation for such an ambitious transnational scheme is a monumental construction effort that in just two decades has already covered China and much of Central Asia with a massive triad of energy pipelines, high-speed rail lines, and highways.
To break that down, start with this: Beijing is building a transcontinental network of natural gas and oil pipelines that will, in alliance with Russia, extend for 6,000 miles from the North Atlantic Ocean to the South China Sea.
For the second arm in that triad, Beijing has built the world’s largest high-speed rail system, with more than 15,000 miles already operational in 2018 and plans for a network of nearly 24,000 miles by 2025. All this, in turn, is just a partial step toward what’s expected to be a full-scale transcontinental rail system that started with the “Eurasian Land Bridge” track running from China through Kazakhstan to Europe. In addition to its transcontinental trunk lines, Beijing plans branch-lines heading due south toward Singapore, southwest through Pakistan, and then from Pakistan through Iran to Turkey.
To complete its transport triad, China has also constructed an impressive set of highways, representing (like those pipelines) a problematic continuation of Washington’s current petrol-powered world order. In 1990, that country lacked a single expressway. By 2017, it had built 87,000 miles of highways, nearly double the size of the US interstate system. Even that breathtaking number can’t begin to capture the extraordinary engineering feats necessary—the tunneling through steep mountains, the spanning of wide rivers, the crossing of deep gorges on towering pillars, and the spinning of concrete webs around massive cities.
Simultaneously, China was also becoming the world’s largest auto manufacturer as the number of vehicles on its roads soared to 340 million in 2019, exceeding America’s 276 million. However, all of this impressive news is depressing news as well. After all, by clinging to coal production on a major scale, while reaching for a bigger slice of the world’s oil imports for its transportation triad, China’s greenhouse-gas emissions doubled from just 14 percent of the world’s total in 2000 to 30 percent in 2019, far surpassing that of the United States, previously the planet’s leading emitter. With only 150 vehicles per thousand people, compared to 850 in America, its auto industry still has ample growth potential—good news for its economy, but terrible news for the global climate (even if China remains in the forefront of the development and use of electric cars).
To power such headlong development, China has, in fact, raised its domestic coal production more than a thousand-fold, from just 32 million metric tons in 1949 to a mind-boggling record of 4.1 billion tons by 2021. Even if you take into account those massive natural-gas pipelines it is building, its enormous hydropower dams, and its world leadership in wind power, as of 2020 China still depended on coal for a startling 57 percent of its total energy use, even as its share of total global coal-fired power climbed relentlessly to a record 53 percent. In other words, nothing, it seems, can break that country’s leadership of its insatiable hunger for the dirtiest of all fossil fuels.
On the global stage, Beijing has been similarly obsessed with economic growth above all else. Despite its promises to curb greenhouse-gas emissions at recent UN climate conferences, China is still promoting coal-fired power at home and abroad. In 2020, the Institute of International Finance reported that 85 percent of all projects under Beijing’s BRI entailed high greenhouse-gas emissions, particularly the 63 coal-fired electrical plants the project was financing worldwide.
When the 2019 UN climate conference opened, China itself was actively constructing new coal-fueled electrical plants with a combined capacity of 121 gigawatts—substantially more than the 105 gigawatts being built by the rest of the world combined. By 2019, China was the largest single source of pollution on the planet, accounting for nearly one-third of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, UN Secretary General António Guterres was warning that such emissions were “putting billions of people at immediate risk.” With an impassioned urgency, he demanded “a death knell for coal and fossil fuels before they destroy our planet” by banning all new coal-fired power plants and phasing them out of developed nations by 2030.
Together, the planet’s two great imperial powers, China and the United States, accounted for 44 percent of total CO2 emissions in 2019 and so far both have made painfully slow progress toward renewable energy. In a joint declaration at the November 2021 Glasgow climate conference, the United States agreed “to reach 100% carbon-pollution-free electricity by 2035,” while China promised to “phase down” (but note, not “phase out”) coal starting with its “15th Five-Year Plan.”
The US commitment soon died a quiet death in Congress, where President Biden’s own party killed his green-energy initiative. Amid all the applause at Glasgow, nobody paid much attention to the fact that China’s next five-year plan doesn’t even start until 2026, just as President Xi Jinping’s promise of carbon neutrality by 2060 is a perfect formula for not averting the climate disaster that awaits us all.
In its hell-bent drive for development, in other words, China is digging its own grave (and ours as well).
Climate Catastrophe Circa 2050
Even if China were to become the preeminent world power around 2030, the accelerating pace of climate change will likely curtail its hegemony within decades. As global warming batters the country by mid-century, Beijing will be forced to retreat from its projection of global power to address urgent domestic concerns.
In 2017, scientists at the nonprofit group Climate Central calculated, for instance, that rising seas and storm surges could, by 2060 or 2070, flood areas inhabited by 275 million people worldwide, with Shanghai deemed “the most vulnerable major city in the world to serious flooding.” In that sprawling metropolis, 17.5 million people are likely to be displaced as most of the city “could eventually be submerged in water, including much of the downtown area.”
Advancing the date of this disaster by at least a decade, a 2019 report on rising sea levels in Nature Communications found that 150 million people worldwide are now living on land that will be submerged by 2050 and Shanghai was, once again, found to be facing serious risk. There, rising waters “threaten to consume the heart” of the metropolis and its surrounding cities, crippling one of China’s main economic engines. Dredged from sea and swamp since the fifteenth century, much of that city is likely to return to the waters from whence it came in the next three decades.
Simultaneously, soaring temperatures are expected to devastate the North China Plain between Beijing and Shanghai, one of that country’s prime agricultural regions currently inhabited by 400 million people, nearly a third of that country’s population. It could, in fact, potentially become one of the most lethal places on the planet.
“This spot is going to be the hottest spot for deadly heat waves in the future,” said Elfatih Eltahir, a climate specialist at MIT who published his findings in the journal Nature Communications. Between 2070 and 2100, he estimates, the region could face hundreds of periods of “extreme danger” and perhaps five lethal periods of 35° Wet Bulb Temperature (where a combination of heat and high humidity prevents the evaporation of the sweat that cools the human body). After just six hours under such conditions, a healthy person at rest will die.
Rather than sudden and catastrophic, the impact of climate change in North China is likely to be incremental and cumulative, escalating relentlessly with each passing decade. If the “Chinese century” does indeed start around 2030, it’s unlikely to last long once its main financial center at Shanghai is flooded out and its agricultural heartland is baking in insufferable heat.
A Democratic World Order
After 2050, the international community will face a growing contradiction, even a head-on collision, between the two foundational principles of the current world order: national sovereignty and human rights. As long as nations have the sovereign right to seal their borders, the world will have no way of protecting the human rights of the 200 million to 1.2 billion climate-change refugees expected to be created by 2050, both within their own borders and beyond. Faced with such extreme disorder, it is just possible that the nations of this planet might agree to cede some small portion of their sovereignty to a global government set up to cope with the climate crisis.
To meet the extraordinary mid-century challenges to come, a supranational body like the UN would need sovereign authority over at least three significant priorities—emission controls, refugee resettlement, and environmental reconstruction. First, a reformed UN would need the power to compel nations to end their emissions if the transition to renewable energy is still not complete by, at the latest, 2050. Second, an empowered UN high commissioner for refugees would have to be authorized to supersede national sovereignty by requiring temperate northern countries to deal with the tidal flows of humanity from the tropical and subtropical regions most impacted and made least inhabitable by climate change. Finally, the voluntary transfer of funds like the $100 billion promised poor nations at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference would have to become mandatory to keep afflicted communities, and especially the world’s poor, relatively safe.
In the crisis to come, such initiatives would by their very nature change the idea of what constitutes a world order from the amorphous imperial ethos of the past five centuries to a new form of global governance. To exercise effective sovereignty over the global commons, the UN would have to enact some long overdue reforms, notably by creating an elective Security Council without either permanent members or the present great-power prerogative of unilaterally vetoing measures. Instead of superpower strength serving as the ultimate guarantor for UN decisions, a democratized Security Council could reach climate decisions by majority vote and enforce them through the moral authority, as well as the self-interest, of a more representative international body.
If a UN of this sort were indeed in existence by at least 2050, such a framework of democratic world governance could well be complemented by a globally decentralized system of energy. For five centuries now, energy and imperial hegemony have been deeply intertwined. In the transition to alternative energy, however, households will, sooner or later, be able to control their own solar power everywhere the sun shines, while communities will be able to supplement that variable source with a mix of wind turbines, biomass, hydro, and mini-reactors.
Just as the demands of petroleum production shaped the steep hierarchy of Washington’s world order, so decentralized access to energy could foster a more inclusive global governance. After five centuries of Iberian, British, American, and Chinese hegemony, it’s at least possible that humanity, even under the increasingly stressful conditions of climate change, could finally experience a more democratic world order.
The question, of course, is: How do we get from here to there? As in ages past, civil society will be critical to such changes. For the past five centuries, social reformers have struggled against powerful empires to advance the principle of human rights. In the sixteenth century, Dominican friars, then the embodiment of civil society, pressed the Spanish empire to recognize the humanity of Amerindians and end their enslavement. Similarly, in the mid-twentieth century activists lobbied diplomats drafting the UN charter to change it from a closed imperial club into the far more open organization we have today.
Just as reformers moderated the harshness of Spanish, British, and US imperial hegemony, so, on a climate-pressured planet of an almost unimaginable sort, civil society will certainly play an essential role in finally putting in place the sort of limitations on national sovereignty (and imperial ambitions) that the UN will need to cope with our endangered world. Perhaps the key force in this change will be a growing environmental movement that, in the future, will expand its agenda from capping and radically reducing emissions to pressuring powers, including an increasingly devastated China, to reform the very structure of world governance.
A planet ever more battered by climate change, one in which neither an American nor a Chinese “century” will have any meaning, will certainly need a newly empowered world order that can supersede national sovereignty to protect the most fundamental and transcendent of all human rights: survival. The environmental changes in the offing are so profound that anything less than a new form of democratic global governance will mean not just incessant conflicts but, in all likelihood, disaster of an almost-unimaginable kind. And no surprise there, since we’ll be dealing with a planet all too literally on the brink.