Could global warming turn Canada into a superpower?
UCLA geographer Laurence C. Smith is pictured in Iceland, which is one of the eight Northern Rim countries that he predicts will become more prominent over the next 40 years.(Credit: Karen Frey)
Published Saturday, September 25, 2010 10:36PM EDT
By the year 2050 Canada could be enjoying newfound status as a global superpower blessed with a developed north, plenty of fresh water, a growing population and new shipping lanes through the Arctic.
That's the theory put forward in Laurence C. Smith's new book "The World in 2050" -- a scientific exploration of the effects of climate change over the next 40 years.
According to Smith's 40-year projection, global warming will free up northern natural resources such as oil, gas and water. That in turn will attract immigrants and lead to new infrastructure and development for northern rim countries -- NORCs, as he calls them -- at a time when southern countries will be running out of resources and seeing their populations fall.
The north will also warm up, meaning fewer and fewer of those -40 Celsius days that tend to grind productivity to a halt.
But this is not a reason to celebrate, Smith is quick to point out. While Canada, Russia, the Scandinavian countries and northern U.S. will see significant benefits from a warming planet, the rest of the world will suffer catastrophic losses.
"Most climate change is overwhelmingly negative, I'm not a Pollyanna," he told CTV.ca from his office at UCLA, noting that we are already experiencing the harsh effects of a warming planet.
"The pine beetle is devastating B.C. timber and summer heat waves knocked out 30 per cent of Russia wheat crop, so it would be disingenuous of me to suggest all of this spells nothing but good news. But alongside the bad news there will be some beneficial changes."
Smith, a scientist and professor of geography and earth sciences at the University of California Los Angeles, set out four years ago to write a book about the negative effects of climate change in the north.
There are two stories to every issue. I went there and found people suffering but I also found people flourishing, doing well.
-- Laurence Smith
Just prior to that, ice levels in the Arctic had receded to a record low and there was a feverish search among journalists for stories about the negative fallout for northern life.
Smith joined in that hunt.
"I'm a climate scientist by training and an Arctic specialist, so I went to the Arctic to document the effects of climate change and hopefully humanize it a bit," he said.
"I wanted to hear, frankly, about the negative effects of climate change. And I did. I got all those stories and I got more than that on top of it. I got a lot more than I bargained for."
Inevitably, Smith's conversations about melting ice and shrinking hunting grounds segued to other issues, like land claims, education issues, new development and industry -- those were the topics northern residents really wanted to talk about.
"There are two stories to every issue," Smith told CTV.ca.
"I went there and found people suffering but I also found people flourishing, doing well."
That discovery changed the direction of Smith's project and he began to consider the possibility that climate change could have a silver lining -- at least for some.
In "The World in 2050" Smith analyzes four "global forces" that he believes are the main drivers shaping our future world:
- Climate change
- The worldwide effects of a growing and aging population
- Increasing demand for dwindling natural resources
- Globalization and worldwide economic integration
Among his findings, Smith projects that China will pass the U.S. as the world's strongest economy by 2050. The U.S. will move to second, followed by India.
Mega-cities will proliferate in this new world, and wet regions will get wetter while dry parts of the planet will get even drier.
And of course, the world will get a lot warmer. By century's end, Smith predicts, temperatures in the Arctic will have risen by between 3.5 and 6 Celsius -- more than double the planet's mean average.
The earth's animal population will also suffer huge losses as a result of these changes and some species will be forced further and further north, in order to survive.
Weathering the storm
Canada, however, is well positioned geographically, politically and socially to deal with many of these changes, Smith said.
Perhaps most importantly, Canada is a country that welcomes skilled immigrants. As a result, despite our aging demographic, Canada's population is set to increase by 30 per cent in the next 40 years -- a growth rate rivalling India's.
"That's mostly due to her ability to attract highly skilled immigrants," Smith said. "Canadian immigration policy favours work skills and language above all else, even family reunification."
Culturally, Canadians have become a very welcoming country to newcomers, Smith said, referencing Canada's multi-ethnic television spectrum as an example. That characteristic will serve the country well, Smith said, as outsiders begin to clamour for opportunities here.
Russia, by contrast, will likely experience a population crash due to its xenophobic attitude towards outsiders.
"There's a spectrum and it all goes back to the exact same thing, how welcoming are you of global integration? And the countries that welcome outsiders grow, the ones that don't, do not," Smith said.
Smith also cites the birth rate of Canada's northern indigenous people and the "resurgence of their political power" as a strength for Canada.
Among the Inuit the median age is 23, compared to 40 for the country as a while, and in Nunavut the birth rate is 24 babies for every 1,000 people.
"So it's a small population but it's one of the fastest growing," Smith said, pointing out that a growing northern population bodes well for the region.
A warning cry
Despite the positive predictions Smith makes for Canada over the next 40 years, he says his message is overwhelmingly one of warning. He hopes readers will not take his theories as a reason to celebrate their NORC status, but that they will be inspired to change the course currently set in motion.
"It's my fervent hope that this book makes people think harder about what were doing now so we can avert many of its predictions," he said.
"We're talking about a tiny part of the globe. These handful of benefits occur in a small place, and they have to be framed against the background of a world depressed. It seems almost selfish to relish in those benefits that come at such a cost."