This is a fictional scenario, but everything described is a plausible possibility, particularly in the light of President Trump’s election in the USA. It is not a prediction (the future is too unpredictable for that) but aims to stimulate creative thinking by policy makers, business and NGOs.
download a pdf here
It’s the near future.
IT, automated systems and AI are increasingly powerful and important.
Climate change consequences are biting. Round the world, a few low lying parts of several major cities have been abandoned and it’s clear that sea level rise is accelerating. Most of the time, most places can continue as normal of course, but heat waves, storms, droughts, floods and fires are doing major damage.
In the post-Trump environment, the world has become divided by protectionism into three blocks, with very different responses to the threat of climate change.
The low carbon block. Led by China, in this large block there’s been a strong transition to a low carbon economy, incentivised by the economic opportunity and largely paid for with Chinese money. In many countries a major driver was the fear of civil unrest due to dangerously high levels of air pollution.
Since the early 2000s China has had a long term economic strategy to achieve technical and commercial dominance in the area of renewable energy and low carbon technology, starting with achieving dominance in wind power and solar photovoltaics then moving on to dominate in electric vehicles, battery storage, and nuclear power. The low carbon block started with the historical advantage that Taiwan had the bulk of the world’s ultra-high-tech semiconductor manufacturing plant, while China dominated the supply of the rare earth minerals needed for advanced batteries and motors.
Political systems vary across the block, but China’s economic power is immense, so within the block there’s a tendency to mimic its governance mechanisms too. There’s a strong belief in the power of a technocratic executive to make the difficult decisions and drive them forward. Social order is supported by sophisticated AI and social media manipulation, used to moderate and influence public perceptions and consumption. Consensus is helped by reinforcing the traditional Asian world view that emphasises the importance of the group, rather than the individual.
Standards of living for most people in the block are generally improving, helped by economic growth, technical progress and some reduction in inequality. The “filter bubble” effect is actively manipulated to reduce people’s awareness of inequality and keep them happy.
In general public and economic attention is focussed inward. There are significant trade and tariff barriers with other parts of the world, particularly those areas blamed for higher carbon emissions. There is little interest in the problems of the rest of the world, except when they impact on resources needed by the block. Immigration is in general seen as necessary, even if not desirable, in order to support an ageing population. These immigrants, largely climate refugees, tend to be allocated very low paying jobs in manufacturing enterprises and the growing service sector. Smaller numbers of highly qualified “brain drain” scientists and engineers will get higher level roles.
This group includes China, Japan, most of Oceana including most small island states, India parts of Europe (particularly Scandinavia Germany and Denmark), and parts of Africa (particularly Ethiopia, Kenya and Morocco) and the newly independent state of California.
The “fossils”. Led by a post-Trumpian USA and heavily influenced by a rear guard of fossil fuel corporations, this block has been trying to maintain “business as usual”, in the face of climate change, rising environmental deterioration, public anger at economic inequality and declining standards of living for most.
It is recognised within this block that the climate is changing, but, thanks to pressure from a powerful fossil fuel lobby, it’s taken for granted that that there’s no feasible alternative to a fossil fuel powered economy. It is accepted that an increasing proportion of GDP will be spent on coping with the consequences of climate change, for example by investing in flood defences, desalination plant and ever more air conditioning. The cost of this is rising, as is the cost of maintaining and repairing infrastructure that has been damaged by extreme weather.
Investment is particularly focussed on things that will benefit a steadily shrinking Elite, who live comfortable cultured lives, increasingly isolated from the growing majority behind a succession of walls and security fences. Although it is not encouraged, some of the elite are importing technology from the low carbon block and building themselves highly insulated homes, and installing off-grid solar power systems to maintain their power supplies during the increasingly frequent grid failures.
For the majority, the standard of living and life expectancy is falling, infrastructure is crumbling and education is poor. There are walls to keep out immigrants and climate refugees, who are frequently blamed for the deteriorating living standards of the Majority.
There is heavy investment in an increasingly militarised police force, prisons and surveillance systems to keep internal order. Military force is used to gain access to external resources in other parts of the world, with heavy investment in autonomous weapon systems and drones to allow access to a variety of dangerously dysfunctional oil producing areas.
Technological developments are focussed on military technology and resource extraction technologies, but progress has slowed in other areas, largely due to tariff barriers and an ongoing “brain drain” towards the low carbon block. It is a big handicap that the most advanced semiconductor manufacturing plant are in the low carbon block.
The “Fossil” block includes post-Trumpian USA, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Australia. It is heavily influenced by a consortium of powerful oil and gas multi-national corporations and their associated oligarchs.
Some were climate victims from the beginning. Some became victims later, when their countries failed to address their growing problems until it was too late.
Worst hit were those that were the first to suffer insupportable climate change impacts. For some it was desertification, crop failure and the relatively sudden failure of water supplies. For others, particularly in the Middle East, heat waves brought such high temperatures that for weeks it was no longer possible to survive outdoors. For others, such as Bangladesh, the Philippines and some small island states, flooding, sea level rise and severe hurricanes, effectively made their homelands uninhabitable.
A few countries managed to tackle their problems before it was too late. Others lacked the wealth or the necessary social consensus and governance systems to do so quickly enough. Inequality, corruption and environmental degradation all made it more difficult. All too often, social order collapsed, leaving a complex web of government oppression, “terrorist” outrages, civil war, leading to mass population movements and desolate camps of dispossessed refugees in its place.
Syria was perhaps one of the first countries to fall in this group, but others include much of northern Africa, and the Middle East, as well as parts of India, Bangladesh and Florida.
Other countries have not collapsed, but are the victims of political and military pressure from both the “fossils” and the “low carbon block”. Their situation is rather reminiscent of the struggles of the Cold War. They are often bullied by one or other of the completing major blocks into supplying scarce resources, in exchange for protection. Land for food crops, oil and gas, scarce minerals and metals are all in demand, but in general the countries have little option but to accept rather unfavourable terms of trade. Many of these countries are themselves suffering from climate change impacts and are struggling to invest in solutions, using a mixture of high and low carbon solutions.
These countries include Brazil, Canada and the post-brexit UK.
Could it get worse?
Given the increasingly damaging effects of climate change, there is a secret high level debate in the low carbon block about whether to carry out a pre-emptive strike against “The Fossils”. As they now account for the majority of the world’s carbon emissions, some are feeling that this would now be justified as the only way to put a stop to their carbon emissions and thus save humanity.
Others fear that this would lead to a catastrophic nuclear retaliation and want to increase the pressure via diplomacy, sanctions, or cyber warfare instead…..
Some questions to consider…
Which aspects of this scenario are most relevant to you? Which do you think are most likely? Which least likely? What do you want to do now to increase the chance of a satisfactory future?
Do add your comments, or email me with your ideas.
I can also run workshops on this (nominal charge or free for non-profits)
Last updated 12/11/16
 Richard E Nisbett. The Geography of Thought.
 Paul Rogers. Irregular War.