The New NorthI’ve just had a review of The New North published in the APF’s quarterly newsletter, Compass. I’m sharing it here.

As the Arctic ice cover shrinks ever smaller, it seems a good time to review Laurence Smith‘s book The New North, which was well-received when it was published in hardback and has just been published in paperback. It tells four stories about the way in which climate change will re-shape the north of the planet (generously defined as the world north of 45*N) in the decades to 2050.

Smith, a geographer at UCLA, describes the book as “a 2050 thought experiment”, and any futurist would have been pleased to have written it. His building blocks are four long-term global trends – demographics, natural resource demand, globalisation, and climate change. Along the way a fifth intrudes, of “enduring legal frameworks”, that he sees as an outcome but I would regard as a further long-term trend driven by value shifts towards increasingly rights-based political frameworks.

The core of his argument is that:

  • Climate change has a disproportionately strong effect on the north, especially the far north, which opens the area up for some kinds of economic development;
  • In particular this is driven by demand for oil and gas reserves, made more accessible by global warming;
  • But there is unlikely to be conflict over these resources, because international treaties are working;
  • This economic swing is benefiting those aboriginal communities that have gained some measure of self-governance – most notably in Canada and Greenland, to some extent in Alaska, less so in Scandinavia and Russia;
  • Climate change will damage some permafrost-based infrastructure, so there will be more development along coastlines, less inland.

As he develops the argument, he brings to it a popular touch. Geographers expect to travel, and Smith has visited many of the places he writes about in the course of his research. He summarises his view of the probable “new north” of 2050 this way:

“We have a diverse basket of new energy sources but still rely heavily on fossil fuels. Natural gas is especially lucrative and under aggressive development in all corners of the world. Among these is the Arctic Ocean, where investment capital is flowing north as the peaceful settlement of seafloor claims, diminished sea ice, new maritime port facilities, and specialized LNG tankers have made offshore gas extraction increasingly economic. … Milder winters have encouraged billions of southern organisms to press northwards, including us.”

A measured eye

It’s worth emphasising that even given the likely scale of climate change by 2050, the world described is still one in which snow and ice are widespread. This isn’t a world in which vines are growing on the edge of the Arctic Circle. And while the shrinking ice cover opens up the new opportunities described above, warming also destabilises the permafrost and destroys the winter roads and ice roads and make inland locations less viable. Places like Tolko Industries in Alberta, a softwood producer which Smith visits, depend on the 14 to 16 weeks each year that their “winter road” is open for – a window that is slowly shrinking.

To all of this he brings the measured eye of the academic geographer, which means he avoids the excitability that sometimes pervades the world of the 2050s futures business. A couple of examples: he steps nimbly past the Thomas Friedman “world is flat” bear trap – the world is lumpy, he observes – and he resists the temptation to predict war over Arctic resources, even though this is the sort of assertion that does wonders for the price, if not the value, of the post-publication speaking engagements.

No silver bullets

One of the reasons he’s measured is the rules he sets himself at the start:

  • no silver bullets (only foreseeable advances in technology, which makes sense over 40 years);
  • no World War III, or other radical reshaping of global geopolitics;
  • no genies (such as global pandemics, multi-decade recession, rapid increases in climate change); and
  • the models are good enough (existing models are reasonably accurate), which leads him slightly astray, I think, on some economic projections, but not enough to damage the argument.

Of course, 45*N is actually quite a long way south, all but touching New York and Madrid, south of mainland France, Germany and Canada. Smith is really interested in the Arctic territories, the parts of the world that are presently snowbound for at least part of the year, and the line is drawn there because some of the colder parts of continental Russia extend that far south.

Climate flip-flops

The outcome, then, of much of the book is broadly between a “probable future” and Peter Schwartz’ “predetermineds“. Later, however, he relaxes some of his ground rules to have a look at some possible uncertainties, reasonably enough over 40 years. What, for example, if the world’s water systems are re-engineered so they flow from north to south? China has already started down this road, and Russia has been considering it. The cost is huge and so is the environmental damage; it would be easier to move people than water. What if the Chinese start to move west into Russia’s vast and under-occupied Far East territories? At the very least some kind of trade agreement that enables Chinese labour to mine Russian resources to supply the Chinese economy seems possible.

And what if climate change is more rapid, and more abrupt, than the models suggest? Recent research suggests that our emergence from the Ice Age was “neither gradual nor smooth. Instead it underwent rapid flip-flops,” in which the temperature swung violently between glacial and warm, sometimes in the space of less than a decade. As he says, we had better hope that this particular genie stays trapped in the ice.