China Digs Its Own Grave (and Ours, Too)Roundup
tags: climate change, China
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power (Dispatch Books). His new book, just published, is To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change.
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 U.S. global power. Using economic projections, the U.S. 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% larger than that of the United States by 2030.
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