Parag Khanna is the founder and managing partner of strategic advisory firm FutureMap. Based in Singapore, he is the author of six books, including The Future is Asian.
Several years ago, I requested the British journal New Scientist forecast the effect of rising temperatures on global agriculture through the application of leading research. The resulting map produced for my book, Connectography, illustrated a dramatic conclusion: Northern Hemisphere wins, Southern Hemisphere loses … badly. Unless, by chance, you happen to be a Kiwi or take up residence on the western tip of Antarctica (where regardless of how climate change plays out, it will still be dark much of the year).
For decades, two continental-scale countries have had remarkably similar trajectories. Australia and Canada, a pair of resource-rich former British colonies, have enjoyed nearly uninterrupted economic growth, with their small populations benefiting from the commodities boom, smart immigration policy and progressive parliamentary democracy. Both have also weathered the COVID-19 pandemic better than other advanced Western states such as the United States, Britain, or Germany. But climate change could lead to a radical divergence in their paths. Whereas Canada will be as close to a winner as there can be, Australia is fated to be a loser. Australia has long been known as “the lucky country,” but could it be Canada that will be the lucky one? And can Australia change its fortunes?
In the mid-20th century, some scholars were concerned that global overpopulation and food shortages would compel the international community to challenge Australia’s right to possess such a bounteous continent with so few people. Yet the more the country falls victim to climate change, the less it needs to fear that outsiders will seek to either overrun it or seize its crops. Instead, droughts are ravaging Australia’s agriculture and livestock, prices for iron ore and other commodities prices have cratered, heat waves and brush fires threaten the country’s crown jewel cities, and now the coronavirus will devastate commercial real estate. Australia is only livable in its coastal areas, but these locations face the double whammy of heat waves and forest fires on one side and rising sea levels on the other. All of these factors might scare away millions of tourists annually as well as many of the migrants – from students who bring in billions every year to billionaire property investors – who have made Australia a top-ranked safe haven for global talent and wealth.
According to the New Scientist map, Australia is fated to be a solar power generator and uranium mining power, but not much else – though Tasmania ought to be livable. Rather than being the “lucky country,” Australia needs to avoid becoming like Brazil, whose Amazon rainforest is depicted on the map with one devastating word: desert.
Canada, meanwhile, has a much greener climatological forecast. According to the map, it is destined to become one of the world’s two centres of subsistence agriculture – farmer to the world. At present, Canada’s population is concentrated along the U.S. border, yet its vast northern expanse is becoming ever more fertile and habitable. Ironically, whereas Australians consider the arid Outback as part of their soul, most Canadians are unfamiliar with their northern territories, thinking of them as a vast emptiness. Yet these areas are incredibly rich in energy and minerals, and home to vast boreal forests of coniferous pine and spruce trees.
Furthermore, as Canada warms, its agricultural output has swelled, with organic farming and crop rotation across millions of hectares producing ever greater yields of wheat, legumes, millets, flax and oats. Drones are spreading seeds and fertilizers to plant and nurture billions of new trees by 2030. As the stars align for Canada, it has also entered the immigration big leagues, attracting even more new permanent settlers each year than the U.S. (which has 10 times its population). Canada is even drawing a growing number of Americans, ranging from top-tier tech talent to those fleeing the Trump administration or seeking affordable health care. With warmer temperature and strong precipitation leading to massive crop diversification and yields, Canada and Russia’s futures are more similar to each other than to Australia’s. Indeed, Canada’s population by 2040 could well be 100 million people, about the same as Russia’s will be by that date.
Canada is not without climate risk. Atlantic provinces such as Newfoundland face the greatest risk from rising sea levels and the incidence of forest fires is increasing. If the U.S. diverts water from the Great Lakes (in violation of a 2008 compact), Canada may have to draw more water from the north or its Rocky Mountain glaciers. Canada’s dependence on fossil fuels is not only out of step with global norms, but huge continued investments in the oil sands will surely be loss-makers in a world of flatlining (even negative) oil prices. Both Canada and Australia could do far more to reduce their carbon footprint through wind and solar power. Australia in particular needs to undertake large-scale hydro-engineering projects such as a north-south water canal bringing water from Queensland to New South Wales, and to ramp up agro-tech investments such as aquaponic food production in cities.
Neither Canada nor Australia can do much to dictate the future of climate change and global warming, but both have a long way to go to adapt. Neither will achieve economic diversification without sustained immigration, which hinges on investing both in climate resilience and deploying technologies such as national broadband internet, something neither has adequately rolled out.
There is, then, enough opportunity still within reach for both countries, and the future is not preordained. The New Scientist map is stylized and suggestive, but it nonetheless gives a shrill warning. We have the technology and capital to transition toward sustainable energy and produce adequate food supplies despite climate volatility. Lucky or unlucky, both Australia and Canada can still shape their destiny for the benefit of today’s and tomorrow’s populations.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.