Although climate change could still have devastating effects for much of the world, some regions stand to benefit immensely. Canada, Scandinavia, and even Greenland could all become economic powerhouses, making "The New North" a very attractive destination.
This is one of the central premises of respected climate scientist Laurence Smith's new book, The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization's Northern Future, which is published later this month. Just as the Pacific Rim has gained ever-increasing economic importance over the last half-century, melting in the polar regions will allow a similarly powerful Arctic Rim to develop, providing an unprecedented economic jolt to Canada, Russia, the northern United States, Scandinavia, Iceland, and Greenland.
Smith calls these countries Northern Rim Countries, or NORCs for short. While the rest of the world's resources will be badly overstretched by climate change - Smith sees a 4.5 degree increase in temperature as abest-case scenario, and anything up to 10 degrees is possible - the vast natural resources that are currently frozen beneath the Canadian or Siberian tundra will be unlocked. That will both make current residents of these areas much wealthier and attract lots of new immigrants. Canada in particular could see massive population growth thanks to oil resources that are only surpassed by those of Saudi Arabia. The Canadian population could grow by 30 percent in the next few decades, which is comparable to India's current growth rate.
Collectively, these NORCs would be the world's fourth biggest economic power, trailing only the BRIC countries (the combined might of Brazil, Russia, India, and China), the European Union, and the United States. The Northern Rim could be the only place in the world where climate change will cause increased crop production, which could turn Greenland into the world's very unlikely breadbasket.
Water will also be a hot commodity - summer shipping lanes in the Arctic will finally provide a direct trade link between Europe and the Far East, which will provide further drive for Northern Rim economic growth, not to mention make a bunch of sixteenth century kings very happy. The NORCs could also have huge supplies of fresh water, which might become a major trade item depending on how severe the effects of Climate Change are elsewhere.
Smith says looking for the bright side of global warming is unfamiliar territory for him, but he realized he couldn't ignore the possibility when researching the human side of climate change in the northern regions:
"I kept badgering people for stories about climate change. They'd sigh and oblige me, but then say, 'There's also this oil plant going up behind me' or 'All these Filipino immigrants are pouring in.' Within about two months, I realized there is a lot more going on up there besides climate change. Climate change is a critical threat to many people, but it isn't the sole development in their lives. I went up there to write a book about climate change. I came out of it writing about the world and the big pressures it faces."
Not all of his predictions are so rosy, of course. Alternative energy technologies still won't be up to the task of meeting global energy needs in 2050, meaning we are stuck with fossil fuels for a long while yet. In fact, he thinks coal, the dirtiest of all energy sources, might be the only option for impoverished nations struggling to meet the energy demand. Megacities - cities with more than ten million people - will only increase in number, but he doubts they will become any more livable. In fact, he says many megacities in the developing world are already "hell on Earth", and they will only get worse during the energy crunch.
Wildlife could also be badly affected. Smith believes we will see the greatest mass extinction event since an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Many species will be forced to migrate northward to survive, which will also cause widespread hybridization between those species already in the north and their cousins currently in the south.
Smith stresses that the NORCs won't displace more southern economic powerhouses, but they will offer a very attractive alternative:
"It's not that London or L.A. are going to become empty wastelands. Even in 2050, there will be far more people down here than in the north. But many northern places that are now marginal or not really thought much about will emerge as very nice places to be. In many ways, the stresses that will be very apparent in other parts of the world by 2050 - like coastal inundation, water scarcity, heat waves and violent cities - will be easing or unapparent in northern places. The cities that are rising in these NORC countries are amazingly globalized, livable and peaceful."
So which cities in particular will see the biggest benefits from this climate change? Smith points to Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Seattle, Calgary, Edmonton, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Ottawa, Reykjavik, Copenhagen, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, St. Petersburg and Moscow as cities that will all grow in size, economic power, and prestige over the next few decades. He also identifies ten "ports of the future" that will be hubs of the Arctic Rim shipping lanes: Prudhoe Bay, Alaska; Churchill, Canada; Archangelsk, Dudinka, and Murmansk in Russia; Norway's Hammerfest, Kirkenes, and Tromsø; and Nuuk, Greenland.
There's also some cause for optimism that indigenous people in the NORCs will actually benefit from these changes. Self-determination treaties are common in many of these countries, which give indigenous peoples control over the natural resources on their lands.
Ultimately, Smith doesn't mean to minimize the immense challenges that global warming will give us, but that still doesn't mean we have to ignore the potential benefits:
"It's like the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. There's a new part of the world that's emerging, with vast continents and a harsh geographical gradient but also resource and immigration bonanzas. Humanity will increasingly look north in response to the four global pressures of rising population, resource demand, globalization and climate change."