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Does climate change mean the end of nation states?

Posted By Johanna Hoffman, Thursday, June 4, 2020

Johanna Hoffman, a member of our Emerging Fellows program detects the effect of climate change on nation state concept. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

 

Climate change will create new pressures for the nation state paradigm not seen for generations. Just look to history. Our past is littered with examples of climatic shifts acting as harbingers of governmental destabilization. Researchers have found links between changes in climate and the collapse of societies across time and geography, from the Akkadian empire of ancient Mesopotamia, to the Maya of Central America, to the Norse societies of Greenland in the 1500s.

 

Many argue that the last major change in climate led directly to the end of the feudal system across much of Europe. Commonly known as the Little Ice Age, the period stretched from the start of the 14th century until roughly the mid 19th, and coincided with drops as great as 2 degrees Celsius in global temperatures. These changes led to a swath of adverse impacts, from sudden frosts, to dry summers and bitter winters. As a result, harvests turned increasingly erratic and food stocks declined. Desperate from hunger, populations rioted and eventually rebelled. Through it all, the importance of market economies for buying and selling ever more precious food continued to mount. Together, the argument goes, these shifts sowed the fall of feudalism and laid the foundations of the modern world we know today.

 

The lesson of the Little Ice Age is clear -- climate change changes everything. Given the speed and scope of current changes, we are likely heading into a period far more intense and long lasting, with impacts liable to harm not just harvests, but decrease fresh water access and spark more conflict. As sea levels rise and climate patterns grow more inconsistent, the numbers of environmental refugees will spike. Already many island-based and low lying areas of the world, such as Tuvalu and Kiribati, are strategizing how to move their citizens to other countries, effectively accepting that their nation states will no longer exist in the near future.

 

So what systems might arise if the sway of nation states starts to shift? While it’s impossible to say with certainty, migration patterns may provide some helpful clues. These growing numbers of refugees will likely head to where people have long flocked when displaced -- to cities. They will swell already burgeoning numbers. Urban populations are bigger than they have ever been in human history, with 55% of the world’s population living in developed areas. By 2050 those numbers are slated to be as high as 68%, nearly 2/3rds of all human life.

 

The trajectory is a necessary one. As populations grow, space to live compresses and resources grow scarcer, with access to essentials like potable water becoming increasingly hard to manage. Only in dense urban environments can we hope to house our burgeoning populations, particularly as climatic impacts and associated strife intensify refugee movement across the globe. Megacities, currently defined as cities with over 10 million residents, will become home to more of the global population than ever before.

 

Many believe that as megacities grow in size, the dominance of the nation state – with its emphasis on collective identity and shared sense of cultural self - may decline. Think of Shanghai, Sao Paolo, Lagos or New York City. These urban environments hold increasingly large economic and cultural sway in their respective countries. Political and governmental influence often follows those factors. As megacities grow, they are likely to become bigger engines of growth, innovation and culture.

 

The potential shift of power from nation states to megacities and their associated regions could happen because of factors beyond climate change. Conflicting values between urban areas and the national systems and populations in which they operate all have impact here. Yet the tension underwritten by climatic issues serves to augment such tensions. When uncertainty increases and resource scarcity and change is on the rise, our willingness to adhere to systems that don’t directly apply to our concerns and direct circumstances can start to wane.

 

Nation states were founded as entities whose citizens were relatively homogenous in language, culture or descent. When the make-up of a state grows more diverse, at what point do its denizens stop accepting norms and regulations that don’t reflect their values? The rising impacts of climate change will bring such questions increasingly to the fore.

 

© Johanna Hoffman 2020

Tags:  climate change  nation state  population 

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