The snow leopards that stalk the rocky mountains of Central Asia are so elusive and well-camouflaged that they’ve earned the nickname “ghost of the mountains.” They’re out there, but exceedingly hard to spot.
These solitary big cats are a useful analogy for the global phenomena that can seem to come out of nowhere and take even the most seasoned observer by surprise. In some cases, that’s because a high-profile threat has eclipsed others; we rightly worry about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for instance, but missile proliferation receives relatively less attention. Some things are so woven into our daily lives that they become invisible, as in the case of the global shipping lanes that make it possible for us to tap “buy now” today and find a package on our doorstep tomorrow. Trends that gather momentum slowly but steadily, undetected developments, known but underappreciated risks—all of these “snow leopards” have the power to reshape the world.
This makes snow leopard-spotting an essential complement to any attempt to peer into the future. So our next-generation foresight team at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security compared notes and identified six under-the-radar phenomena to watch. These are not predictions (for those, check out our list of top risks and opportunities for 2024, and our expert survey forecasting the decade ahead). What follows are trends and developments already underway whose disruptive potential, for good or for ill, we are overlooking.
In the year to come, here are six snow leopards we’re keeping an eye on.
With a key provision of Antarctica’s governing treaty set to come up for debate in 2048, many countries are eyeing the vast fisheries and hydrocarbons there. Most forms of military and economic activities on the world’s only uninhabited continent are banned under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, which lays out a vision of peaceful scientific inquiry and cooperation and which fifty-six countries have now signed. But with Antarctica home to an estimated 500 billion tons of oil and 300 billion to 500 billion tons of natural gas, and with 135 billion tons of oil in the Southern Ocean region, the stage is set for the continent to become yet one more arena of geopolitical competition.
The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1998, stipulates that during its first fifty years it can only be modified by the unanimous agreement of all parties to the treaty. In its current form, the protocol restricts any activities related to Antarctica’s natural resources except for those involving scientific research. But starting in 2048 any party can call for a review of the protocol, initiating a process that, while lengthy and complex, could result in a modified protocol that creates more of an opening for natural-resource exploration in Antarctica.
Notably, neither China nor the United States recognizes existing territorial claims to Antarctica made by other powers, with both reserving the right to participate in “any future uses of the region,” as the US government phrases it. China sees both polar regions as strategically valuable and ungoverned spaces, and has been increasing its physical footprint in Antarctica for years—having just broken ground on its fifth research station. China is planning to construct powerful antennas at its Antarctic bases that could serve two purposes: furthering legitimate scientific research, but also allowing China to gather intelligence across the Indo-Pacific region.
Given Antarctica’s increasing geopolitical and economic importance—from fresh water, iron, and copper resources to strategic transportation routes—it is unlikely that the protections of the original Antarctic Treaty will be renewed in their current form. In the meantime, expect countries to ramp up their jockeying for position in the region, in the process undermining one of the few successful expressions of cooperative global governance.
Climate change is now threatening the shipping lanes that underpin global commerce. While major supply-chain disruptions have made headlines in recent years—resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic beginning in 2020, the Suez Canal blockage in 2021, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, and Houthi attacks on shipping vessels in the Red Sea in 2023, climate impacts are poised to dominate such disturbances in the coming years. The disruption to the way water moves between the Earth and the atmosphere—the patterns of rain, evaporation, condensation, and runoff that affect how much water flows through the world’s waterways—appears to be here to stay.
Global supply chains depend on these waterways. China’s “golden shipping route,” the Yangtze River, carries as much as 2.93 billion tons of cargo annually, including advanced manufacturing products. But a severe summer drought in 2022 left the river at half its usual width, stopping shipping through the middle and lower sections of the river. Likewise, the water levels of the Mississippi River, which sends $130 billion in goods each year through the Port of New Orleans alone, dwindled during a major drought in late 2022 that led to $20 billion in economic losses. In both 2022 and 2023, the Rhine River, perhaps Europe’s most important inland waterway, was so low owing to drought that some ships were only carrying half their usual amount of goods. The capacity of the Panama Canal, which transports 40 percent of US container traffic, 5 percent of global trade, and $270 billion in goods, took a hit too. A 2023 drought—the region’s worst since 1950—reduced the number of ships transiting the canal each day, as well as the amount of goods each could carry, suggesting a difficult future for one of the world’s most important nodes of trade.
With climate change expected to make extreme weather more frequent, a big rethink of how goods move around the globe is necessary. Adaptation strategies, including refitting ships for shallower water or dredging and reengineering rivers, are costly and fail to solve the larger problem. A future with reliable transportation of goods will require rebuilding the global shipping map, from its hubs to its methods of transport, along with new technologies to navigate the world’s rapidly changing waterways.
Cans of paint may prove to be an important solution in addressing the climate crisis—a very specific white paint, to be exact. A professor at Purdue University, Xiulin Ruan, and his team have developed a highly specialized white paint that can reflect 98 percent of the sun’s rays away from the Earth. It’s a record that goes well beyond what the best existing white paints can do. Coating structures with this paint lowers their surface heat, keeps them cool without requiring energy or generating waste heat, and reduces air-conditioning needs by up to 40 percent. Purdue’s paint stands out as a leading offering, but cool coatings, even those not as advanced as the one developed at Purdue, provide a number of benefits.
Imagine painting 1 percent or 2 percent of the entire planet in this heat-reflective white. According to one calculation, this could entirely offset the additional warming associated with ongoing carbon emissions. Though applying paint to structures at that scale would probably be impractical and costly, applying it to cars, roofs, and roads worldwide would create islands of coolness in a warming world.
The world’s growing number of city dwellers would also benefit. Buildings, roads and other infrastructure absorb and trap much more heat than greener natural landscapes. The retention and release of this heat, among other factors, can cause an urban heat-island effect, with daytime temperatures up to 7 degrees Fahrenheit higher in cities than in rural areas. Already, 56 percent of the global population resides in cities, and seven in ten people will live in cities by 2050. As temperatures around the world increase, some of these cities are becoming increasingly unlivable. Painting even a small part of the planet could keep cities cooler and healthier.
Take a global landscape of rising multipolar tensions and partnerships, add widely available dual-use technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and voilà: A new era of proliferation is increasing the challenge to arms control and the potential for conflicts around the world to escalate.
At the end of the twentieth century, only a handful of powers had long-range precision-strike technology—primarily in the form of cruise and ballistic missiles. The technology was closely guarded, with international agreements and norms limiting the spread of such missile systems. Today, the number of countries acquiring and deploying long-range precision-strike systems is rising steadily— twenty-four states currently operate cruise missiles with a range greater than 300 kilometers, relative to just three in 1991—and similar technologies are now being deployed by nonstate actors as well.
More and more, agreements to restrict the proliferation of these systems have been eliminated or ignored. In 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after years of allegations that Russia had violated its terms. Another crumbling component of the arms-control architecture is the Missile Technology Control Regime, a 1987 voluntary agreement among nations to not sell or transfer technology for long-range missiles to other parties. But exports of restricted missile technology by the United Kingdom, France, Russia, India, China, Israel, and the United States have diminished the normative power of the agreement. What’s more, the Missile Technology Control Regime and other agreements have failed to control the spread of long-range armed UAVs. In 2020, for example, the United States changed its interpretation of the agreement’s rules so that it could more easily export armed drones—in reaction to the widespread sale of similar systems by China, Turkey, and Israel.
The proliferation of long-range precision-strike technology to nonstate actors has further confounded arms-control efforts. Iran has exported ballistic missiles, cruise-missile technology, and armed UAVs to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen. Both groups have used these weapons in attacks in the region. Just in the past several months, the Houthis have attempted several missile attacks on Israel and targeted international shipping.
The upshot of all these trends? We may be headed for a world where most states and many nonstate actors will be able to attack targets deep within their neighbors’ territory, or even far beyond their borders, within hours. Civilian populations will become more vulnerable during war, as Russia’s attacks on Ukrainian cities show. The likelihood of local conflicts escalating across their region may increase along with the range of the weapons deployed—and more countries may need to develop plans and capabilities for air and missile defense.
If a US-China conflict ever breaks out, expect to hear a lot more about Palau. As the potential for a military clash in the Western Pacific grows, so does the strategic significance of this tiny island nation between the Philippines and Guam. Palau’s importance stems from its key geographic location and its political alignment: It is one of just four states in the Pacific that maintains formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, and it provides exclusive military operating and basing rights to the United States.
Geographically, Palau is at the center of the “second island chain,” farther from China’s coastline than the chain of islands that includes Taiwan and part of the Philippines. Since China’s anti-access military capabilities—particularly land-based missiles—pose such a threat to military operations within the first island chain, the prevailing wisdom among defense experts is that the second island chain would be a more defensible platform for US forces in the event of a conflict with China. Palau—considered the anchor of the second island chain—could be a key location for rearming and repairing US military ships and aircraft as well as an important basing location for resupply, surveillance, communications, and other supporting activities.
Politically, Palau has long had a special relationship with the United States, with commitments on both sides that extend beyond those of the typical alliance. The 1994 US-Palau Compact of Free Association gives the United States exclusive military operating rights in Palau, including the right to establish defense sites. In return, the United States is committed to defend Palau and provide it economic assistance, among other forms of support. Under a May 2023 update to the original compact, Palau stands to receive $890 million from the United States over twenty years.
Washington’s focus on Palau has increased in recent years. The US Department of Defense awarded a $120 million contract at the end of 2022 to install a radar system in Palau by 2026, expected to improve the United States’ ability to track air and maritime threats from China and North Korea in the Western Pacific. More recently, in December 2023, Palau was one of the sites of the latest rounds of the Pacific Partnership military-exercise series. Expect to see more defense and infrastructure investments by the United States in Palau, as well as more military exercises in the area, which will only add to Palau’s importance.
Palau may not be the focus of a potential US-China military confrontation, but it could be the critical location just behind the scenes.
Climate change and the rising demand for fresh water strain global water supplies and spark conflicts. Water stress affects billions of people in rich and poor countries alike, but the problem is most acute in poor regions that are arid and drought-prone. The number of droughts worldwide has risen 29 percent since 2000. The good news: Cheaper and less energy-intensive approaches to desalination—the process of turning seawater into fresh water for human consumption and use—are on the horizon and may provide the means to better quench demand.
For decades, desalination has increased the availability of fresh water in coastal regions with direct access to the sea. Yet the dominant process for converting salt water to fresh—reverse osmosis—is costly, uses a significant amount of energy (often from fossil fuels), and produces a lot of waste (known as brine) as a byproduct. As a result, reverse osmosis can only solve part of the fresh-water problem, mainly for low-volume and high-value applications such as drinking water, and almost exclusively in high- and middle-income countries.
But recent research breakthroughs could turn the tide. Researchers at MIT and in China have developed a briefcase-sized, solar-powered device that “could produce drinking water at a rate and price that is cheaper than tap water,” according to MIT’s description of the effort. Many other researchers are exploring forward osmosis, an alternative to reverse osmosis that can be applied at scale in large desalination plants. Forward osmosis uses natural osmosis, with an already present osmotic pressure drawing water through a membrane that separates the water from solids, and requires far less energy than reverse osmosis. In 2023, for example, a researcher at New Mexico Tech announced a forward-osmosis breakthrough that reduces energy consumption and pollution production.
Perfecting forward-osmosis processes for wider use should cut the cost of desalination dramatically, in turn allowing lower-income countries to create desalination facilities. With the right investment and scaling, it is possible that more of the world will have access to affordable, life-sustaining fresh water in the years to come.
Global Foresight 2024
In this year’s Global Foresight edition, our experts identify the top risks and opportunities for 2024. Our foresight team spots “snow leopards” that could have major unexpected impacts in 2024 and beyond. And we share findings from our survey of global strategists and foresight practitioners on how human affairs could unfold over the next decade.
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Six ‘snow leopards’ to watch for in 2024
Atlantic Council foresight experts spot the underappreciated phenomena that could have outsize impact on the world, driving global change and shaping the future.
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