Northeastern experts cite climate change, China and a potential recession as the big international stories for 2023

ships passing through a stretch of water in china
Ships in China’s Jiangxi province pass through a stretch of water that is narrowed during drought season. AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

Climate change will rank among the key elements driving news events around the world in 2023, predicts Mai’a Cross, director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern.

Though some promising climate change news emerged in Europe at the end of 2022, Cross acknowledges that time is running short to address the warming of the planet. She joins her Northeastern colleague, Pablo Calderon Martinez, in his concern that the richer nations—which happen to be the biggest polluters—may fail to provide financial assistance to poorer countries as part of a comprehensive global strategy.

“Which countries are going to offer support?” says Calderon Martinez, assistant professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern University London. “That is the real sticking point of the negotiations.”

The Northeastern experts foresee the global community grappling with a variety of issues across the new year, including the myriad difficulties facing China, the impact of a likely global recession, the ongoing women’s rights protests in Iran, and the continuing threat of far-right ideology.

headshot of mai'a cross (left) and pablo calderon martinez (right)
Mai’a Cross (left), Dean’s Professor of Political Science, International Affairs and Diplomacy, as well as director of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures at Northeastern; and Pablo Calderon Martinez, assistant professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern University London. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University and Courtesy Photo

On the climate change front, Cross draws a measure of hope from the European Union’s enactment in December of the world’s first carbon border tariff, which should have a constructive impact among the EU’s global trading partners. As a result of two decades of legislative effort, the new law imposes a tax on imports of iron and steel, cement, fertilizers, aluminum and electricity, based on the CO2 that was expended in their manufacturing. 

“It’s a real game-changer that clearly demonstrates the EU’s commitment to longer-term goals when it comes to energy and climate change,” says Cross, Dean’s Professor of Political Science, International Affairs and Diplomacy at Northeastern. “It was a very difficult thing to agree to that essentially prevents countries from circumventing the higher restrictions on carbon emissions in Europe. If the process of making those goods was carbon-intensive, then there will be a tariff on those goods.”

Countries will have to respect the new standards in order to trade with the EU.

“The EU realizes the power it has as a regulatory superpower,” Cross says of the tariff. “It will have a ripple effect across the entire world: Everyone needs to start paying attention to whether their processes are carbon-intensive.”

But other climate change issues remain worrisome to the professors. Calderon Martinez notes that countries are still negotiating over how to measure climate change and assign responsibility to polluters. Blended with the issue of financial support that underpins a global strategy, says Calderon Martinez, is the related question of financial reparations for those nations that are suffering as the result of the big polluters in the West, led by the United States.

Time is running short to address the biggest threat to the world community, says Cross.

“It has to happen in 2023,” Cross says. “Many environmentalists recognize 2030 as the tipping point after which there’s no going back. But you can’t just start in 2030. So it has to be absolutely a priority, and I think it will be in the coming year.”

In China, several stories of global importance are developing simultaneously. The world’s most populous nation is dealing with a long-delayed and deadly COVID-19 surge, a crisis that set off unusual public protests. The health crisis has had a negative effect on China’s economy, which was already slowing.

“The threat of an aggressive China is going to be the big issue in foreign policy terms in 2023,” Cross says. “As we watched the unprecedented protests, it became clear there is a willingness to push back at authoritarianism. There isn’t a limitless ability of [President] Xi Jinping to do whatever he wants, despite the fact that he essentially declared himself dictator for life in 2018.”

As the U.S. has increased its public support of Taiwan, China has heightened its military activity around the island. 

“There’s also a feeling in Japan that they need to project more military power because of China’s encroachments,” Cross says. “And then India and the Philippines are starting to line up more closely with the United States because they’re worried about China’s overreach.”

Calderon Martinez envisions that Xi will need to balance such acts of antagonism with a more sober approach aimed at strengthening China’s economy.

“At the end of the day, the one thing that underpins Xi Jinping’s power in China is economic performance,” Calderon Martinez says. “China will want to show some force in relation to the West. But the economy will drive everything.

“That is why I don’t think you will see open confrontation. You might even see better relationships develop between China and the West in terms of economic cooperation.”

An anticipated global recession figures to be another complicating factor in 2023.

“Particularly I would say in Western Europe,” Calderon Martinez says. “I think Europe is going to struggle a lot with its cost of living crisis and rampant inflation. The standard of living in many developed nations is going to be a difficult issue—I’m thinking of the U.K. in particular, where there is a lot of instability politically.”

If Europe is experiencing hardships economically, Calderon Martinez fears the EU may be less concerned with establishing and maintaining norms politically around the world.

“That means a void in leadership,” Calderon Martinez says. “The EU has been leading the way the last five to six years in trying to promote and protect the international democratic system.”

Neither professor believes that a recession will create opportunities for the far-right ideologues who appeared to be threatening democratic institutions not so long ago.

“Ultimately, the far right is about oppression and repression of its own citizens, and it represents a massive step backward to a time of imperial thinking and territorial competition,” Cross says. “People often assume that I am an optimist, but my perspective is actually very much grounded in my own research about human nature and its relationship to international relations.”

Cross’s upcoming book, “International Cooperation Against All Odds: The Ultrasocial World,” explores how people are hardwired to be an ultrasocial species.

“We want to cooperate with each other,” she says. “So even though we might occasionally get drawn into tribalism and far-right beliefs, that actually isn’t in our nature as a species over time.”

Cross views the ongoing protests in Iran as another symbol of people demanding better leadership in 2023.

“It’s got to have an influence on those who are oppressed in many countries throughout the world, especially in the global south,” Cross says. “But the protests in China and Iran, and the people in Ukraine standing up to Russia—these are all signs that the will for people to fight for freedom of expression and free speech and self-determination is present and strong. Even if it can’t succeed in toppling brutal dictatorships, it is a beacon of hope for others around the world.”

Ian Thomsen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @IanatNU.