The Geopolitics of Climate Change

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Climate change is set to profoundly alter the world in the decades to come. Its will deeply affect the entire planet’s ecosystem, as well as the global economy and the lives of hundreds of millions of people. But it will also have, and in practice already has, a notable geopolitical impact; with the potential of radically modifying the existing international order.

Climate change and the Anthropocene

“Climate change” is a broad term encompassing various phenomena, but the most important of them is surely global warming, largely imputed to the boom in CO2 emissions caused by the massive consumption of fossil fuels, animal breeding and deforestation. The rise of the world’s average temperatures, even of a few degrees, can have tremendous consequences on the planet and on mankind. It will alter the existing climatological dynamics, resulting in more frequent and intense cases of extreme weather like droughts, violent storms, floods and blizzards. Desertification will extend to large swathes of territory. These factors will cause a dramatic drop in agricultural output, also due to the spread of pests, therefore threatening food security across the globe. Warmer temperatures will also favour the diffusion of disease, and will increase energy consumption and therefore create competition over energy sources. Whole ecosystems will be seriously harmed both on land and at sea, causing severe losses in terms of biodiversity. This will in turn result into subsequent chain damages for agriculture and fishing, that already suffer from overexploitation. The ocean level will rise, putting at risk the living conditions of millions of people who reside along the coasts. All this bears huge economic and social costs, both in the form of losses and of expenditures to repair or prevent its effects; and is to be considered along with other phenomena caused by human activity, notably pollution and overexploitation of water and soil.

The combination of these factors has led some experts to label our current geological epoch as “Anthropocene”: a period marked by the humans’ capacity to affect the environment to the point of derailing its dynamics out of the natural order. While the term remains debated among scientists, what is certain is that climate change has taken a considerable political relevance in the past few decades with the appearance of ecologist movements and parties all over the world. This is also true at the international level, with states making efforts to tackle its effects, as in the case of the 2015 COP21 agreement and other eco-friendly initiatives. But climate change will also alter the global geopolitical and geoeconomic environment, with tremendous consequences for power distribution and for international security.

The global effects of climate change

In general terms, the whole of mankind is set to be harmed by climate change. Apart from the direct economic loss in the form of reduced agricultural output, poorer fishing zones and damages to costal areas caused by rising sea levels; it will also have huge social and human costs due to environmental degradation, sanitary problems and migratory flows, which in turn will bring other expenses to repair and prevent its harmful effects.

Yet, there are areas where its impact will be more marked than in others, namely Equatorial Africa and South Asia. Both are extremely vulnerable due to their geographic position, and moreover are highly-populated zones whose economy is still underdeveloped. As a result, they will have to bear all of its negative consequences: GDP loss, food insecurity, water scarcity, violent weather, epidemics and so on; and the consequences will be felt outside these regions.

In South Asia, the costs of global warming may slow down and even stop India’s rise. Population displacements may result in a humanitarian crisis and social tensions. This is notably the case of Bangladesh, a very poor and densely-populated country extremely exposed to the negative effects of climate change. Existing divergences over the control and the use of water basins may get more serious; for example between India, Pakistan and China over Kashmir (the cornerstone of the Indus river basin) or between India, China and Bangladesh over the Ganges and Brahmaputra.

The situation is dramatically similar in Equatorial Africa. The deleterious consequences of climate change may compromise any hope of economic development, condemning the continent to poverty and perpetual conflict. As a matter of fact, fighting will result from increasing resource scarcity; notably of food and water; thus making the situation along the “Conflict Belt” that crosses it from Somalia to Nigeria even more troublesome. This is what could soon happen in Ethiopia, where the effects of climate change exacerbate economic and ethnic divides. War could also take a state-to-state dimension, as it may break out over the control of rivers like the Niger, the Congo or the Nile. In regard to the latter, some tension already exists between Egypt and Ethiopia over its use; and a future “water war” is a real possibility. Finally, this catastrophic situation will push more and more people to displace, thus amplifying an already serious humanitarian crisis. Many will try to reach Europe; perpetrating and worsening the migratory crisis that the continent is facing, with all the social and political consequences this will have on the European Union and its member states.

Still, there are also some parts of the world that are set to benefit from higher global temperatures; like those state whose development was historically hampered by a rigid climate. A first example is that of Canada or Scandinavian countries, whose agricultural output could be boosted. Russia is a similar case. Already a major wheat producer, thanks to a warmer climate it could increase its export share, even though this is debated; and it is also true that it may face migratory pressures from other countries suffering from declining production. Moreover, access to the rich resources of Siberia would become easier. Lastly, it is poised to earn from another geopolitical consequence of climate change: the melting of the Arctic ice cap.

Climate change and Arctic geopolitics

Of all the regions of the world, the Arctic appears the one where the geopolitical impact of global warming will be more marked. The reason is twofold. First, as the Arctic ice melts, accessing its considerable energy resources will become easier, and this is already attracting the attention of various countries and firms. Second, the gradual disappearance of the ice cap is opening the Northern Sea Route, or NSR; a maritime course linking Asia and Europe via the Arctic. Shipping via the NSR is already a reality, but by now the trade volume is only a tiny fraction of the one along the traditional sea lines of communication (SLOC) crossing the Pacific and Indian Ocean via Malacca, Bab-el-Mandeb and Suez. But as the ice melts and the necessary infrastructures are built, more and more ships will use the NSR due to the advantages it presents: it is way shorter than the ordinary maritime routes and is not exposed to piracy.

Due to its geopolitical prominence in the Arctic, Russia is the best-placed state to benefit from the exploitation of hydrocarbon from the region and from developing the NSR. But apart from it, the other power that is showing a great interest in the region is China. In principle, the Arctic’s energy resources and the NSR could solve its strategic problems of being almost completely reliant on the traditional SLOC for its trade with Europe and for oil imports from the Middle East, which is also a politically unstable area. This is why the Chinese are so keen on developing the region in cooperation with Russia. But for the same reasons, other states like Japan and South Korea have also showed their interest in the Arctic.

As a result of all this, competition may arise in the region, and its gateway (the Bering Strait) will gain greater geostrategic importance; potentially becoming a hotspot for international conflict, notably between Russia and the United States.

China and climate change

As an emerging great power with global-scale ambitions, China is also attentive to the effects of climate change; which offers a unique combination of opportunities and challenges for it.

Apart from the prospects of accessing the Arctic’s resources and of trading via the NSR, China could benefit in other ways of the effects of a warming planet. The combined effects of higher temperatures, economic development and population growth across the world will result into a boom in energy demand. Renewable sources of energy will be particularly regarded; as a way to reduce pollution, decrease the dependency on imported fossil fuels and minimize climate change and its detrimental consequences. But generating clean energy require technologies that use rare earths, a group of minerals whose particular characteristic are particularly valuable for industrial manufacturing. Today, China holds a virtual monopoly over their production; and even though new suppliers will enter in the market, the PRC will remain a major producer. As a consequence, its rare earths exports will be favoured by climate change.

Yet China is mostly poised to suffer from it. One reason is that its vast population is concentrated along the coasts and is vulnerable to extreme weather, rising sea level and damages to agriculture and the like. This could hamper its economic growth and consequently its social stability. For this reason, the PRC is investing enormously in developing renewable energy sources. Moreover, it could easily find itself involved in disputes with other states over water: some of the most important rivers flowing through South Asia, most notably the Brahmaputra, originate in Chinese-controlled Tibet. Similarly, Indochina’s most important rivers (namely the Mekong, the Red River and the Irrawaddy) all have their source in China.

Similar conflicts over water, agricultural lands and fishing areas may arise all over the world, taking the shape of both inter-state war or that of insurgencies and piracy. Several practical cases can be examined to understand the interplay between climate change and emerging security threats.

Climate change and security

The first one example is the surge in piracy around the Horn of Africa a few years ago. It can be imputed to a combination of the effects of domestic conflict in Somalia, fishing overexploitation and collapsing agricultural output due to drought; which left no choice to many Somalis but to attack tankers sailing close to their shores. Other countries may follow a similar path in the coming years, like Vietnam. Being an agricultural country located in an area already subject to violent tropical storms and whose population is concentrated on its very long coasts, Vietnam is considered one of the states most exposed to climate change. It is possible that the effects of higher temperatures like extreme weather and rising sea levels combined with overfishing and pollution will stop its economic growth, spark a migratory crisis and push many Vietnamese to become pirates; thus worsening the already complex scenario in the contested waters of the South China Sea. As seen before, the Bering Strait may also become an area of tension with Russia; and other conflicts may emerge in the Middle East, Africa and Asia as a consequence of rising temperatures combined with other factors; notably over the control of river basins or cultivable land.

Global warming can therefore be a powerful driver in the emergence of new security threats across the globe. And while this is often neglected, for this reason it poses a considerable challenge to the world’s leading superpower: the United States.

The US and climate change

As the core of the international system with interests at stake in any area of the globe, and as a major polluter itself, the US must be attentive to the geopolitical and security consequences of global warming. Diplomatically, the US has usually sustained the thesis of other developed countries that the cost of curbing CO2 emissions should fall on emerging economies like China, that today are the main polluters. Under the Trump administration, the US has now openly adopted a climatosceptic policy: he favours traditional fossil fuels over renewable energy sources and has left the COP21 Paris agreement.

Yet, the US is also threatened by climate change. As temperatures rise, drought and extreme weather like hurricane and snowstorms are becoming more common; causing considerable damage to agriculture, infrastructures and ultimately to the foundations of America’s strength. But as a superpower with interests in practically any region, the US will also need to face the security threats that will emerge as a consequence of climate change. Because of this, there is an institution that is particularly active in studying the effects of global warming and that calls for efforts to prevent its effects. Surprisingly, it is not some ecologist lobby, but the military.

As a 2015 report demonstrates, the Department of Defense openly expressed its concerns about the consequences of climate change over the ability of the US armed forces to operate overseas and over the multiplication of security threats that may require armed interventions. The US military is therefore adopting a preventive logic: tackling climate change today to avoid complicated campaigns in the future. Now that Trump is in power, it seems that the Pentagon is de-emphasizing the risks linked with global warming, but there have been calls from lawmakers to continue taking them into account.

Coping with climate change

As seen, global warming is having global-scale consequences that will affect virtually any domain of human life. But in general, it can be said that it puts our security at risk – be it economic, alimentary, sanitary, physical or of another type. Scientists have repeatedly raised the alarm over its deleterious effects, but up to now the actual efforts to counter it are insufficient. Since it appears that avoiding its impact is impossible and that we can at best limit its consequences, the best thing we can do is to foresee and understand them and prepare ourselves for the world that will inevitably emerge from climate change.

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