As the World Warms, Geopolitics Are Heating Up Too
As the World Warms, Geopolitics Are Heating Up Too
As the global climate summit concludes at Glasgow, Scotland, the initial reactions will focus on the various national commitments made to reduce emissions — the key metric for preventing further temperature rises. But alongside environmental science and economic impact, leaders need to pay attention to the threat climate change poses to global peace and stability.
How will the world’s security situation change due to the climate crisis, and can nations forge a collective response to prepare for it?
By current estimates, the world is headed for a temperature increase of at least 2.7 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. This will lead to rapidly rising sea levels as the polar ice caps melt, more extreme weather and temperature shifts, major droughts and dangerous changes in the chemistry, volume and temperature of the oceans.
In geopolitics, current fault lines cast the US, European Union and other major democracies such as Japan and Australia against authoritarian states like China and Russia. The geopolitics of climate change, however, involve a north-versus-south dynamic, essentially pitting most of the developing world — India, Brazil, South Africa, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan — against the wealthier countries, for what amount in part to climate reparations. China, which snubbed the COP26 summit, becomes the “swing vote.”
This is a contentious issue, with sacrifices by the wealthy world sometimes described as payments for “loss and damage.” The thesis, largely accurate, is that the rich world polluted and warmed its way to prosperity, and now seeks to put a huge burden of reductions on the less-developed nations. Increasing, the poorer parts of the world will resent the wealthy (and pious) north.
While Glasgow will probably lead to modest additional funding for the developing world, it will be insufficient to meet need, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. The underlying conditions of poverty, discontent over inequality, and lost productivity will become a breeding ground for disgruntled movements that use terrorism as a tool. Environmental terrorism directed against the developed world — physical destruction and cyberattacks on infrastructure, refineries, pipelines and financial systems — will increase.
There will be climate effects globally that could create geopolitical crises involving war between states, the collapse of nations and vast populations fleeing the chaos. As the equatorial world heats up, drought is likely to ensue with crop failure to follow. This will lead to greater instability in parts of Latin America, central Africa and South Asia.
The polar regions will benefit from more temperate climes; Greenland may have a flourishing agricultural industry by mid-century. But parts of the Nile River Delta might be non-arable and uninhabitable. Mass migrations will induce additional turmoil.
As a mariner, I worry most deeply about the impact on the oceans. When I sailed Arctic waters nearly 40 years ago, the ice was essentially impenetrable. Our submarines could navigate the Arctic Ocean, but not our destroyers or cruisers. That’s no longer the case, and as the ice caps melt, there will be a geopolitical sea-grab in the far north to gain control of underwater hydrocarbons, deep-seabed mining and shipping routes. With Russia on one side of the Arctic and five NATO nations on the other (Canada, Denmark by virtue of Greenland, Iceland, Norway and the US), the possibility of conflict is rising as surely as the sea levels.
More directly for the US, rising seas will render important naval bases (like Norfolk, Virginia, and Mayport, Florida) essentially unusable. Major port cities such as Bangkok — capital of US treaty ally Thailand — are at risk, and some low-lying island nations will simply glide under the waves of an uncaring sea.
I’ve seen the early stages of this global emergency firsthand. Throughout my three years in command of US Southern Command in the late 2000s, with responsibility for all US military activity in the Caribbean and Latin America, I led disaster-relief efforts again and again. One that stands out in my mind is Hurricane Gustav in August 2008, which killed nearly a hundred Haitians and destroyed or severely damaged more than 10,000 homes. As I toured the damaged areas, it struck me vividly how such deadly storms could create political crises in our hemisphere.
A handful of small agreements and successes out of Glasgow may help with the dangerous geopolitics of climate. India and China have made modest concessions, and the US has taken a big step in pledging to curb methane gas (much more dangerous to the planet than carbon dioxide). The US and EU agreed on boosting so-called clean steel, which will annoy China, which produces much of the dirty kind.
But the big geopolitical takeaways from the summit are obvious and discouraging: The north-south divide will deepen. More global warming means more disorder in every dimension and there has been no breakthrough in US-China cooperation.
As we saw in the pandemic, things would have been vastly better in a world based firmly on cooperation between Washington and Beijing. There is little that the combined power and reach of China and the US could not solve. White House climate czar John Kerry will do his best on that front. But coming out of Glasgow, its depressingly clear that geopolitics will stymie international coordination, which in the long run is the only way we can save the planet.