The Geopolitics of Climate Change

15/05/2017 05:46  Articles

Discussions of international relations and climate change tend to be of two kinds. On the one hand, there are many works about the mechanics of reaching international agreements to contain emissions. On the other, a growing number of studies seek to analyse the implications of climate change for geopolitics. I argue in this chapter that we have to bring these two sets of concerns much closer together than they are at the moment. Once more, energy – especially oil and struggles centred upon it – supplies one of the main points of connection.

It might seem that responding to climate change will intrinsically contribute to international collaboration. Yet the processes and interests promoting division are strong. The melting of the Arctic ice provides a good example. When the area was just an ice ?eld, there was considerable international cooperation over the activities carried out there, which were mainly of a scienti?c nature. The fact that navigation across the Arctic is becoming increasingly possible, and that major new oil, gas and mineral resources might become available, has led to divisions of interest and to international friction, fortunately so far of a con?ned nature.

Climate change issues – especially in conjunction with developing scarcities of energy – could become both militarized and dominated by security risks. The result could be a progressive deterioration of international cooperation, where security is increasingly seen as divisible. What should be an overriding goal of reducing emissions could fall prey to a competitive struggle for resources, exacerbating already existing tensions and divisions. The leaders of states, or groups of states, could exploit climate change to their own sectional ends. Several different paths to violent con?ict are imaginable. For instance, political leaders might use climate change-induced strains to gain or retain power in internal struggles – for example, migrants might be used as scapegoats in such power bids. In volatile areas of the world, a country weakened by the consequences of climate change might be attacked by its neighbours seeking to gain advantage from the country’s problems.

A further possibility is that armed con?icts could occur as states try to gain a hold over resources where demand is outstripping supply – the most likely path if worst-case scenarios of climate change were to prevail. This could happen if the world economy becomes ‘renationalized’ with a widespread return to protectionism. Yet another possibility is that ‘subsistence con?icts’ – of the sort that has devastated Dafur – might become commonplace. Groups living on a level close to bare subsistence could clash as their means of livelihood start to evaporate, drawing in military ‘protectors’ of one sort or another. Each of the above paths could overlap or intertwine.

Although the sources of the bloodshed, starvation and homelessness provoked by the con?ict in Dafur are complex, the situation there has been called the ‘?rst climate change war’, since the drying up of Lake Chad is one of the factors that contributed to the migration which led to it. Given this influence, we see again a situation in which climate change intersects with energy resources. China is actively involved in Sudan because of the oil and minerals the country possesses. The Chinese have supplied arms and training to the government forces and for some while refused to join the UN and other major nations in condemning the role of the Sudanese government in the sorry events.

It has become commonplace to point out that most con?icts today, in contrast to the struggles of the twentieth century, derive from weak rather than strong states. However, much will also depend on how robust the links, connections and mutual interests of core regional states and groups of states prove to be. ‘Pivotal states’ are nations which have a signi?cant in?uence on a region as a whole. If they are stable and economically successful, they tend to have a mollifying effect on that region. Conversely, if they run into dif?culties, these might spill over to affect the whole surrounding area. Such countries include Brazil and Mexico, South Africa and Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan and South Korea. Of course, if major setbacks were to occur in very large countries such as China or India, the reverberations would be that much more disruptive.

The US is already starting to see the world through the prism of a struggle for energy resources against the backdrop of damage in?icted by climate change. The main focus of US strategic and military planning, according to a recent of?cial report, will henceforth be on a competition for resources, a competition the Pentagon sees as already under way. The global reach that China is seeking to establish, it argues, is driven by the demands of its economy for raw materials rather than by any speci?c ideological outlook. China’s growing in?uence in the Middle East and Africa is a matter of particular concern. Russia’s return to geopolitical prominence has been driven almost entirely by the rise prior to 2008 in the prices of oil, gas and industrial minerals. The attention now devoted to resource scarcity, Michael Klare has observed, ‘represents a qualitative shift in US thinking’, prompted ‘not by an optimistic faith in America’s capacity to dominate the world economy but by a largely pessimistic outlook regarding the future availability of vital resources’.

This concern has impelled a return to investment in sea-power. The US, the Defense Department emphasizes, must be able to patrol the main sea routes of the world in order to ensure its national security. Overall, 75 per cent of the world’s oil and 90 per cent of traded manufactured goods are transported by sea. In its budget proposal for 2009, the US government outlined a comprehensive new programme for investment in nuclear-power aircraft carriers, destroyers carrying heavy anti-missile capability, submarines and other combat ships. The existing ?eet is to be redeployed with greater emphasis on the prime routes through which most raw materials pass.

Not long ago, most US military bases were located in Western Europe, South Korea and Japan. Over the past few years, a transfer from such areas to East-Central Europe, Central and Southwest Asia, and parts of Africa has begun. These regions contain states deemed to be supporting terrorism, but they are also home to more than three-quarters of the oil and gas reserves in the world and a large percentage of those of uranium, copper and cobalt. At least some of the bases earmarked to have a permanent presence in Iraq are there in order to protect oil installations, as well as to provide training for police and army units acting against insurgents.

China and Russia are building their own security networks, in a self-conscious challenge to US dominance. As already mentioned, China’s involvement in Sudan has arguably contributed to the bloodshed in that country. The country is also involved in North Africa, Angola, Chad and Nigeria. It has become one of the main suppliers of military equipment to some of these states. Its development and military advisers compete with those coming from the US. In Central and East Asia, Russia and China have formed a counterpart to NATO, in the shape of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a large military alliance. Its component states have made a strong push to assert in?uence over resource-rich countries. One of those countries, Kazakhstan, is a member of the alliance, together with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.


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