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When global warming heats up geopolitics

When global warming heats up geopolitics
 Dominique Moïsi
Distinguished Senior fellow

Geopolitical analyses can no longer ignore the ecological dimension and the upheavals that global warming - droughts, environmental migration - are causing between states and regions of the world. For Dominique Moïsi, this environmental dimension, which increases the risk of conflict, must push countries to increase international cooperation.

Global warming - which is accelerating before our very eyes and can no longer be denied - has major geopolitical consequences. An average increase of half a degree in the planet’s temperature would result in a 10 to 20% increase in the risk of deadly conflicts around the world.

According to World Bank projections, if nothing is done, there will be more than 140 million climate refugees in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia and Latin America by 2050. These figures were reported in the September 28, 2020 issue of the reputed American magazine Foreign Affairs.

Risks of violent conflict

In the era of Covid-19 and global warming, the field of geopolitics should be broadened to include the study of pandemics and the climate. We must open ourselves to a reality that is uncomfortable to those who only wish to approach geopolitics through the angle of political rivalries between state actors. Geopolitics is everywhere, even where we do not expect it. From the Sahel to Central Asia, from the Middle East to Latin America, the impact of climate change on geopolitical developments is not only undeniable; it constitutes a major axis of analysis.

An average increase of half a degree in the planet’s temperature would result in a 10 to 20% increase in the risk of deadly conflicts around the world.

Northern Nigeria has been experiencing recurrent waves of drought linked to climate change since the early 1970s. These have resulted in the Sahara desert creeping ever closer, with a rate of land desertification estimated at over 350,000 hectares a year. This process intensifies existing tensions between shepherds and farmers in search of land that can sustain them, or at least allow them to survive. The ensuing violence has undoubtedly favored the settling of jihadist groups like Boko Haram.

Global warming also increases the risk of violent conflict by demonstrating the ineffectiveness of government action. In the Middle East, the cases of Tunisia, Egypt and Syria are perfect examples. From 2006 to 2011, northern Syria experienced an extreme drought, aggravated in consequences by the authorities’ calamitous management. The "Syrian Spring" had many causes, first and foremost of which is the extreme brutality with which initial protests were repressed. But the drought played a role: the popular uprising manifested itself in the cities most affected by the famine and the influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, climate refugees in their own country. In the same region, climate change is also exacerbating tensions between countries such as Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia, over the latter’s pursuit of the Grand Renaissance Dam project on the Nile.

Post-carbon world

In Central Asia, global warming is aggravating tensions over access to water between Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. On the Mekong, China’s construction of an upstream dam, paired with an ongoing drought, is leading to a deterioration of the already difficult relations between Beijing and the countries downstream of the river. In Central America, climate change has combined with insecurity and economic stagnation - each reinforced by the poison of corruption - to push hundreds of thousands of people onto the roads.

One could go on listing situations that illustrate the geopolitical consequences of climate change and the link between the increase in temperatures and the multiplication of conflicts. For a more complete understanding, we must also consider the impact of measures taken to combat climate change on the geopolitical balance of the world. Numerous countries are or will be beneficiaries of the change. Countries such as Chile, which has large quantities of lithium, indispensable for electric batteries, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home to 80% of the ingredients needed to manufacture cell phones, or China, of course, with its near-monopoly on rare minerals.

In one way or another, the objective of a post-carbon world transforms the existing geopolitical balances to the detriment of countries with fossil fuel industries. This holds true especially for those, like Russia, that do not create wealth and are content, for the most part, to make a living from the exploitation of hydrocarbons.

Climate change does not only alter the balance of power in the world. It should force us to approach the world differently. Like Covid-19, global warming should push us to greater solidarity, multilateralism and justice. We should be convinced that, faced with challenges of this magnitude, we cannot save ourselves on our own. "United we stand, divided we fall." This credo should naturally impress itself on us. Yet, in the face of the pandemic, just as in the face of climate change, there is great temptation to lock ourselves into narrow nationalism. 

The objective of a post-carbon world transforms the existing geopolitical balances to the detriment of countries with fossil fuel industries. 

In this domain, as in many others, Donald Trump’s America has been a perfect counter-example, from its withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement to the closure of its borders to refugees from Central and Latin America. The United States thus allowed China to boost its soft power in the fight against global warming.

Defending democracy

It is all the more important for democratic regimes to get involved in the fight against global warming because it is dangerous to leave this fight to ecologists alone, and in particular to the most radical among them.

It is not a matter of saving the planet from man, but of saving it for man. A significant number of young people consider that the fight against global warming or the fight to preserve biodiversity are so important that they would dispense with interest in other causes, such as the defense of democracy.

With passionate moderacy, we must protect the world from the selfishness and blindness of some and the ideological imperialism of others.

"War is too serious a thing to be left to the military alone," said Georges Clemenceau. Similarly, "global warming is too serious a matter to be left to ecologists alone".


Copyright : Don MacKinnon / AFP

Courtesy of Les Echos (published on 03/10/2020)

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