Decline and Fall: The Geopolitics of Climate Breakdown

8000 years ago the Sahara region was far greener and wetter, supporting a sizeable population of hunter gatherers and large animals. Over time the region became more arid and prospects dimmed for the people that roamed an increasingly dry interior.

These nomads moved to the coast in search of more fertile land and in particular the mighty Nile river to the East. This migration eventually led to intensive population settlement around the Nile, which in turn led to the rise of the Egyptian civilisation.

Humans have always moved to adapt to climate change. However the speed of change in the Anthropocene and the huge scale and complexity of the civilisations humans have built. Adapting to this new reality over the next decade to this new world could be the biggest challenge humans have ever faced.

A Fast Warming World

As the world’s climate changes at an unprecedented rate the effects are becoming obvious at just 1 C warmer. At 1.5 C the impact will be far reaching and undeniable. Each increase in temperature will bring more disruption, conflict, and disorder. Change will not happen in linear motion. A 2 C increase is not twice as bad as 1 C increase, it is far, far worse. The world is destined to be hotter and more prone to disasters such as mass forest fires, floods, crop failures and deadly heatwaves.

These disasters will spur mass migration due to sinking cities and dying farmland. In turn this will stimulate anger among people affected by these disasters. One positive response will be a dash towards renewable energy and serious attempts to decarbonise the economy.

Climate resilience measures such as new heat resistant crops, sea defences and sustainable infrastructure will become essential. All of this implies huge and unpredictable change for humans.

Scenarios for Climate Geopolitics

Climate breakdown will also have a major impact on international politics as countries grapple with rapid change. Water shortages, heat waves, sea level rise and extreme weathers (and all the other negative impacts) will hit developing countries the hardest, but every part of the globe will be affected. No where is yet adequately prepared.

Climate change is the ultimate threat multiplier and as the risks unfold many will take on a geopolitical dynamic. Below I look at eight different geopolitical scenarios the world could face. These are not predictions but rather sketches of how the geopolitical landscape could play out over the next decades.

Climate Breakdown Magnifies Conflict

The long running war in Syria has been often linked to climate change. Drought linked to climate change in Syria caused thousands of farmers to flock to cities in search of a better life. Overcrowded cities and unhappy famers helped created the conditions for widespread protests which in turn sparked civil war.

Climate change has also been linked to the Darfur conflict. Pastoralists in the Darfur region were forced to move due to get access to fresh water but this brought them into conflict with local farmers. The clashes eventually led to a deadly war characterised by massacres and ethnic cleansing.  

Climate change does not cause war, nor does climate change create hurricanes. What it does do is magnify risk making disaster more likely. A hotter world this less fresh water, arable land, fewer resources and more angry people, all of which creates the ideal conditions for conflict.

Mass Migration

Mass crop failures, receding fresh water, cities slowly sinking into the sea will spark widespread migration. Many people will move to other parts of their own country. Others will look overseas and inevitably people will choose or be forced to flee across borders sparking political and social reactions. Climate migrants may find much sympathy across the globe and may be welcomed into their new homes.

However, all too often across the world migrants are demonised. The size and scale of climate migration could dwarf previous waves of migration. The Syrian war set off a wave of migrants into Turkey and Europe with major political consequences.

Many European politicians and voters were unhappy with the prospect of large scale migration and tried to stop or discourage Syrians from moving. The desertification of the Sahel region could see millions upon millions of desperate people unable to farm or find work and look north to Europe for salvation. There will be heavy political price seeing millions of migrants enter Europe or watching them face destitution and famine at home.

These scenes will be recreated across the globe as retreating glaciers and shrinking water will put huge pressure on agriculture across the world. As ice melts for good the mass failure of farms and crops will follow. The result will be rocketing food prices, mass migration and political chaos.

The Rich and the Poor

Countries will start blaming each other as the worst effects of climate change take hold across the world. Developing countries will condemn developed nations for over consumption and years of climate emissions. Developed nations will blame each other for not doing more to reduce emissions earlier.

Global crop failures will cause famine in developing countries and fast rising food prices in developed countries. A loss in living standards will mean political upheavals as people take out their anger against the government. Crop losses can be partly mitigated by using adapted crops and by changing crop type as well as perhaps technological fixes such as growing meat in labs.

Richer nations have more resources for adaptation and resilience measures. They will be able to build sea walls, resilient infrastructure and rebuild faster after disasters.

The developing world has been struggling to catch up with the living standards of the west for decades. But the capacity of many African and Asian countries is limited in terms of disaster recovery. They lack the resources and capability to rebuild as effectively as western nations.

Economic Collapse and Political Chaos

Economic growth is one of the central tenets of capitalism. An objective to be pursued at any cost. But the economic devastation caused by climate change will reverse many of these gains. Instead of economic growth countries will experience a collapse in usual economic activity as a hostile climate makes our current life unsustainable.

The Covid crisis is a chilling foreshadow of the future. Lack of economic growth will see faith in capitalism shaken and perhaps the emergence or re-emergence of new strains of political thought arise. Socialist, green, as well far right and fascist parties will see their popularity flourish as the disillusioned look for answers.

While northerly countries such as Canada and Russia enjoy enhanced agricultural benefits others will suffer immensely. The World Bank estimate for India sees its economy shrink by a quarter thanks to climate change. India’s recent burst of prosperity will be reversed as productivity collapses. As crops dry, rivers shrink, monsoons arrive will late and heat waves kill people by the thousands. The foundations of the current world economy will rot away.

Ultimately any economy is dependent on “natural capital” such as clean water and air, fertile soil and agricultural yields. The warmer the earth becomes the possibility of multi-breadbasket collapses increases.

A New Era of Isolationism

Recessions and economic collapse could usher a new period of isolationism as countries retreat inwards focusing on trying to feed and placate their own angry populace. Infrastructure designed for our current world will be unable to cope with new rapidly changing conditions.

When the monsoon arrived late in India in 2016, farmers overwhelmed the electrical grid to meet irrigation needs, shutting power down across much of country. The 2020 monsoon is expected to be the 3rd year in a row which is late.

Financial markets will react to climate risk too late. Bankers and insurers will realise that the much of the real estate that underpins the global economy will be worthless in a couple of decades. This could cause an unprecedented global financial market crash as assets are radically revalued downwards.

Disorderly Transition

As the reality of climate change hits home a transition to renewables and decarbonisation will accelerate. Countries that have tried to ignore the rush to decarbonise could be left behind or face an energy crisis as they attempt to lurch to renewables or are forced to through regulation. This shift will profoundly change the geopolitical map.

The transition to renewables will become unstoppable and the oil and gas giants will see their dominance collapse. Fossil states such as Saudi Arabia may panic in the face of falling solar and wind energy prices. Some may pivot to renewable energy. The Gulf economies are in a strong position to utilise solar power given their abundant sunlight and empty desert spaces.

New “electro” states may emerge to capitalise on their dominance in green technology. Using their advantages in clean energy to dominate battery, solar or wind technology or to sell renewable energy to others. Australia for example plans to export solar energy to Singapore.

China is the world’s worst carbon emitter but has become a leader in developing new technologies such as solar panels and electric batteries. However, there is far less geopolitical leverage in supplying solar energy compared to oil. It should be much easier for countries to become self-sufficient in energy which could reduce the geopolitical tensions that have characterised the oil age.

Petro States and Electro States

Fossil fuels have defined the modern economy, underpinning the massive economic expansion of the last two centuries. Before widespread coal and oil use humans had to largely rely on horse, water wheels, animal oils and their own hands to produce energy.

The current global energy mix remains focused on coal, oil and gas. The main oil producers are Russia, US and Saudi Arabia. Russia has shifted much of its focus to supplying China. The US has undergone a domestic oil boom which has allowed it to become self-sufficient in oil.

Saudi Arabia remains the key swing producer able to increase or decrease oil production in order to shift prices sharply. It is not surprise that these three states have been the most active in delaying greenhouse gas emissions treaties or in the case of the US pulling out of the landmark Paris Agreement.

The Middle East sits on top of much of the world’s easy to drill oil. This fact makes it much more tempting for outside powers to interfere and meddle. The prize is influence and control over the region which controls much of the world’s most important commodity as well as holding a key geopolitical position between Europe, Asia and Africa. Without oil the Middle East is unlikely to transform into a peaceful utopia. But if demand for oil fell rapidly it would release some of the geopolitical tension that envelopes the region.

As oil demand dwindles petrostates will be left fighting for market share. While investment in oil and gas may collapse as investors shun a declining industry. But as marginal producers and countries with high production costs like Venezuela move away from oil. In turn this may increase market share for Gulf States who can usually produce oil cheaply and who still have easy to recover reserves.

While some petrostates may pump oil for longer than expected, eventually their geopolitical influence will wane. A decarbonised world will hand power to those places best able to utilise renewable energy and take it from the old fossil powers.

The Age of Disaster

Disasters such as flooding, typhoons and storms will increase in number making previously inhabited areas barren and unlivable as the cost of insuring, rebuilding and recovering from disasters becomes too costly.

Increasing number of wildfires across the world will destroy forests and housing, heatwaves will become a major source of death and reduced productivity.

Despite freshwater sources drying up, flooding could increase in severity due to the increasing intensity of weather patterns. Rainfall is lower overall but falls in a short space of time, this combined with deforestation and increased use of floodplains for housing creates the receipe for more deadly floods.

The good news is that humans have become more adaptable to disasters. Early warning systems, well coordinated recovery efforts and infrastructure which is designed to withstand extreme conditions means that many lives and homes can be saved.

However increasing intensity of disasters will push this resilience to the limit in many parts of the world. If disaster only strikes once a decade that gives ample time to rebuild. If major typhoons, floods and wildfires become a yearly occurrence it becomes much more difficult and expensive to rebuild. People could be driven from their traditional homes resulting in widespread migration as well as anger which could morph into political change and economic chaos.

The Technology Race Heats Up

As the realities of climate change bite countries, companies and other organisations will accelerate and improve the solutions to climate breakdown. Many of these solutions exist, solar panels, wind turbines, curbing deforestation and planting more trees and energy efficiency measures.

Countries that were used to growing plentiful crops could be forced to import as domestic supplies wilt and die.  This will push up food prices, but also create innovative solutions such as widespread lab grown meat and intensive urban farming. Urban farming grows vegetables in a nutrient water often using unconventional buildings such as high rises.

China controls the lion’s share of the global solar panel industry and the supply of rare earth metals which provide the key ingredients of modern batteries. As the world moves to decarbonise, market share and expertise in these sectors will become increasingly significant.

Becoming a leader in an emerging green technology will become a major advantage as demand surges for these products and ideas. Other technologies around negative emission technologies are still being developed. Carbon capture promises to extract carbon from the atmosphere potentially solving the problem climate change.

But carbon capture has not yet been done at scale and so remains a speculative solution. Lab grown meat as a solution to carbon emitting meat sector also has promise. But again this has not been widely adopted. The next decade could see a battle emerge between corporations and countries to lead and dominate in these new technologies that promise to solve the climate emergency.

Climate Chaos

The scenarios are just that, not predictions, no one has a crystal ball. Climate risks will not appear neatly as planned and predicted. Many factors including the will of humans to mitigate and adapt to new circumstances and flight climate change will change the likelihood of these scenarios.

Similarly, government actions may shape new unexpected geopolitical maps. Climate breakdown may usher in a chaotic global order or a new era of international cooperation.

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