A new security challenge: The geopolitical implications of climate change

The Punatsangchu hydroelectric power project in Bhutan, December 13, 2017. REUTERS/Cathal McNaughton

Discussions on energy and geopolitics over the last ten years have often focused on the need for energy security. Now, another challenge—a more universal one—is emerging and it must be urgently addressed. Climate security (i.e., mitigating and managing the geopolitical implications of climate change), deserves attention alongside existing energy security discussions. Indeed, climate change has become a threat multiplier that is exacerbating existing conflicts and has the potential to cause new conflicts around the world, ones with dire geopolitical implications. Key issues of our time, including cross-border migration, conflicts over water, and competition over territories due to melting ice, for instance, are more deeply intertwined with climate change than previously assumed. Climate change-induced droughts are contributing to water insecurity and leading to escalating regional rivalries vying for control over water flows that can often be a deciding factor in determining whether a region will flourish or decline. The changing climate is also fuelling inter-state competition between major powers over new seaways and land masses laid bare by ice melting at the poles. While geopolitics used to be driven primarily by security and economic concerns, the growing impact of climate change is making it increasingly clear that it too is rapidly becoming a critical geopolitical consideration.

1. The Arctic and Greenland

Rising global temperatures are melting our polar ice caps. Surface air temperatures in the Arctic have continued to warm at twice the rate of the rest of the world. Sea ice has declined by about 10 percent and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) laser altimeter readings show that the edges of Greenland’s ice sheet is shrinking. As ice fields, glaciers, and sea ice continue to melt, countries are increasingly recognizing the potential to unlock vast tracts of natural resources like oil, natural gas, and minerals. The Arctic accounts for about 13 percent of undiscovered oil and 30 percent of undiscovered gas, although natural resource exploration could exacerbate the adverse effects of climate change in fragile ecosystems.

The opening up of passages, including the Northeast and Northwest, due to melting ice gives rise to new questions, which center around determining who has the right to control the seaways and benefit from vast undiscovered natural resource deposits. These questions raise serious geopolitical concerns, and rightly so, given the history of tensions in the region between the five Arctic coastal states (Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, and the United States), as well as other actors including NATO and countries not geographically adjacent to the Arctic, but still interested in exploring opportunities in the region, such as China.

The United States’ renewed interest

Recently, US President Donald Trump toyed with the idea of buying Greenland. While his sudden proposal caused global astonishment and garnered widespread ridicule, it was actually not an outlandish idea. Greenland has long been a strategic militarily point between Russia and North America. In 1940, the United States seized control of Greenland to prevent the island from being used as a springboard for an invasion of North America. During the Cold War, the United States used Greenland’s strategic location to track Soviet submarines, house bombers and—later—missiles that could attack enemy targets, and position missile early warning systems at the American air base in Thule. Today, Greenland remains as important as ever for the United States and NATO, particularly in light of Russia’s enhanced military capabilities and China’s growing economic clout.

Russia’s enhanced military capabilities

In 2007, Russia staked its claim to Arctic territory by planting its flag on the North Pole seabed. Fast forward to 2019, and its interest in the region has only grown. In November 2019, Russia conducted a major military exercise in the Arctic involving 12,000 soldiers, five nuclear submarines, fifteen warships, and one hundred aircraft—and even launched the world’s first combat icebreaker. Moreover, Russia has five nuclear-powered icebreakers, currently the only country in possession of such a ship, and it is also upgrading its military installations at its northernmost airbase in Nagurskoye, which will give Moscow advanced capabilities to defend its territory and the ability to strike Thule Air Base—the US Air Force’s northernmost base—as well as other potential targets in the region.

Russia has made the development of the Arctic one of its key priorities. This comes as no surprise given the commercial and geopolitical benefits that can be gained by controlling vast swaths of the region. For instance, Moscow has openly stated its interest in attracting commercial cargo ships away from the Suez Canal and using the Northern Sea Route as an alternate trade passage. A Russian company also aims to build port facilities at both ends of the shipping route (the Kola Peninsula and the Kamchatka Peninsula) to facilitate greater trade in the future. In addition to Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG) producer Novatek, international investors like the China National Petroleum Corporation and China National Offshore Oil Corporation are already eyeing projects in the region, with the intention of exporting LNG along the route.

In geopolitical terms, Russia’s increased activities in the Arctic have two key aims: (1) to gain a strategic military position with defence and strike capabilities against potential adversaries in the region, and (2) to bolster Russia’s claim to around 1.3 million square km of resource-rich and geographically strategic territory in the Arctic. Ultimately, the symbolism of Russia’s activities in the region is not lost on observers and it has the potential to become a conflict hotspot in the years ahead as the melting ice makes the region increasingly attractive in both commercial and geopolitical terms.  

China’s growing economic clout

The opening up of the Arctic is also of interest to countries not usually associated with the region. In a 2018 white paper, China launched its Polar Silk Road initiative, which aligns Beijing’s Arctic interests with the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In the document, China describes itself as a Near-Arctic State and makes it clear that it has a strategic interest in being involved in natural resource extraction and commercial activities, including shipping.

China has already sought to project its economic influence through commercial forays in Greenland. A Chinese state-owned company has invested in a rare earth elements (REE) and uranium mining project at Kvanefjeld in southern Greenland, another Chinese investment company was interested in purchasing a former naval station, and, in 2017, the Chinese government announced plans to build a satellite ground station. As trade starts to pick up, it is likely that China will attempt to increase investments in the region. Chinese capital could potentially make up a significant share of Greenland’s economy, giving Beijing leverage that could be used to pursue not only commercial but also geopolitical interests.

For instance, if China decides to develop major infrastructure along the Polar Silk Road, it will warrant close attention. Such facilities could easily be re-purposed for military use with strike capabilities against both the United States and Russia, particularly at a time when the United States is reducing its international engagements while Beijing is simultaneously seeking recognition as a major power with a growing global reach.

2. Antarctica

The Arctic is not the only frontier with vast untapped potential. Antarctica, which is twice the size of Australia, holds the world’s largest store of freshwater, as well as vast potential reserves of oil and gas. 

Competition over Antarctica is already heating up between the United States, Russia, and China. These countries are seeking to position themselves in the event that the Antarctic Treaty System provision, which bans mining, changes in 2048when it is up for review. While the interest in exploiting oil and gas in the region is obvious, the continent’s freshwater reserves could also become a strategic resource in the future as water scarcity is exacerbated by climate change.

In the future, countries with severe water stress could become major importers of water from Antarctica. For example, Cape Town, South Africa faced such severe water shortages in 2018 that it even began preparations for a “Day Zero,” the point at which the city’s municipal water supply would run out. Thankfully, it managed to avert the crisis this time.

The major powers’ interests are limited not only to the potential natural resources available but also to the continent’s geopolitical significance. All three countries already have critical infrastructure in place to aid their Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or, in the case of the Chinese, the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS), because having a ground station near the South Pole can increase the accuracy of global satellite navigation systems. As land slowly emerges from underneath the ice, the construction of additional installations, such as research stations, critical satellite infrastructure, naval bases, air facilities, and other installations that could potentially be re-purposed for military use, is likely to increase as various countries recognize the region’s monetary and strategic value and start laying claim to both land and sea territories in the South Pole.

Such a development could be of particular concern to states that are within aircraft range, including Australia, South Africa, and Argentina. As early as 1955, Australian Foreign Minister Richard Casey stated that Australia could not afford to have the territory in ”hostile hands.” In the 1980s, the Australian government went so far as to officially communicate six key strategic interests in Antarctica, including “maintaining Antarctica’s freedom from strategic and/or political confrontation; and being informed about and able to influence developments in a region geographically proximate to Australia.” Today, the country’s strategic interests are as relevant as ever and successive Australian governments have re-affirmed these interests. In 2019, in an implicit reference to China’s recent station expansions in the region, Australian Liberal MP Julian Leeser, who sat on a recent parliamentary inquiry into Antarctica, declared that “Australians want Antarctica to be a place where there’s no military activity, no mining, and we maintain its environmental significance.”

3. Central Asia

Asia is the world’s driest continent, with less than half the annual global average of freshwater. As climate change exacerbates droughts and increases aridity, water scarcity is set to become one of the region’s central crises in the coming years, obstructing socio-economic growth, fuelling interstate tensions over shared resources, and aggravating long-standing territorial disputes.

In the post-Soviet era, water management has been a source of disputes in Central Asia between energy-poor but water-rich upstream countries (Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan) and energy-rich but water-poor downstream states (Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan).

Take the case of Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, which (still) have an abundance of water. During the Soviet era, upstream countries would release water from their reservoirs to produce electricity and water crops both on their own land and in the downstream republics, like Uzbekistan. In return, these downstream countries would provide energy resources like coal and gas.

But since the fall of the Soviet Union, that system no longer functions. Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan now face persistent blackouts and hope to construct giant dams to meet their energy needs. However, one serious issue is that the region’s glaciers—the source of huge and once predictable water supplies—are melting at record rates. Kyrgyzstan alone loses about as much water annually as is consumed by a country the size of Switzerland. And dam building threatens to limit the water supply even further for the downstream countries. In 2010, violent riots over water scarcity in Uzbekistan led to the deaths of several hundred Uzbeks. In September 2012, Uzbekistan’s President Islam Karimov even indicated that efforts by Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan to build hydroelectric power stations on rivers that flowed into Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan could “spark war.”

Ultimately, it is clear that as climate change continues to shrink water resources in the region, there is a significantly heightened the risk for conflict that could potentially cause irreversible regional destabilization.

4. China and India

Another major flashpoint in Asia is an ongoing dispute between India and China. The latter is constructing dams on the Brahmaputra River, which originates in the Tibetan plateau and is a major water source feeding rivers that flow into both India and Bangladesh. These projects will give Beijing more control over the quantity and quality of water flowing downstream.

Moreover, China plans to divert the Brahmaputra River to its barren northwest region, Xinjiang. China is reportedly planning a 1,000 kilometer (km) tunnel, the longest of its kind in the world, in order to transform water-thirsty “Xinjiang into California.” The diversion could destroy both India’s northeast plains and Bangladesh, either with floods or reduced water flow, depending on what action Beijing takes. The more ominous implication, of course, is that the diversion of the Brahmaputra could turn water into a powerful weapon for Beijing to wield against its rivals. In times of climate change and conflict, the control of waterways can translate to state power.

India, for its part, has also been actively constructing dams. The control of water has long been central to its vision of nationhood and, today, power. In early 2019, India threatened to punish Pakistan in retaliation for a deadly terrorist attack by cutting off some of the Ravi River’s water that flows downstream to Pakistan. India’s decision to build a dam on the river adds an extra source of conflict between two nuclear-armed neighbors that have frequently clashed over the disputed Kashmir region. Globally, nearly two-thirds of the world’s fresh water comes from rivers and lakes that cross national borders. Increasing water scarcity exacerbated by climate change is very likely to increase the occurrence of similar conflicts across the globe in the years to come.

5. The Middle East

The Middle East has traditionally been a rather water-poor and thus particularly susceptible to climate change. Hence, it is no surprise that its recent manifestations have had adverse geopolitical consequences.

Sectarian strife, economic challenges, foreign interventions, and armed insurgencies have played a major part in Iraq’s ongoing instability. However, climate change, in the form of water politics, is also further destabilizing Iraq.

The Tigris and Euphrates rivers account for 98 percent of Iraqi water supply, which is used for drinking, sanitation, and irrigation. The supply of water from those rivers is decreasing due to climate change. Iraq’s second largest lake has virtually disappeared and the quality of the water that remains has had severe issues due to increased salinization. What is more, it is estimated that 92 percent of Iraq’s land is likely to be affected by desertification, and 100 square km of fertile land are lost annually due to salinization and droughts. The frequency of sandstorms has increased and there has been a systematic drop in precipitation rates.

These developments, coupled with Iraq’s geographical location, makes the country highly vulnerable to its neighbors’ actions. Turkey and Iran have used their upstream position to build dams to meet their own water needs, which has further reduced the flow to water-starved Iraq. For instance, dams on the Euphrates River have reduced water flow into Iraq by an estimated 80 percent over the past forty years. Now, with Turkey’s long-running Ilisu Dam project complete, Turkey now has some control over the flow of the Tigris River. Downstream, the impact will be water shortage, which can cause significant damage to ecosystems like the Mesopotamian Marshes, which used to be the largest wetland ecosystem of Western Eurasia. However, the restricted water flow will not only have ecological repercussions. During times of conflict like the Iran-Iraq War, the region has been drained as a tactical maneuver, for instance by Saddam Hussein to expose his enemies. Now, Turkey has the power to control the water flow to suit its own geopolitical aims.  

Already, restricted water flows have led to intrastate conflicts between provincial councils and governments who accuse each other of exceeding water quotas, in turn leading to a proliferation of armed inter-tribal clashes over access to water. Indeed, ISIS was able to recruit more people due to the severe droughts in Sunni areas of Iraq. These areas were mostly depended on agriculture and farmers did not have alternative work opportunities once the water ran dry, so many joined the radical movement due to a lack of better opportunities to provide for their families.

Conclusion

Whether talking about food security, water shortages, rising temperatures, or extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, links have been uncovered between climate and geopolitical developments. And it is truly a global problem. Emissions produced around the world lead to melting the icecaps in the Arctic, which in turn threatens Pacific island states and has security and economic implications for the five Arctic coastal states and beyond. As the manifestations of climate change increase and become more extreme, its effects will play an increasingly important role in discussions of security and geopolitics. Two factors in particular differentiate climate-related geopolitical conflicts from traditional ones. Firstly, the ubiquitous nature of climate change directly threatens to expand the geographical scope of geopolitical conflicts. Secondly, climate change is infusing new conflict factors into the global geopolitical environment, thus elevating geopolitical contests from traditional arenas and making them much more complicated to resolve.

The Paris Agreement is a good first step in pushing the world to commit to curbing emissions and drafting climate adaptation action plans. However, even if all signatories met their commitments tomorrow, it would not be enough. Comprehensive strategies still need to be developed to respond to existing climate-induced security threats and geopolitical instability both nationally and around the world. This could, for instance, entail a concerted effort on the part of the international community to formalize cooperation—perhaps in the form of a treaty and/or active diplomatic and political engagement—in order to effectively manage climate-related geopolitical risks and constructively react to new scenarios.

Prof. Dr. Friedbert Pflüger is managing partner of Pflüger International and director of the European Centre for Climate, Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS), King’s College London. He is also a senior fellow with the Atlantic Council Global Energy Center, a senior advisor at the World Energy Council’s Global Gas Centre, and board member at the Institute for Climate Protection, Energy and Mobility (IKEM).

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