Climate Change as a Growing Force in Geopolitics

The world requires a new framework for thinking about the geopolitical risks of climate change, argue David Petraeus and Benedict McAleenan

By David Petraeus and Benedict McAleenan

April 13, 2021

In 1815, two months before Napoleon’s troops met Wellington’s at the Battle of Waterloo, a volcano erupted in what we now know as Indonesia.

Mount Tambora, which lies on the north coast of that country’s southern archipelago, gave way with such violence that its explosions were mistaken for local cannon fire over a thousand miles away.  British colonial officers despatched troops and ships in the assumption that their comrades were under attack.[1]

Tambora’s eruption devastated the region, leaving 120,000 dead over the following days and months. The resulting famine and disease were terrible, with the ash blocking out the sun for an extended period.

As frightening and as tragic as the initial effects were, no one at the time could have predicted the distant and long-lasting implications they would have on 19th century geopolitics. Today, pulling together several academic analyses, we can plausibly link that volcano to events across the world that were both acute and long-lasting.[2]

Take, for instance, Napoleon’s fate. The effects of the sulphur dioxide and ash that spread from Tambora caused well-documented, dramatic changes to weather systems globally, creating what Victor Hugo described in Les Misérables as “an unseasonably clouded sky” over Belgium in June 1815. Beneath that sky, Wellington desperately waited for his Prussian allies to arrive. Napoleon, having planned to strike early on June 18th, delayed slightly due to the heavy rains over the preceding night, knowing that cannon balls are designed to skip along the ground for the last few meters of their trajectories, and they would have been less effective in ankle-deep mud. Importantly, his delay allowed the Prussians time to arrive and unite with the British. The rain also may have undermined the effectiveness of Napoleon’s infantry, whose muskets and rifles would have become damp as he sent them across fields of wet rye grass.[3]

Given Wellington’s description of the Battle of Waterloo as “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life,” it is entirely possible that an Indonesian volcano gave the Iron Duke the edge he needed to change the course of history. The ensuing victory removed the British Empire’s leading rival and laid the base for the hegemony it enjoyed for a full century after.

At the other end of Eurasia, the presence of sulphates in the stratosphere cooled the land. This disrupted the Monsoon season, leading to devastating floods in Yunnan Province and along the Yangtze River Valley, creating famines and social unrest. In fact, the reigning Qing dynasty’s inability to manage the subsequent unrest has been suggested as a reason for China’s decline in the 19th century.[4]  Thus began China’s ‘century of humiliation’ – a term that was coined a hundred years later in 1915, but yet still informs Chinese foreign policy today.

The wet weather and failed harvests also pushed up grain prices and caused hunger across the world. The resulting riots in Europe led to severe clampdowns and a wave of authoritarianism that lasted for decades. Meanwhile, American farmers surged West across the Appalachian Mountains to find and cultivate new, highly productive land to make up for the lost supply. But, when European grain markets recovered and demand for US grain declined, the banks financing the American agricultural expansion collapsed, and the US experienced its first credit crunch.[5]

Finally, the volcanic eruption may also have helped create the world’s first cholera pandemic, as the disruption of the Monsoon in Bengal allowed a new and more infectious strain of cholera to emerge and spread across the world.[6]

All of this occurred, at least in part, because of a single environmental event that changed the average temperature at the time by about 0.5 to 1 degree centigrade. 

It affected the course of a decisive battle, created social unrest and refugees in wealthy nations, sent food prices soaring, and even led to financial instability. Now consider the effects of a change in temperature of more than double that seen in 1815.  In such a case, long-term climate change could bring about very similar effects; indeed, the unseasonable weather of the years following 1815 should be expected repeatedly in the 21st century.  The effects of the eruption in 1815 changed events then, and a similar rise in temperature will do so in the foreseeable future.  We are, in fact, already seeing results of climate change around the world in the increased severity of storms, significant changes in weather patterns, rising temperatures, expanding desertification, rising sea levels, intensification of fire seasons, and a host of other climate-related developments.

As examination of the consequences of Tambora and of the many other analyses of shifts in the climate have shown us, the links between climate change, national security, and the wellbeing of societies are undeniable and becoming increasingly pronounced.

It is thus very clear, again, that changes in our climate hold significant implications for geopolitics and security policy.  And, for that reason, my co-author and I are very grateful to Policy Exchange for inviting us to examine these implications.

From Black Swan to Gray Rhino

A key issue we have examined has to do with the categorisation and management of the broad range of risks associated with climbat change. And we want to use this opportunity to propose a broad taxonomy with which to consider climate risks in the geopolitical context.

We believe this taxonomy enables us to think through the conceptual challenges more clearly, requiring a set of policy responses upon which we will touch, but which will certainly require further development.

To be sure, the international community has come a long way in policy development regarding climate change.  And this year presents what many see as a potential inflection point for the issue, with the arrival of President Biden in the White House serving as a catalyst for action. The United States’ return to the Paris Agreement comes at a pivotal time, amid commitments by several other major economies, led by the UK, to a ‘Net Zero’ emissions policy.

The UK’s presidency of the COP26 climate summit alongside Italy, with both of these partners also hosting the G7 and the G20, provides a rare confluence of opportunities to galvanise and increase momentum. This will generate additional focus in security and foreign affairs communities, which have seen steadily more widespread acceptance that climate change presents numerous major challenge for strategists and those assessing risks.

This is not a partisan political shift:  senior security officials under successive US administrations with differing views on climate-related issues have stated their concerns and placed steadily increasing priority on climate-related security risks. Under President Trump, for example, my long-time comrade General Jim Mattis highlighted the significant effects that climate change was having on “stability in areas of the world where our troops [were] operating.”[7] President Biden’s National Security Advisor describes the need to address climate change as an “urgent national security priority.”[8]  And the just-released Global Trends report by the US Director of National Intelligence assesses that, “During the next 20 years, the physical effects from climate change of higher temperatures, sea level rise, and extreme weather events will impact every country,” with the “costs and challenges” falling disproportionately “on the developing world, intersecting with environmental degradation to intensify risks to food, water, health, and energy security.” That is a very stern analytical assessment, with none of the normal caveats of such findings.

The problem is, in short, real and grave.  Nonetheless, we have so far struggled to define it adequately and to propose a sufficient response. This reality is implicit in the rhetoric surrounding climate security. For some years, for example, the foreign affairs and security establishment has described climate change as a ‘threat multiplier.’[9]  And, indeed it is: climate change clearly exacerbates familiar pressures such as poverty, corruption, resource scarcity, and authoritarianism.  Yet this descriptor is just not enough; it is too vague and too limited in its ability to prescribe a policy response.  Simply stating that climate change will make every threat more intense is not very helpful in practical terms. It merely implies that the only policy response is to reinforce our defences and batten down the hatches.

A taxonomy of risk 

To improve on the conceptual framework used to discuss these issues, we propose borrowing from a taxonomy used by the financial community given that even more than the security community, financial institutions are fluent in the language of risk.

Their aim is, of course, to commoditise risk, to price it into products and services. It should be no surprise, then, that they are, in certain respects, some years ahead of the pack in analysing the risks of climate change.

Financial analysts have identified three broad areas of climate-related risk for their own investments, and we believe they can be useful for our purposes as well.  These are: physical risks, transitional risks, and liability risks. With some adjustments for context, these terms provide a structure, or construct, for analysing the geopolitical stressors that climate change creates.

Physical risks

Physical risks are those created by an increasingly uncertain physical environment. The list is extensive and includes, for example: sea level rises and resultant flooding, desertification, crop failures, disrupted monsoons, species displacement, and the emergence of new pathogens.  As we saw with the Mount Tambora example, the effects of climate change can be manifested locally and globally, acutely and chronically, in easily predictable and complex ways.

In 2015, a study by Lloyd’s of London found that a strong warm-phase El Niño southern oscillation, combined with a surge in a wheat blight, both of which are highly plausible, could have devastating effects on a global scale. The resultant flooding and drought in crucial agricultural regions could cause grain and soybean prices to soar.  The Lloyd’s model indicated that particularly vulnerable regions, such as the Middle East and the Sahel, could experience food riots, with potentially terminal consequences for the governing regimes.[10]

The scenario is not based on fiction. There has long been an awareness that the Arab Spring, from its first sparks on a Tunisian roadside to the ongoing conflagration in Syria, has had a significant climate-related element. Our argument does not assume that climate events form a linear causal chain. Clearly, the world is more complicated than that.  Nonetheless, it is wrong to assume that human societies operate on a plane apart from their physical environments.

There is a tendency among some in the West, perhaps influenced by the term ‘Arab Spring’ and the events associated with it, to think of those events as driven by democratic aspirations.  While there may be some merit to that, it may be more appropriate to consider that they were driven by hunger.  Indeed, the countries involved are still some of the largest wheat importers in the world, with Egypt being the largest.  The US Ambassador to Algeria had, in fact, reported on weekly food protests in Algiers as early as 2008.  Similarly, Tunisian protestors chanted for “bread, freedom, social justice”. Early Syrian protestors counted among their numbers farmers ruined by regional drought and the state’s divestment from agriculture. And demonstrators in Jordan and Yemen waved baguettes as a symbol of protest.

It is thus relevant to note that 2010 to 2011 saw a near-doubling of global wheat prices due to droughts in China, Russia, and Ukraine, as well as unseasonable rain in Canada and Australia.

China’s drought led to it import substantial quantities of wheat to shore up its domestic supplies, and that created market shifts with profound consequences for brittle regimes on the other side of the world.[11]

Nor was this a freak event. In rural Nigeria, farmers and herders have engaged in increasing conflict over fertile land and water supplies, creating a huge increase in casualties between 2010 and 2016.[12]  This has been, in part, driven by the desertification of sizeable swathes of farmland each year. And, needless to say, increasing scarcity of farm and grazing land creates competitive pressures that feed destabilisation, migration, and support for armed non-state groups such as Boko Haram and Daesh.

The effects of these phenomena ripple out of course: in recent years, for example, Europe has seen the consequences of a northwards migratory surge from the Sahel and a westwards push from Syria.  The resulting tsunami of refugees created enormous domestic political challenges for European countries, in many cases the biggest domestic challenges since the end of the Cold War. 

To be sure, there were other factors at work in the Arab Spring, from the arrival of social media to the effects of a global financial downturn.  Nonetheless, we contend that environmental change should have a prominent place in geostrategic analysis of such events.

In two studies, researchers at Stanford University have sought to quantify the correlation between conflict and changes in temperature and precipitation.  Their analyses conclude that, at the interpersonal, inter-group, state, and civilisational levels, deviations from the norms in temperature and rainfall present seriously destabilising factors. In fact, their study found that a single deviation point change in temperature and rainfall (which is less than half the predicted change for some geographical regions by 2050) led to a rise of 14% in inter-group conflict. That represents, needless to say, a sizeable increase in potential civil wars and revolutions.[13]

Physical risks will also complicate our understanding of various theatres of military deployments. Western military forces, for example, have made extensive use of naval and air bases on islands dotted around the globe.  Many of these low-lying bases are vulnerable to rising sea levels – which already are some 20cm higher than they were in 1900. Clearly, we cannot replace each such location with an aircraft carrier, amphib, or submarine, and it is clear that each nation has to assess its own vulnerabilities closely and plan for changes that may be required by further rises in sea levels.

Such an assessment should also include the increasing potential of new bases emerging in the High North, where melting ice caps are creating a flurry of activity between competing Arctic and near-Arctic states, and where waters that were inaccessible in the past are increasingly becoming open for longer periods each year. With that, let us turn to our second category of risk: Transitional. 

Transition risks

‘Transition risk’ refers to those risks associated with preparation of societies and their economies for the challenge ahead, such as the shift from fossil fuels to renewables.

We clearly must, as a species, move our economic model to an increasingly sustainable footing through increased reliance on new energy sources and adoption of new technologies.

Transition risks highlight likely shifts away from the trade patterns and, in some cases, relationships that have shaped the 20thcentury. 

This will create an inevitable period of flux within which there will be much to gain in a variety of respects.  Indeed, we in the West should not see climate change as pure risk: our strategic competitors certainly do not.  They see the opportunities to be exploited and we need to do the same. For states like China, the ongoing transitions associated with adoption of sustainable energy sources and ecosystems have presented numerous opportunities, and China, in particular, has sought to capitalise on those opportunities in a variety of ways. As a former Portuguese minister, argues, “China is not so much announcing a retreat from a technological model as the beginning of a new one.”[14]  He notes that, in the past, England gained the upper hand by pioneering the first fossil fuel technologies, and the USA very much followed suit.  We must now recognise the new transition and shift swiftly to become leaders in it.

China sees climate change through two prisms: the first is domestic order, the second is international influence.  Climate change is properly seen by authorities in Beijing as a challenge to domestic stability, a central objective for the Chinese state. Remember, if you will, that the destabilising effects of the Tambora eruption had a devastating effect on China and the the Chinese regime at the time. China’s dependence on fossil fuel energy imports, high consumption of coal, rural environmental degradation, and unhealthy air quality over major cities are all factors of considerable concern for Chinese authorities, whose political legitimacy rests in no small measure on the ability not just to deliver economic growth, but also to improve air, water, and soil quality.

In turn, this has contributed to identifying new ways to meet energy consumption needs that reduce domestic vulnerabilities.

Beijing also sees significant opportunities in the transitions in global energy sources and the resources required for sustainability initiatives.   Consequently, China has become the leading investor in renewable energy and clean technologies – reportedly investing more in these areas than the US and EU combined.  It has also aggressively sought the resources must needed for new technologies, with a special focus on the rare earth minerals that are vital for a host of advanced products.  It has also declared itself a ‘Near Arctic State’, invested in icebreaker ships, developed relations with Greenland to achieve Arctic mineral access, and invested heavily in new energy supply chains.

The Belt and Road Initiative has facilitated many of China’s initiatives in this area in developing countries.  In so doing, China brought many resource-rich and strategically-located states into its economic orbit and enabled the establishment of extensive supply chain relationships.

For all of the world, moving from fossil fuel dependence means more than a welcome shift to cleaner energy production as well as increasingly capable storage and transmission systems. But solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and the other elements of sustainable energy require a range of materials as well as engineering that will introduce new industrial approaches.

In energy security terms, this will not be a replacement of like for like.  The anticipated shift will not be as simple as a move from petrostates to electrostates, not least because many petrostates have huge potential for solar and wind resources that could turn them into regional hubs of electricity exports and hydrogen or ammonia production. In sum, the permutations and developments of the new way forward are certain to have substantial effects on geopolitics, trading relationships, economic development, and security issues,

Liability risks

Finally, the financial community increasingly considers the growing role of liability risks associated with climate-related developments.  For financial analysts, this is primarily a question of ensuring adequate due diligence to understand the potential liabilities, how to mitigate of the risks identified, and thereby how to reduce the potential for costly developments and complex litigation. 

Liability risks have grown considerably in recent years.  Pension funds and oil companies, for example, have found themselves in court as legal and fiduciary expectations have changed in response to climate change – and have thus worked hard to reduce the likelihood of such legal challenges.[15]

We suggest modifying this category for the geopolitical context, in essence to be a question of rights and responsibilities.  Scarce resources have always been a chief concern of economics and geopolitics, and they will be long after the transition to low-carbon energy production has advanced, meaning that this is not a ‘transitional’ question per se. That is why it deserves a separate category of risk.

Yet environmental change does bring a new set of questions around scarcity and the liabilities associated with it. Water management is perhaps the most obvious.  Clean water, free of pollutants and in adequate supply, is a basic requirement for life and functioning societies.  But, in many cases, a river can course through multiple jurisdictions, making its wellbeing the concern of multiple states and multiple industries and livelihoods. 

Ethiopia’s development of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam is a high-profile case in point.  The Nile River basin is expected to support one billion people by 2050. A study by researchers at MIT indicates that climate change could increase rainfall in the Ethiopian Highlands, which supply 80% of the river’s source water.  This would increase its flow, but also its variability, which means that droughts and floods will become more common throughout Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt. The authors note that this pattern is already in evidence; it is not an abstract projection.[16]

The Renaissance Dam arrives in this context, placing a new strain on shared resources.  Ethiopia has, for example, been unwilling, at times, to allow water to flow through the generating station at the dam in order to supply Egypt in times of drought. The resulting issues have become ones not just of national pride on both sides, but of economic survival for those downstream.  Ethiopians across the political spectrum see the dam as a ticket to the developed world and regional influence.  Egyptians see the Nile’s waters as its life blood, a birth right synonymous with Egypt’s very identity, and Cairo has been invoking old treaties to protect what they see as their entitlements.

Yet the controversy is also symptom as well as cause:  as the MIT authors note, the basin faces a much broader challenge than one controversial dam.  Coping with a far more variable Nile River flow requires regional cooperation from Lake Victoria to the Mediterranean in order to create the necessary water storage and management infrastructure.  It also requires individual nations to consider their efficiency of resource use, especially that of water.  The Nile issue thus is ultimately a question of arbitration, cooperation, rights, and responsibilities.

While the parties in this dispute have not yet resorted to the use of force, such an outcome has not been explicitly ruled out.  But the Nile is not just a one-off; rather, similar conflicts are on the rise elsewhere: the Pacific Institute, which maintains a database on water-related conflicts, shows a steady, indeed alarming, acceleration of both internal and cross-border disputes since the late 1990s.[17]  Thus, despite many warnings, efforts to prevent water wars appear to be faltering. 

Another challenge in this question of rights and responsibilities concerns our respective atmospheric emissions. Britain began the industrial revolution – and the pollution associated with it.  The US then became the largest polluter in the last century.  And now China holds the crown.  Various developing countries hold the view that the developed world created the problem and provide the lion’s share of solutions, as they experience their own challenges as they expand their industrial activiites.

Questions of responsibility and redress will be a central one during the UK’s presidency of COP26 later this year.  Who, for example, is to tell others that they cannot develop as they wish? At what point will the first sanction be levied for polluting the world’s atmosphere? And how should geoengineering be introduced if the world proves unable to manage its climate through emissions controls? These are not simple questions, and they pose enormous questions and significant risks that will affect the balance of duties between nations.

Very often, the solutions to the challenges accompanying climate change will lie in governance.  Droughts in California, for example, have not led to civil war; however, they have at least contributed to civil war in places like Syria. The difference is governance.

Liability risks thus create a challenge that requires governance across borders – diplomatic, economic, and potentially military. Where governance fails in such contexts, the results may lead to an increase in “fait accompli strategies” to achieve resource objectives and, in some cases, this could lead to the use of force. 

In an era of persistent competition, the character of conflict has changed, with the distinctions between peace and war blurred in some respects.  Combat in cyberspace, the newest domain of warfare, is ongoing every day, as are significant activities in social media intended to undermine our cohesion, to inflame ongoing debates, and influence decision making. Climate change will present developments that will undoubtedly precipitate disputes and actions that will result in challenges to existing institutions and norms.

To deal with these developments, democratic nations will need to enhance their abilities to offer comprehensive responses, mobilise public and private stakeholders and civil society and to foster coordinated approaches with like-minded partners.

The implications for the liberal democratic alliance

For the liberal democracies of the world, these three risk factors will present a complex range of challenges. At the least, they will require reallocation of resources. However, a more fundamental challenge may emerge to the democratic, liberal economic model, and this will likely bring new strains and stresses on existing relationships, alliances, and partnerships.

As nations large and small grapple with the physical, transitional, and liability risks of climate change, they naturally will experience new pressures. These will  manifest themselves in political, economic, and fiscal spheres often related to infrastructure and resources. In some cases, they may even be existential, as threats of sea level raise increase to several low-lying island states.

Such pressures may make states and societies more vulnerable to opportunism and the temptations of extreme political answers.  At the state level, there could be a higher risk of authoritarianism. As Europe saw after the eruption of Tambora and as the Arab world saw after 2011, authoritarian rule often emerges in stressed societies. At the sub-national level, where states or local resources fail to provide a stable economy with sufficient rewards for licit activities, the attractions of joining non-state armed groups such as Daesh and Boko Haram can be enhanced. These groups will hold out the promise of (though rarely deliver) order, income, and privileged access to resources. In practice, however, they often destabilise already fragile societies and drive migration in response to a downward economic spiral and oppressive, sometimes extreme rule.

At the international level, such pressures can lead countries into the sphere of influence of larger actors. China’s Belt and Road Initiative, for example, is a vast programme of investment in infrastructure and assets, welcomed in many countries and regions.  And demand for such improvements is, in part, a function of the climate change transition, helping to meet the need for preventive measures such as low-carbon energy and adaptive measures such as air conditioning. China’s domination of some key markets and credit lines helps it to exert considerable influence over its ‘partners’ in the Belt and Road. That is understandably sounding a cautionary note for many in the security community, leading to calls for corresponding initiatives by the world’s democracies.

Where there is risk, though, there is also opportunity, not only for authoritarian regimes but also the liberal democratic world. The latter is well suited to respond to all of the growing risks, if managed properly. Liberal democratic systems that function effectively offer not just freedoms and degrees of prosperity, but also an enhanced ability to adapt and develop new solutions to the pressures they face.

Building “anti-fragile” systems requires liberal democracy

In developing a strategic response to the array of new and intensifying risks associated with climate change, there should be two objectives. First: minimise climate change. Second: enable creation of adaptive systems.

The first objective must be to minimise to the extent possible major climate change. Evidence suggests that we may already be too late with this effort, but it is possible to slow and, over time with breakthrough technolgies halt the process and, indeed, reverse it to varying degrees.

Such strategies and initiatives will require global efforts, and indeed there is obviously much of that underway and being reinvigorated by the new administration in Washington.  We will discuss some additional initiatives in a moment.

The second objective should be to build adaptive systems.  As most observers in this arene will be familiar, the philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb has pioneered the concept of “anti-fragility,” which attempts to describe a distinct form of responsiveness to systemic shocks. It is highly relevant in facing a new set of stressors such as those presented by climate change.

The concept of anti-fragility is often misunderstood. ‘Anti-fragile’ explicitly does not mean resilient. Rather, the term describes the ability of a system to strengthen and actually develop in the face of volatility. To explain, there are three categories of systems: firstly, those that are fragile and crumble under stress. Secondly, those that are resilient and can withstand shocks and carry on as before.  But these first two categories of systems will struggle over the long term.  So, thirdly, there are systems which actually get stronger and learn from the experience of stress – the anti-fragile.

Now, a socio-economic system such as China’s could be said to be resilient. By sheer scale of its population, its economic trajectory, and its central control, it is  able to endure through many challenges. But as Darren Acemoglu and James Robinson have argued, the inability of China’s model fully to mobilise societal capacity can place a limit on the capacity of the state.[18]For full mobilisation of both state and society, liberal markets and democratic scrutiny appear particularly well-suited for attracting innovation and self-perpetuating investment.

The writer C.S. Lewis claimed to be a democrat not because he trusted in the wisdom of individual men, but because he believed in the opposite; he saw the need for political systems to correct themselves constantly in the face of flaws and volatility.  This is exactly what we mean by the anti-fragility of the liberal democratic model. It is not perfectly anti-fragile by any means – no system can be – and various democratic states have demonstrated shortcomings in recent years.  Nonetheless, liberal democratic systems are, in our view, more dynamic than that of an authoritarian system. 

Some observers offer that China’s response to the COVID crisis is a case in point, as it restricted internal discussion and aggressively pushed back against reasonable inquiries about the pandemic’s origins, reflecting possible limitations in learning from missteps and setbacks.  A system’s inability to scrutinise itself makes that system more fragile, not less.

For a system to be anti-fragile, it must as far as is possible, eliminate or at least reduce downside risks and open itself to potential upsides. A dynamic and healthy democracy, with a liberal market system backed by a capable, vibrant state, can explore, examine, and debate new ideas.  It can challenges bad ideas through intense debate and public scrutiny. And, through democratic freedoms, property rights, and market incentives, with new technologies and business models brought forward by innovation, it can capitalise on the ‘upside’ opportunities.

As set out in the previous sections, climate change is likely to deliver increased volatility on a global scale.  Democratic features such as transparency, open debate, and regular course-correction will be essential tools in responding to its many challenges.  The liberal democracies of the world must thus double down on their values systems, because they provide what one writer calls the ‘social technology’ needed to combat this problem.[19]  The UK is therefore right, in our view, to promote a new ‘D10’ or Democratic 10 forum, by expanding the G7. The values-based systems of the major democracies provide a real-world advantage in fighting climate change and the risks it generates, in addition to addressing other geopolitical challenges. 

Steps to addressing climate-related geopolitical risks

Having identified three areas of risk and understanding that we must build and strengthen adaptive, anti-fragile systems, what are the practical steps we should take?

First, we must develop a more sophisticated understanding of the three risk areas.  To help us with this effort, advanced modelling and monitoring tools are increasingly available, using AI and advanced data science, and these capabilities will help advance our understanding of the physical and transitional risks.  Many of these capabilities have been developed by the private sector, meaning that states should work more broadly across societies than they have before – just as our competitors do in their pursuit of their initiatives.

An example of the public-private partnerships that can be particularly producted is that of the UK’s Spatial Finance Initiative, which is aiming to develop sophisticated satellite-based mapping programmes to understand the real economic effects of climate and environmental change.[20]

This should, in truth, be an international effort, and developed nations should share advanced capacities to create early warning systems across multiple domains and risk categories.  This monitoring should be focused on areas of known climate risk, where environmental factors are seen to be increasingly variable and where they combine with governance fragility and resource scarcity.

Militaries around the world are already considering the implications of climate change for their permanent and forward operating bases and for how they will provide power for them.  These bases may find themselves limited by new physical risks (such as flooding or extreme desert temperatures), or conversely required to scale up their operations (such as in the Arctic) to take advantage of new opportunities and also to meet new challenges presented by adversaries. A comprehensive assessment of these bases must be high on the list of allied military planning. Building on this, adequate funding for a clear High North strategy should be an increasing priority for the UK, Canada, EU, Norway, and the USA.

For some time, multi-factor scenario modelling, war games, and stress tests have included an element of climate change in their scenarios. This should continue and be enhanced, given the increasing implications of climate-related challenges.  There should be more climate-specific factors within such exercises, explicitly considering extreme weather conditions and human responses (physical risks), changes in energy and trade systems (transition risks), as well as heightened tensions between key participants (liability risks).

These exercises should reflect the growing body of evidence that raises climate-related security concerns as an increasingly important element of military, intelligence, and diplomatic planning.

To this end, we applaud the UK government’s plan for an Office for Net Assessment and Challenge, echoing the recommendations of Policy Exchange.[21]

A complex operating environment requires a sophisticated response, and that office rightly will include cybersecurity and other thematic threats; it also should include climate change as an essential layer.  In the US, the Climate and Security Advisory Group has recommended a Watch Center in the office of the Director of National Intelligence, focused on climate-related risks, which would also be an appropriate development and augment the already growing expertise on climate issues and threats in the US intelligence community.

Second, the West and its allies should invest in reducing downside risks appearing in vulnerable states. This would constitute a first step towards fostering anti-fragile systems. Modern energy and transport infrastructure, as well as coastal defences and resilient agriculture, will be needed by developing economies around the world. China has offered a ready supply of finance, albeit with some reductions in activity in recent months.[22]

The D10 and its partners should ensure that development funds, including green finance, are readily available as a competitive alternative, based on liberal market principles. Coordinating the deployment of the funds available from the US International Development Finance Corporation, Agency for International Development, and Millennium Challenge Corporation with the funds of counterpart institutions in the D10 countries and beyond would enable this approach very impressively and also help pursue important geopolitical objectively.  These measures could help developing nations protect themselves from some of the risks we have described.

Protective measures should also include regional capacity building and coordination in Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR). Absent major wars, climate-related risks will rank with the leading threats to stability and will require greater attention in HADR planning.  Here, again, the D10 countries should take the lead and welcome the contributions of other possible partners around the world. The risks we have described thus offer opportunities to reinforce important partnerships and to coordinate agendas. In some cases, this may mean emphasising deployment of development aid over traditional security activities. As militaries have learned, the holy grail of alliances often comes down to issues as simple as doctrinal standardisation and equipment interoperability. Sharing such lessons from the military with aid organisations could contribute to building capacity.  And such missions are very worthy of our investment: when developed strategically, they build military and non-military capacities for both the recipients and the benefactors and help to reduce the casualties and costs of disasters.

Finally, we should seek to augment the capacity of nations to build their own anti-fragile systems and take advantage of the upsides of change. This is where the transition risks – those that involve shifting trade systems and dependencies – become opportunities if managed well.

These actions can take two forms: the access to affordable green finance mentioned above is one; the other is the institutional capacity needed for states to foster development of liberal, open markets that attract capital to their shores and adapt dynamically to new challenges. Advanced governments such as the USA, UK, EU, and Japan should offer the expertise of their institutions to enhance the ability of countries to manage their own transitions. This could include energy and financial regulators and advisory bodies such as the UK’s Climate Change Committee. It could be done as part of a development aid package, or in a commercialised setting as per the UK’s Met Office and Ordnance Survey – both previously state functions that have been turned to commercial value.  Providing our own institutions as models for other nations also creates invaluable channels for trade, diplomacy and shared values, as well as laying the foundations for more effective risk management systems.


Global climate change and its associated regional phenomena will inevitably prove complex and not perfectly predictable, but a clearer approach to the risks can help us to structure our analyses and policy responses. By adapting the three-risk taxonomy borrowed from the financial world – physical, transitional, and liability – we have a way to structure dialogue and debate, and to focus efforts to manage, to the extent possible, the risks we have described.  The objective should be to develop systems that can help minimise downsides while adapting to shocks and volatility, using the concept of anti-fragility as a guide. This will help promote policy actions that will support a stable geopolitical environment, even as the world is buffeted increasingly by the manifestations of climate change.

Climate change is, of course, a global challenge – and a particularly pressing one – not just in its origins, but in its implications. It thus requires a sophisticated solution that mobilises the resources of all societies and nation states, even those that compete in other respects, as well as the strongest-possible multilateralism. We look forward to the development of this approach, building on the strength of the UN system and existing agreements, especially now that the US has re-joined the Paris Climate Accord and sought to galvanise further action to accomplish the aims that we have described in this paper. Responses should certainly include innovations developed by like-minded states, such as the D10; nonetheless, the global response necessarily should include all states, business entities, and stakeholders.

As with many security and geopolitical challenges of the past, climate change need not define our fates if the leading countries of the world, representing all systems, recognise the magnitude of the threats and make way together.

General David Petraeus (US Army, Ret.) served in the US Army between 1974 and 2011, rising to the roles of Commander of US Central Command and Commander of the International Security Assistance Force respectively. Between 2011 and 2012, he served as Director of the Central Intelligence Service. He is currently a Partner at the investment firm KKR and Chair of the KKR Global Institute.

Benedict McAleenan is Senior Advisor, Energy & Environment, at Policy Exchange. He is also the founder and Managing Partner of the political risk firm Helmsley Partners.



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