The Geopolitics of Climate Change

Environmental Policy increasingly reaches the heart of all policy areas, starting with questions of the global balance of power

Editorial by Benedict McAleenan

April 13, 2021

At some point in the last few years, environmental policy became a strategic priority of nations. Protecting access to key resources has always been at the centre of geopolitics, but now the definition of ‘resources’ has expanded to include a safe planetary environment. This is driving a deep shift in the economics that underwrite the global balance of power.

In this vast geopolitical swerve, some commentators seem to foresee a form of the ‘end of history’ all over again, as the oil wars of the past come to an end and petrostates stabilise. As Bruno Maçães points out in his article, this is a flawed view. While a more sustainable and equitable world economy is a worthy end goal, there will be upheavals in the meantime. We must access new types of resources, which opens up new national vulnerabilities, as highlighted by Nadia Schadlow. Energy security policy will have to modernise, as the focus shifts away from oil fields in far-off lands and onto local power grids, as Ed Birkett sets out.

These upheavals will be harder because, as the world attempts this shift to prevent a catastrophe, that catastrophe has already begun to unfold. The waters are churning more and more, even as we try to rebuild the ship. Extreme weather events and disrupted ecosystems already exert severe pressures on societies, and the weakest states are the most exposed. All of which is driving the convergence of environmental and foreign policy, as Britain’s former Foreign Secretary William Hague lays out in his essay.

If we are lucky, bold and careful all at once, these pressures can be manageable. But they are already taking effect and we need institutional innovations to cope, updating existing bodies and creating new capacities. As Erin Sikorsky and Sherri Goodman argue, NATO’s founding mission should be seen to encompass the effects of climate-induced destabilisation, though this means its strategy must change to stay ahead. Other cross-border issues will need wholly new approaches. In their article, Benjamin Pohl, Sabine Blumstein and Susanne Schmeier set out the need for water policy to move beyond technical fixes and into the political sphere. Finally, we must explore every tool available to us, including more controversial approaches like solar geoengineering. However, this will need a framework of research and governance to avoid abuses and maximise value, say David Keith and Peter Irvine.

Not all of this is new: the world has had to build a new critical resource supply chain every few generations since the 18th century. Each industrial revolution creates new energy dependencies, with instability along the way. We are experiencing the latest version of that process. However, we should note that such changes in the past have allowed nations to rise and fall – Britain and America should know this well, because it was they who benefitted most. The climate geopolitics of the 21st century will set up a competition in which the stakes are just as high. In such a field, the liberal democratic model must prove that it can respond to long-term, international challenges whilst maintaining freedom and prosperity.

With a more assertive China seeking to build its own spheres of influence, liberal democracy faces a credible challenger. An effective and collaborative response to climate change would help liberal democracies to underscore their soft power, forge new alliances and protect against China’s authoritarian model. As its former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbullnotes, nations like Australia must prioritise climate policy in order to resist this competitive pressure in the all-important Indo-Pacific. Others in that region, not least India, are looking to richer democratic powers to help them. In his article, Mihir S Sharma makes the compelling case that New Delhi is proactively building Indian self-identity around leadership on climate, but it needs support – particularly access to private capital – in order to do so.

In thinking through these complexities, it helps to have some clarity of the risks. Our lead essay, co-authored by David Petraeus, sets out a high-level framework for viewing such risks in the geopolitical context. None of our contributors believe that climate change is the single dominant force in geopolitics. Several specifically point to the complex interplay of risk factors, with climate change acting as an increasingly relevant ‘threat multiplier’. Yet the vague language of ‘threat multiplier’ becomes less helpful as these phenomena manifest more clearly over time. It becomes harder to generalise and more necessary to test policy solutions in the real world.

As we have increasingly discovered at Policy Exchange, environmental questions now sit at the heart of traditionally more dominant areas of policy, from economics to foreign affairs, security, health, industrial policy and social issues. These overlaps will be the focus of Environmental Affairs.