The Geopolitics of Climate Change

The EU vs Climate Change n. 3

It is a matter of fact that Climate change will modify profoundly existing ecological equilibria and patterns that have been in place since the dawn of humanity, even if we stopped polluting right now. What is more uncertain however, is the nature and magnitude of the threats this will present to current political institutions. Many geopolitical tensions are already born out of climate change or exacerbated by it. This is why it is fundamental for the European Union to analyse these threats even as it outlines its plan to go carbon neutral by 2050.

1- Renewables and power politics

The EU is a net importer of energy. This represents neither a weakness nor a geopolitical sin in itself as other major powers also share this characteristic; what makes us vulnerable is Europe’s heavy reliance on foreign production, which sustains more than half of our energy consumption (58% in 2018). Its bulk is composed of crude oil, solid fuel and natural gas. Needless to say, our main supplier is the Russian Federation. Moscow is our biggest trade partner in all of the three markets listed above, covering 29.2% of our crude oil imports, 40.1% for natural gas and 42.3% for solid fuel. We are used to Russia’s threats of cutting the energy supplies as a retaliation to our compliance with America’s russophobic strategy, ever since international sanctions from the US and the EU against Moscow were first enacted in 2014 following the annexation of Crimea. The descendant of the Soviet Union has been using for years our dependency on its resources to avoid harsher measures against its foreign policy. However, the threats aren’t credible as the Eurasian Giant depends on the European market for its exports as much as we depend on it for our imports.

Nonetheless, energetic independence is a key element in becoming a powerful international actor. Unfortunately Europe’s natural endowment makes this achievement virtually impossible; and yet, there is a way to shield us from international blackmailing: diversification. There is an upside to all of this: the best way to diversify our consumption of energy is to carry on with the EU’s renewed climate activism and reduce our consumption of fossil fuels. Renewable energies, (almost) everyone’s favorite solution to climate change can also put us on the right path towards greater diversification. As of 2019, renewable energies account for 19.7% of our consumption: not so bad, but we can do much better. Hydro power and wind power have the largest energy production share among renewables, they are also entirely producible within the EU’s borders. Solar power is trickier: while its environmental benefits are undisputed, China currently dominates the market of solar panels. In fact, the materials needed for the production of solar panels are extremely rare and found mainly in China. We will have to carefully ration our consumption of solar energy as to contain our reliance on Beijing, nonetheless this energy source is key both to the green revolution and to European independence.

A few considerations on nuclear power. Despite the problems it creates with the management of radioactive waste, nuclear energy represents a far better alternative to carbon fuels as it emits no greenhouse emission. The strategic downside with nuclear energy is the scarce availability of natural uranium in Europe, but at least we don’t have to resort to any rival power for its supply.

In conclusion, reducing our dependence on carbon fuels means protecting the environment and is also essential to building up geopolitical power. Both objectives can be achieved by diversifying our energy consumption and as a consequence our energy supply. But diversification must be done cleverly, as not to become more dependent on others for the rare materials needed for most renewable energy plants. The power we take away from Russia should be handed over back to ourselves and no one else.

2 - The Arctic Melt

The arctic is one of the most talked about regions when discussing climate change, and rightly so: it is warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Since satellite records began in 1979, summer Arctic ice has lost 40% of its area and up to 70% of its volume, making it one of the clearest signs of human-caused global heating. And cutting emissions is unlikely to slow down this phenomenon even in the medium term.

The rapid pace at which this is happening means ice free seasons are not a nightmarish scenario but a looming reality, and have been so for some years. It was way back in 2009 that for the first time two German commercial ships traversed the Northern Sea Route unaccompanied by icebreakers.

But what this means for Europe goes beyond the (very alarming) environmental consequences. The melting of the arctic ice opens up the region to new scrambles for power. In the last decade, the major powers have started preparing for a warmer Pole, not by trying to contain the environmental damage, but getting ready to exploit the resources it frees up.

Indeed, it is estimated that 22% of the world's undiscovered but recoverable fossil energy resources lie within the arctic circle. For now, the potential profits are not worth the investment in infrastructure, but when current reserves start to dry out and oil prices to increase, it will certainly look more attractive. This scenario is one of the main reasons for the increased political attention the region has been receiving lately.

Another reason is that climate change will open new trade routes and keep them ice free for longer periods. The Northern Sea Route over Eurasia shortens shipping routes between Europe and north east Asia by 40% with respect to the actual way through the Suez Canal, and shaves off thousands of miles off the maritime routes to Latin America and Africa.

Sources: Susie Harder Public domain via Wikimedia Commons (Left) and Collin Knopp-Schwyn and Turkish Flame is licensed under CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons (Right)

Currently, the Arctic Council provides a framework for international cooperation, firmly based on respect for international law. However, facts go in the opposite direction.

Russia has started remilitarising its arctic territory relatively undisturbed, and demanding control of the northern transit routes, even seizing parts of Norway’s Svalbard islands.

Lured both by the potential energy sources and by the Northern route, China - not remotely close to the arctic - has nevertheless been making efforts to insert itself into Arctic governance: in 2018 it declared itself a ‘near arctic’ state and outlined the development of a ‘Polar Silk Road’. It has been investing billions in the region: in research stations, technology, and also more concretely in infrastructure and energy facilities. It has even offered to renovate Greenland’s airports and attempted to buy an old military base, raising concerns in Denmark and in the US, that even made a counteroffer.

The latter, which for many years turned its gaze elsewhere, has only recently woken up to this new reality and is now adapting its standing. For now the US has conscribed its actions to those deemed essential to the ‘preservation’ of its current influence in the Arctic, but this is already changing: see the military exercises in arctic waters for the first time in decades, the stronger military presence in NATO countries.

In this context the EU’s self-professed goal is to preserve the environmental integrity of the arctic, and of course guarantee respect of international conventions governing it, but with this must inevitably come a greater involvement in the geopolitical scenario of the region. As of now the EU is not even an observer nation in the Arctic Council. Instead of actively engaging, it is testing the ice-free waters, trying to understand how to react to the escalation of the tensions between the other major world powers: in a way we could say that if the US woke up late, the EU is still waking up, trying to understand what happened while she was looking away. However, with the Biden presidency and the consequent increased attention to climate policy by the US, the EU could gain momentum in its proposals if it just figured out what it wants to do.

Finally, it is also relevant to notice that the induced changes in ecosystems will change established fishing patterns, potentially moving their habitats between countries' borders and thus creating more tensions and straining the compliance to current treaties.

3 - droughts and migration

Source: Pixabay

Climate is rarely the main cause of migration, but it almost always plays an exacerbating role. Drought pushed many Syrians to cities before the war, worsening tensions and acting as a threat multiplier. And the Arab Springs were preceded by widespread climate-related crop failures.

If populist leaders thought we had it bad in 2015, their brains will explode when faced with the sheer magnitude of population displacements that will be (and already are) brought on by climate change and related natural disasters. Food insecurity and water scarcity, as well as increasing heat and rising sea levels are already exerting their influence on migration flows. For instance, increasing uncertainty of monsoon rainfall and drought has driven more than eight million people from Southeast Asia to the Middle East, north America, and Europe (World Bank estimate). And in North Africa’s Sahel region, millions of people are fleeing rural areas in favour of coasts and cities, driven by widespread drought and crop failures. The pace and volume of population flows can only increase from here. Today, almost a third of the global population lives in regions that before 2070 will experience average temperatures above 29 degrees (hotter than the Sahara desert).

The trend of internal migration towards urban areas can only hold so long before the food imported from rural areas runs out. And then the migrants will be forced to cross borders more and more. Meanwhile, receiving nations make walls. This – refusal of entry combined with no aid - is the most lethal scenario predicted in climate change simulations.

We have experienced firsthand the dramatic effects of mass migration. EU’s unpreparedness to the last decade’s migrant crisis caused the death and suffering of innocent people, created security concerns inside European borders, made Europe a partner of authoritarian regimes and bloody militias, and ultimately boosted nationalist and xenophobic sentiments. It's imperative for the EU to face future migration flows working on two fronts: on the one hand we need to be ready to properly host and assimilate the incomers, on the other hand we have to slow down the departures in the first place via investing in relief in the most affected countries. Fighting climate change at home is not enough, not just from an environmental perspective, but also from a more selfish and practical one: immigration towards Europe is intrinsic to the current developments caused by global warming, and however big our efforts to become sustainable are, they are completely ignoring this aspect of the climate crisis.

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