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The Geopolitics of Climate Change

As extreme weather increasingly uproots communities and economies, leading experts Simon Dalby and Joshua Busby join Deep Dish to predict how climate change will affect foreign policy.
Clouds over wind turbines Play Podcast
Thomas Richter

Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut have inflicted widespread damage to property, food production, and human life. As extreme weather increasingly uproots communities and economies, leading experts Simon Dalby and Joshua Busby join this week's Deep Dish podcast to predict how today's climate change will affect tomorrow's foreign policy.

About the Guests
Vice President, Studies
Brian Hanson is the Vice President of Studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He oversees the Council's research operations and hosts the Council's weekly podcast, Deep Dish on Global Affairs.
Simon Dalby
Chair, Balsillie School of International Affairs
Simon Dalby is the CIGI Chair in the Political Economy of Climate Change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs.
Nonresident Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy
Nonresident Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy expert Joshua Busby
Joshua Busby is an associate professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin. He is also a nonresident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Nonresident Fellow, Public Opinion and Foreign Policy expert Joshua Busby

Simon Dalby: Trying to build the connection between climate, energy, and security requires us to rethink, quite fundamentally, that nexus. 

Josh Busby: Now, they should get international assistance to address this problem, but they probably will never get enough. 

Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson, and today we're talking about the geopolitics of climate change. This episode is inspired by the catastrophic weather events that we've recently seen, including Hurricane Florence that just hit the Carolinas which caused widespread damage and loss of life; and then about the same time on the other side of the world, Typhoon Mangkhut careened into southern China and the Philippines; leaving dozens dead, millions affected; and also affected agricultural crops. 

So extreme weather problems seem to be occurring more and more often. Many people link these events, kinds of events, to climate change. And today we're going to look at the potential impact of climate change, more broadly, on geopolitics. To help us understand which ways the winds might blow, I'm joined by two experts on geopolitics and climate change. 

First, I've got Simon Dalby from the Balsillie School of International Affairs at Wilfrid Laurier University. Welcome, Simon. 

Simon Dalby: Hello. 

Brian Hanson: And also here is Josh Busby from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin, and a Nonresident Fellow here at The Council. Welcome, Josh. 

Josh Busby: Delighted to be with you. 

Brian Hanson: So Josh, let me start with you. You recently published a essay in Foreign Affairs, in the July/August issue, titled "Global Warning: Why Climate Change Matters More Than Anything Else," which is a pretty dramatic title. And in that you argue that climate change, indeed, will have a greater impact on international politics than any other force in the world today. 

What are those changes that are going to be so dramatic? 

Josh Busby: The changes that we're observing are pushing us ... not only average temperatures higher than we've ever seen, but the extreme tail events are unlike what we've previously come accustomed to. So then trying to anticipate what that might mean for international politics, it becomes a bit of a challenge. And so what that means is, harder for us to assess. But it may mean, as we start looking out on the horizon, that low-lying island nations in the South Pacific will become uninhabitable. 

And so the challenges then will be: people will be forced to move, and there are a whole host of other changes that we're going to start to see in the coming decades. Challenges between states over water, which historically we've been able to handle with peaceful change. But it's a little unclear as we move forward if our ability to establish water-sharing agreements, like we've seen on the Indus River between India and Pakistan, if those existing institutions will prepare us adequately for the future. 

Brian Hanson: Simon, you have pointed out that, as Josh referenced, there indeed have been climatic changes in human history over time. But you've emphasized that one of the things that's important about this set of changes is that it's driven not by exogenous change that humans don't control, but in response to human activity. 

Why does that make this set of changes distinctive? Why is that distinction important? 

Simon Dalby: Well this is the first time any particular individual species has deliberately set about to change its context, at the global scale. What it means is simply that human actions are deciding the future climate. Traditionally the argument was that well, certain climatic features have made certain kinds of societies; they've given certain societies opportunities because temperate climates mean good agriculture, which is [inaudible 00:04:09] prosperity, etc. 

The argument now will have to be turned on its head. And we have to argue that, collectively, the rich and powerful ... by making decisions about what to produce and which energy systems to use, and how therefore to change landscapes, nevermind changing ocean-marine systems as well ... are actually deciding what the future of the planet's going to look like. 

This is new in geological history, hence the discussion about the anthropocene to try and highlight the change, new circumstances, that we're in. We can no longer assume, as Josh just said, that ... you know, traditionally a 1-in-500 year flood was estimated to arrive every 500 years. Well as the headlines have been saying this week, we're in circumstances where we're getting 1-in-500 year flood every couple of years. Clearly, the stable assumptions that we have made are no longer going to be valid for policymakers, going forward. 

Now the crucial is thing, how do we adapt to that? How do we actually think about institutions for agriculture, for irrigation, and so on, which assume a much greater variability built in to the planning? And how do we come up with protocols that say: Well when extreme events hit, who does what, so that we can peacefully deal with the disruptions? That's the new agenda for international politics. 

Brian Hanson: And I want to get into that agenda. I want to start with combining two of the insights that you've made. One is, Josh you've talked about the fact that in many cases it's the poorer countries, island countries, that are most subject to these kinds of changes. And Simon you've talked about, these changes are being driven primarily by the activities going on in the wealthy countries. 

What is the distribution of effects? Is this that the rich countries are not going to be nearly as negatively affected, and most of the impacts are going to happen in poorer, less powerful countries? Or how should we think about that? 

Josh Busby: Well I think actually, when we think about rich countries like the United States, they're actually quite vulnerable to the effects because they have a lot to lose. So you think about the storms that buffeted the United States last year with Harvey, Irma and Maria, in succession. That cost more than $300 billion in damages. And as we've seen with recent estimates of lives lost in the wake of Maria, in excess of 3,000 deaths. 

So in proportionate terms, the countries most affected around the world will indeed be the poorest countries, in terms of the proportion of their economic losses, in terms of proportion of their population that are affected by these events. But in terms of economic losses, in absolute terms, countries like the United States, and other countries that have large coastlines like China, will indeed face very significant exposure to these kinds of events in the future. 

Simon Dalby: I think it's crucial to note that for some countries ... the small Pacific islands, and some of the Indian Ocean islands that Josh has just talked about, will simply disappear. We are facing a question of international law: What happens to people when a member of the United States, with all the citizenship rights for its citizens and so on, is simply inundated and no longer has a territory? 

Now for the small island nations, they are small as populations, relatively speaking; will fit in an average city anywhere on the planet, the small displacements there. But the bigger question is matters of sovereignty and the elimination of a nation-state. And I don't think we've stopped and thought carefully about how to handle any of that. 

With that said, sitting on my desk at the moment is Omar El Akkad's new book called "American War," which is a fictitious look to the future if we don't get serious about climate change. And of course the scenario there includes an America that doesn't have a Florida anymore, simply because it has disappeared under the waves. 

And I think we need to stop and think about the fact that there are vulnerabilities in very particular places. And if you happen to be Bolivia, you don't have a problem with rising sea levels, obviously, because you're an inland state and you're at high altitude. Although that said there, they're facing problems. La Paz has water problems, and there's a big argument with Chile about how to handle water supplies in the Andes after the grace years are gone, because they're going rapidly as a result of climate change. 

The crucial point is that, depending on where you are in the world, climate change is playing out in different ways. A Pacific island state will simply disappear, as the oceans rise. But how it plays out in other areas depends on the specific geography. That is a local situation. And that is, of course, making a general answer to your question very difficult. Because policymakers have to grapple with the particular circumstances they find themselves in, as they try to adapt to climate change. 

Brian Hanson: So this discussion sets up a question that was asked by one of our Deep Dish on Global Affairs Facebook Group listeners. And Jake Ekdahl asks, "How can poor coastal countries like Bangladesh, to talk about a specific situation, hope to withstand the impact of climate change? And do wealthier, more developed countries have an obligation to help?" 

So let's talk about specifics, and take up Jake's example. Josh, do you want to start with that? 

Josh Busby: Sure. Coastal countries like Bangladesh, they'll have to do a lot of this on their own, which is unfortunate; but I think on some level a fact of life in the international system, which is almost inherently unequal. Now they should get international assistance to address this problem, by they probably will never get enough. The kinds of things that they have to do are things that they've already started doing. 

Thinking about moving people from areas that are subject to coastal inundation; having early warning systems; they'll have to maybe experiment with salt-tolerant agricultural varieties. There are a whole host of things, some of them pretty prosaic; others will be much more of a challenge for a densely populated country like Bangladesh, new forms of livelihood. 

The extent to which international assistance comes to help them, as I said, I'm just not optimistic that the amount of resources that they're going to need are ever going to materialize. A lot of it will ultimately depend on greater cooperation regionally with their neighbors. Their strong border fences with India that make population movements which was traditionally a way that people coped with these kinds of problems, that's an option that's less available to the Bangladeshis these days. There'll be pressures between Bangladesh and their neighbors. 

Bangladesh has done amazing work to embrace the Rohingya that fled from Myanmar in the wake of the ethnic cleansing except that those refugees were then placed in very vulnerable areas that were exposed to monsoon rains. They and the international community have done heroic work to try and insulate those refugees from these kind of climate hazards. This is the kind of fundamental challenge that Bangladesh accept as a matter of course over time and I'm not sure the international community is equipped or prepared to assist them at the levels that they need. 

Brian Hanson: I want to build on this a little bit and, Simon, you may have thoughts on this as well, which is one of the things that can happen in situations like this. And Josh, you referenced it a little bit, is refugee flows. People looking to leave flooded areas for place where they can live. Is that likely to increase the chance of conflict or change the way the international community might respond to these kinds of crises? 

Simon Dalby: I think that the refugee thing again goes back to the point I was saying few minutes ago, this plays out differently in specific places. The thing that contends to get lost in all of this, is while climate change is playing out, so are dramatic social and economic changes, part of which are actually driving climate change, but they're happening simultaneously. 

The fears about massive refugee flows has been part of the discussion and it does tend to generate a policy response which is necessarily very helpful. We do need to remember that the crucial thing to making this easier to handle is slowing down the use of fossil fuels and beginning very quickly build energy systems that burn stuff quite literally because its combustion is at the heart of the whole problem of climate change. 

We are becoming an urban species. People are moving to cities very dramatically. Indeed, I looked at some of the numbers a little while ago and there was large amounts of concern about refugees being driven by climate. In Africa in particular, and Josh knows this stuff better than I do, but when you actually then looked at the projection for urbanization figures and so on, in fact, when I did the math comparing alarmist arguments about refugees with the total amount of urbanization that was happening in Africa, it turned out that all of those refugees that were supposed to be generated over the next couple of decades by climate, were less than the total amount of people that were actually urbanizing Nigeria alone. 

People are on the move, our economies are changing how people live dramatically. The key thing here is to facilitate recognizing we have to go on urbanizing and changing how people live as the environmental factors, the climate and agricultural things become less and less predictable as a back drop. 

The real fear I have is that the current assumption about fence building and that sense around Bangladesh is frankly scary, in so far as it constrains movement. And you do need to remember the most basic adaptation response of any species to change climate is to move to places that are more congenial. We've got a governance problem here where we're seeing movement as a threat whereas movement is essential response to environmental change. 

Most of the movements of urbanization happen within boundaries and within states and facilitating them, providing better water systems, providing more flexible food systems, trying to recognize that we have to all of this together is what the real policy challenge is. Climate change is making that all the more difficult because the predictions about the future are becoming less and less certain. 

Brian Hanson: So often in the news what we're hearing today is repelling of people, of the flows of people in various context whether climate-related or not. Do we see this issue, which you point out how important it is, is it being considered anywhere on the international agenda? Are there major countries that would have an opportunity to have an influence in this area actually grappling with this? 

Josh Busby: We've seen some tentative forays in this. I think New Zealand has generated some new visa classes for some of the South Pacific islanders. But it's a quite contentious issue at this moment in time. The international community hasn't really done very much to try to put this forward as an action item, ultimately because I think it's a very thorny one to disentangle. 

Brian Hanson: I'm here with Simon Dalby and Josh Busby, two experts on geopolitics and security implications of climate change. We've been talking about challenges that are created by climate change and ways to respond to these challenges. 

I'm wondering, to what extent we see major powers feeling like these kind of challenges are important them and important enough either to respond to or to cooperate over? Josh, you just mentioned New Zealand is creating a visa status. That's terrific. New Zealand's a relatively small country isolated by a lot of ocean. 

What's going on with the larger, more powerful countries? 

Josh Busby: You have twin challenges that are happening at the moment. One is the mitigation challenge of how we move ourselves off of fossil fuels and move to decarbonize the global economy by the middle of the century. So there's that process of implementation of the Paris Agreement and trying to ratchet up ambition. 

And then there's, how do we deal with the consequences of some climate change that at this point, sadly, is inevitable and that we're already facing the consequences of and how do we adapt to that? 

The former agenda of mitigation we all know how that's going. The adaptation piece is really in it's early days. Yet in terms of concrete actions that states are taking, I can say that in United States, even despite the top level change in politics and policy and Trump administration, the U.S. military remains engaged, not least of which is to think about climate change will affect military bases and military missions. And so some of that continues in important ways. 

Brian Hanson: Simon, what do you see as the most important priorities among that menu and where do you see some hope that large countries, powerful countries, are addressing these issues? 

Simon Dalby: I think that it's important to emphasize that the mitigation pieces remain job one. Getting ourselves decarbonized as fast as possible is going to make the adaption thing a bit easier. 

I think that message you just have to hammer home that one, repeatedly. In that sense, the devil is always in the details. The recent conferencing in Bangkok about how to actually implement the Paris Agreement sort of stumbled and fumbled rather than come up with some clear indications. The convening of the next [inaudible 00:19:32] Katowice in Poland in a couple of months time should be ironing out the nuts and bolts of how we do the decarbonization thing and frankly, that has been moving very slowly. 

The EU clearly, and the Germans again, have been pushing this hard, has been ahead of the game in terms of the rest of the international community on this. I look to leaders coming from other places to push this agenda ahead. What's going to be really interesting in the next decade or so is how the Chinese follow through on their boosting of solar and wind technologies in particular because they've taken a lead on that, they're producing them, they're trying to decarbonize some of their grid. I think they've breathing problems with all that smoke pollution in Beijing and other places. 

The connecting of the dots between the rest of the security agenda and energy security has been something that around the world and terrible slow to do. Energy security's been understood as reliable fossil fuel supplies to keep the global economy moving for so long that I'm trying to recognize that that's actually part of the problem and we need to understand energy security about getting ourselves off those fossil fuels and building an energy system that allows us to power our cities without using fossil fuels. That has not been at the heart of the security agenda and trying to build the connection between climate energy and security requires us to rethink, quite fundamentally, that nexus. We have been very slow to do that. 

In terms of leadership coming on that, the markets are beginning to make it clear in many states in the United States, utilities are realizing that solar and wind make imminently good economic sense. The Germans have also realized that with [inaudible 00:21:34] the transformation of their economy. But I think what has become clear in the last little while is we're going to have to do much, much more on restricting the use of fossil fuels. There's a big fight about pipelines in Canada, there's a whole series of arguments about coal mines and coal powered stations in different parts of the world. We need to look at the consumption end of it, but we also need very much to start restricting quite dramatically the use of fossil fuels. Making that link with traditional notions of security has proven very difficult, but it's becoming essential to do so if we're serious about the adaptation bit in coming years. 

Brian Hanson: Are there things that could advance that case? Are there events that could happen, crises that could happen which ... or opportunities available that could cause countries to take this even more seriously, Josh? 

Josh Busby: Well, I guess the succession of climate extremes may ultimately change the demands for policy action in countries like the United States. But as Simon suggested, we can't adapt our ways out of this problem solely, that we need to deal with the mitigation side. It's interesting to think about whether or not the politics of climate change as a mitigation challenge have become inextricably polarized on partisan grounds in this country, and yet there are places that are very exposed to climate hazards like Florida where that's starting to change, that the dynamics of this issue are not solely a democratic cause or a republican cause, it's just something that all Floridians have to face, and I think that their leaders of both parties are starting to realize that now. 

Does that get connected in a way to demands for clean energy and a move away from fossil fuels? It's a little bit hard to see right now, but I think that's partially a function of the need for political entrepreneurs to come along and say, "Yes, we need to prepare for these storms, but we also need to move to clean energy because we can't simply sort of fortress ourselves against all of these changes if the global temperature is gonna increase by five degrees fahrenheit by the end of the century, if not more." That's just intolerable. 

That's where I think we are at the moment of ... Those are the kinds of events that are likely to be more politically salient, extreme weather events. Other things like the upcoming Poland climate negotiations are important, but they don't capture the public imagination in the same way that we've seen with Hurricane Florence. 

Brian Hanson: Simon, do you see things that could catalyze action? 

Simon Dalby: The big storms, the Sandys and the Florences and the Katrinas, don't catalyze action. It's not clear what will. [inaudible 00:24:52] what the attribution studies, as they're called these days, are indicating as the warmer waters over the Atlantic in the case of hurricanes in North America and the fact that the jet stream isn't moving the way it used to, which is having the perverse affect of slowing down how these storms move, and hence increasing the flooding risk because of rainfall concentrated in particular places. 

All those connections are increasingly being clear. There's an argument about should the forecasters on TV shows actually be making these connections explicitly. I wish they would so that people actually begin to realize, "Wait a minute, we've got to change our fuel supply systems and we've got to change our energy systems, and we're forever going to deal with this." Those connections are becoming very clear from the science. They may well end up driving a whole lot more litigation as cities and states start to sue fossil fuel companies. 

What's also been getting very interesting, and even I think the Shell Oil Company recently suggested that their business model is increasingly being threatened by movements for divestment, pension fund managers, and so on beginning to actively factor in climate risks and the potential of legal action as part of the policy situation in which the big oil companies have to try to respond. We're beginning to see political shifts in places like that that may have long term consequences. It's too early to figure out where the pressure points that are likely to be most successful are. In California, had a big summit meeting, was it this week? Last week? Where it was talking about getting itself off fossil fuels by the middle of the century. That clearly needs to be done. 

It's how it is that reporters, how it is that politicians and those entrepreneurs that Josh was talking about are going to be key, telling new stories about what security means in a climate disrupted world, how they push that ahead with particular audiences is the crucial question, and frankly it's going to need imagination, it's going to need people that are willing, particularly amongst the young generation who are looking at the longer term future, to say that fossil fuels are a thing of the past, we have to look at the next economy in the future, one where we're not invested in companies that simply make everything worse as a consequence of their business models that require us to burn more stuff. 


And it's that kind of popular understanding of the need to think and act differently in the 21st century that I think is the crucial politics that we need to keep an eye on. And frankly, scholars like me are trying to push people ahead to thinking these ways because that's what's needed to respond to the new circumstances we find ourselves in. 


Josh Busby: I just want to pick up on something that was said earlier about Beijing and dirty air, and I think it signifies to me an important change that we need to come to grips with, that China's now responsible for something like 28% of global greenhouse emissions, almost twice as much as the United States. What happens in China and increasingly wider Asia with the rising emissions in India are gonna be more central to the climate challenge going forward than anywhere else. 


We can surmise about what will change American attitudes here or in the wider North American context, but really the future is in Asia, and there air pollution may be a more potent driver of change and policy momentum than climate change, because all of the rich people in Delhi and in Beijing are breathing the same air as anyone else, save in their homes when they have air purifiers. But when they're out in the world, they experience it just like everyone else, and that is a driver of political change, 'cause the middle classes will not put up with not being able to have their children go out and play outside. So, I think that is an important realization for those of us who care about this mitigation challenge is trying to help use the air pollution angle as a way to develop air pollution policies that generate co-benefits for climate change. 

So, you reduce air pollutants from coal. That delivers human health benefits and as a consequence, also generates reduction in greenhouse gases. But it's not the other way around. They're not doing it necessarily to address climate change. They're gonna be doing it to address the imminent human health needs in their part of the world, because estimates from medical professionals suggested that the health effects of air pollution were cutting off as much as five years off of people's lives in Northern China just a few years ago, and they've already started to turn that around. I think that's gonna be a more potent mechanism for helping the world move away from fossil fuels, which is gonna be the air pollution agenda. 

Brian Hanson: I want to thank you both for really an important conversation, and I like the trajectory of the conversation in that it pointed out the connections between large scale planetary changes, geopolitics, and brings it right back down into the lived experience of individuals, and these are deeply linked together, obviously, in this issue. And it is gonna be those linkages that are gonna be key to what the future holes. So, Simon Dalby from the Balsillie School of International Affairs, thank you for being here. 

Simon Dalby: You're welcome. 

Brian Hanson: Josh Busby from the LBJ School of Public Affairs, thanks for being here. 

Josh Busby: Thanks again. 

Brian Hanson: And look forward to talking to you both in the future. 

Thank you for tuning in to this episode of Deep Dish. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who express them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you like the show, please let us know by tapping the subscribe button so that you can get each new episode as it comes out. If you think you know someone who would benefit from today's show, please tap the share button and send it to them as well. If you have any questions about anything you heard today, if you want to submit questions for upcoming guests and episodes, please join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. 

This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fasio. Our audio engineer is Andy Zarnecki. Our research associate is John Cookson. I'm Brian Hanson and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.