Climate Security and its Geopolitical Implications

Today, a universal challenge is emerging that we must urgently address. This challenge has unfortunately been understudied and only been given marginal attention thus far: climate security –  or more precisely, the geopolitical implications of climate change. Indeed, climate change has become a threat multiplier that is exacerbating volatile situations around the world with dire geopolitical implications.

Key issues of our time such as cross-border migration, conflicts over water, power politics, as well as civil and interstate wars are more deeply intertwined with climate change than previously assumed.

For many, climate change poses an existential threat while for others, it may become an advantage. Two flashpoints in particular stand out:

1. The Arctic and Greenland

Rising global temperatures are melting our polar ice caps. Over the last three decades, the Arctic has experienced some of the most rapid climate change developments on Earth, almost twice the global average. Sea ice has declined by about 10%, and NASA’s 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 recognising the potential to unlock vast tracts of natural resources such as oil, natural gas, and minerals. The Artic accounts for about 13% of undiscovered oil and 30% of undiscovered gas.

The opening up of the Northeast, Northwest and other passages due to the melting ice gives rise to new questions revolving around who has the right to control the seaways or to exploit the vast undiscovered natural 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 US) as well as other actors such as NATO and China. 

Recently, President Trump played with the idea of buying Greenland. While his proposal caused global astonishment and garnered widespread ridicule, it was not just an outlandish idea. Greenland has long had a militarily important location between Russia and North America.

In 1940, the US seized control of Greenland to prevent the island from being used as a springboard for an invasion of North America. During the Cold War, Greenland’s strategic geographic location was used by the US to track Soviet submarines, to place strategic bombers and later missiles that could attack Soviet targets, as well as for missile early warning radars at the American air base in Thule. 

Today, Greenland remains as important as ever for the US and NATO because of two new challenges:

Challenge 1: Russia’s enhanced military capabilities

In November 2019, Russia conducted a major military exercise in the region involving 12,000 soldiers, five nuclear submarines, 15 warships, 100 aircrafts, as well as the launch of the world’s first “combat icebreaker”. Moreover, Russia has five nuclear-powered icebreakers, currently the only country to have any, and it is also constructing the world’s northern-most airbase in Nagurskoye, which will give Moscow the ability to strike Thule Air Base and thus cause significant damage to the US’ missile defence and early warning system. In geopolitical terms, Russia’s increased assertiveness in the Arctic has two key aims: 

  • to gain a strategic military position with strike capabilities against North America and other potential adversaries, and 
  • to bolster Russia’s claim to around 1.3 million square km of the Arctic. 

Ultimately, the symbolism of Russia’s activities in the region is not lost on the international community and could potentially become a conflict hotspot in the years ahead as the melting ice renders the region increasingly attractive.  

Challenge 2: China’s growing economic clout 

The opening up of the Arctic has also become of interest to countries not usually associated with the region. In its 2018 white paper, China launched its Polar Silk Road initiative, which aligns Beijing’s Arctic interests with the Belt and Road Initiative. In the paper, 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 as well as commercial activities including shipping. China has already sought to project its economic influence through commercial forays in Greenland. Chinese private and state-owned companies have invested in mining projects, a Chinese investment company was interested in buying a former naval station, and in 2017 the Chinese government applied for permission to build a satellite receiving station. As trade starts to pick up when the melting ice opens up the seaways, it is likely that China will attempt to increase investments in the region. Eventually, Chinese capital could make up a significant share of the island’s economy, giving Beijing leverage that may be used to pursue not only commercial but also geopolitical interests.

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

New Zealand Scott Base in the Ross Sea
Antarctica: New Zealand Scott Base in the Ross Sea © Dr Regina Eisert

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 is already heating up between the US, Russia and China. These countries are seeking to position themselves for when the Antarctic Treaty provision that bans mining might change in 2048, the year the ban is up for review. While the interest to exploit 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 2018, Cape Town faced such severe water shortages that it even began preparations for a “Day Zero”, the point at which the city’s municipal water supply would be shut down. 

The city thankfully managed to avert the crisis this time. In the future, countries under severe water stress such as South Africa could become major importers of water from Antarctica.

The US’, Russian and Chinese interest is not limited to the potential natural resources available, but also extends to the continent’s geopolitical significance. All three countries already have critical infrastructures in place to aid their Global Positioning Systems (GPS) or, in the case of China, the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS). Having a ground station near the South Pole may increase the accuracy of global satellite navigation systems. As more and more land becomes available due to climate change, the likelihood of other installations – including military installations – is likely to increase as various countries recognise the monetary and strategic value that is being unlocked and start laying claims to both land and sea territories around the South Pole. 

Such a development could be of particular concern to states that are within aircraft range, including Australia, South Africa and Argentina. Already in 1955, Australia’s 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 to maintain “ Antarctica’s freedom from strategic and/or political confrontation”; and to be “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.

Conclusion

Whether talking about food security, water shortages, rising temperatures, or extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, links are being made between a changing climate and security. And it is truly a global problem. Emissions produced in the US lead to melting the icecaps in the Arctic, which in turn is detrimental to Pacific island states. 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. 

Comprehensive strategies need to be developed in this relatively new field to respond to climate-induced security threats and geopolitical instability both nationally and around the world. The Paris Agreement is a good first step in pushing us to commit to curbing emissions and drafting climate adaptation action plans. But pledges and promises alone are not enough. We need to step up and turn them into concrete action.


Biography

Prof Pflueger is the Director of the European Centre for Climate, Energy and Resource Security (EUCERS) at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He has previously served as a press secretary to the former German President Richard von Weizsaecker. Further, he was a Member of the German Bundestag (1990-2006), Chairman of the Bundestag Committee on the Affairs of the European Union (1998-2004) and Deputy Minister for Defence in the first Merkel Government

(2005/06). Since September 2009, he is Professor for International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. He is also non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Energy and Environment Program and Senior Advisor to the World Energy Council’s Global Gas Centre. Friedbert Pflueger has his own consultancy in Berlin/Erbil and is Senior Adviser for Roland Berger Strategy Consultants. He publishes frequently on current energy and resource security issues.

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Analysis

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