The Geopolitics of Climate Change

Excerpt from The Politics of Climate Change, by Lord Anthony Giddens (Polity Press, 2009). Reprinted with permission from the author.

Chapter 9: The Geopolitics of Climate Change

Discussions of international relations and climate change tend to be of two kinds. On the one hand, there are many works about the mechanics of reaching international agreements to contain emissions. On the other, a growing number of studies seek to analyse the implications of climate change for geopolitics. I argue in this chapter that we have to bring these two sets of concerns much closer together than they are at the moment. Once more, energy – especially oil and struggles centred upon it – supplies one of the main points of connection.

It might seem that responding to climate change will intrinsically contribute to international collaboration. Yet the processes and interests promoting division are strong.[1] The melting of the Arctic ice provides a good example. When the area was just an ice field, there was considerable international cooperation over the activities carried out there, which were mainly of a scientific nature. The fact that navigation across the Arctic is becoming increasingly possible, and that major new oil, gas and mineral resources might become available, has led to divisions of interest and to international friction, fortunately so far of a confined nature.

Climate change issues – especially in conjunction with developing scarcities of energy – could become both militarized and dominated by security risks. The result could be a progressive deterioration of international cooperation, where security is increasingly seen as divisible. What should be an overriding goal of reducing emissions could fall prey to a competitive struggle for resources, exacerbating already existing tensions and divisions. The leaders of states, or groups of states, could exploit climate change to their own sectional ends. Several different paths to violent conflict are imaginable. For instance, political leaders might use climate change-induced strains to gain or retain power in internal struggles – for example, migrants might be used as scapegoats in such power bids. In volatile areas of the world, a country weakened by the consequences of climate change might be attacked by its neighbours seeking to gain advantage from the country’s problems.

A further possibility is that armed conflicts could occur as states try to gain a hold over resources where demand is outstripping supply – the most likely path if worst-case scenarios of climate change were to prevail. This could happen if the world economy becomes ‘renationalized’ with a widespread return to protectionism. Yet another possibility is that ‘subsistence conflicts’ – of the sort that has devastated Dafur – might become commonplace. Groups living on a level close to bare subsistence could clash as their means of livelihood start to evaporate, drawing in military ‘protectors’ of one sort or another. Each of the above paths could overlap or intertwine.[2]

Although the sources of the bloodshed, starvation and homelessness provoked by the conflict in Dafur are complex, the situation there has been called the ‘first climate change war’, since the drying up of Lake Chad is one of the factors that contributed to the migration which led to it.[3] Given this influence, we see again a situation in which climate change intersects with energy resources. China is actively involved in Sudan because of the oil and minerals the country possesses. The Chinese have supplied arms and training to the government forces and for some while refused to join the UN and other major nations in condemning the role of the Sudanese government in the sorry events.

It has become commonplace to point out that most conflicts today, in contrast to the struggles of the twentieth century, derive from weak rather than strong states. However, much will also depend on how robust the links, connections and mutual interests of core regional states and groups of states prove to be. ‘Pivotal states’ are nations which have a significant influence on a region as a whole. If they are stable and economically successful, they tend to have a mollifying effect on that region. Conversely, if they run into difficulties, these might spill over to affect the whole surrounding area. Such countries include Brazil and Mexico, South Africa and Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan and South Korea. Of course, if major setbacks were to occur in very large countries such as China or India, the reverberations would be that much more disruptive.

The US is already starting to see the world through the prism of a struggle for energy resources against the backdrop of damage inflicted by climate change. The main focus of US strategic and military planning, according to a recent official report, will henceforth be on a competition for resources, a competition the Pentagon sees as already under way. The global reach that China is seeking to establish, it argues, is driven by the demands of its economy for raw materials rather than by any specific ideological outlook. China’s growing influence in the Middle East and Africa is a matter of particular concern.[4] Russia’s return to geopolitical prominence has been driven almost entirely by the rise prior to 2008 in the prices of oil, gas and industrial minerals. The attention now devoted to resource scarcity, Michael Klare has observed, ‘represents a qualitative shift in US thinking’, prompted ‘not by an optimistic faith in America’s capacity to dominate the world economy but by a largely pessimistic outlook regarding the future availability of vital resources’.[5]

This concern has impelled a return to investment in sea-power. The US, the Defense Department emphasizes, must be able to patrol the main sea routes of the world in order to ensure its national security.[6] Overall, 75 per cent of the world’s oil and 90 per cent of traded manufactured goods are transported by sea. In its budget proposal for 2009, the US government outlined a comprehensive new programme for investment in nuclear-power aircraft carriers, destroyers carrying heavy anti-missile capability, submarines and other combat ships. The existing fleet is to be redeployed with greater emphasis on the prime routes through which most raw materials pass.

Not long ago, most US military bases were located in Western Europe, South Korea and Japan. Over the past few years, a transfer from such areas to East-Central Europe, Central and Southwest Asia, and parts of Africa has begun. These regions contain states deemed to be supporting terrorism, but they are also home to more than three-quarters of the oil and gas reserves in the world and a large percentage of those of uranium, copper and cobalt. [7] At least some of the bases earmarked to have a permanent presence in Iraq are there in order to protect oil installations, as well as to provide training for police and army units acting against insurgents.

China and Russia are building their own security networks, in a self-conscious challenge to US dominance. As already mentioned, China’s involvement in Sudan has arguably contributed to the bloodshed in that country. The country is also involved in North Africa, Angola, Chad and Nigeria. It has become one of the main suppliers of military equipment to some of these states. Its development and military advisers compete with those coming from the US. In Central and East Asia, Russia and China have formed a counterpart to NATO, in the shape of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a large military alliance. Its component states have made a strong push to assert influence over resource-rich countries. One of those countries, Kazakhstan, is a member of the alliance, together with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

An illusory world community?

Just at the time when the world needs more effective governance, international institutions look weaker than they have been for some years. The United Nations has played a vital role in the struggle against climate change, particularly in the shape of the IPCC, which has been the major influence propelling international concern about global warming. Yet the UN has few resources of its own, and can be paralysed by the actions of blocs of nations, or even single nations, especially on the Security Council. A more multipolar world could, of course, provide a better balance for cooperation, but it could just as easily produce serious divisions and conflicts with no arbiter to resolve them.

We seem to be seeing a return to a form of authoritarian nationalism, prominent among some of the key players on the world scene, most notably China and Russia, but including many smaller oil-rich nations too. Together with the policies of the Bush administration – which to some extent sparked that return – the international system has been redefined in terms of power and military capability. The burst of enthusiasm at the turn of the century that heralded a new world order based on international agencies rather than nations, and upon collaboration between nations rather than traditional sovereignty, seems already to have gone into reverse.

Discussing such changes, the influential writer on global politics, Robert Kagan, speaks of a ‘return to normality’.[8] The title of his most recent book is The Return of History and the End of Dreams. The dreams he is talking about were those of creating a new kind of international order following the end of the Cold War, and, more generally, with the advance of globalization. They were about the shrinking importance of the nation-state, the deepening of international collaboration, the disappearance of ideological conflicts and the freeing up of commerce and communications. The European Union seemed in the forefront of these transformations, pioneering a mode of organization that is not just international but genuinely transnational.

‘It was all a mirage’, he says.[9] The nation-state remains as strong as ever, while competition between the great powers has returned. The major nations are struggling with one another for influence and prestige. China and Russia, in particular, are seeking to assert themselves, and both see international relations through the prism of great power rivalries. In each case there is a strong connection with energy. Russia’s quest to return to great power status is based on its large oil and gas resources, while China is searching for energy supplies to sustain and fuel its continuing growth.

The long-standing conflict between liberalism and autocracy has re-emerged, coupled with ‘an even older struggle’, between radical Islam and modernity. Two of the largest developing countries, India and Brazil, are democracies. However, China and Russia are not, and are explicitly marked by a belief in authoritarian leadership as the condition of effective growth, as well as of containing the possibilities of division and fragmentation which each society faces. Prime Minister Putin’s notion of ‘sovereign democracy’ is all about creating popular support for decisive leadership while expanding the sphere of Russia’s international influence from the low point it reached in the 1990s.

The member-states of the EU, Kagan says, placed a gigantic bet at that period, that economic interdependence and the collaboration of nations would triumph over traditional concepts of sovereignty. They cut down on military spending, in the belief that the power of example would win out over the power of armed force. The EU, its leaders reasoned, has served as a vehicle for the integration of a growing number of states in Western – and now Central and Eastern – Europe into a transnational system. Why shouldn’t the same model be successfully applied elsewhere?

For a brief while, the chances of success looked good. Regional associations were formed in several different parts of the world. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) spanned the US, Canada and Mexico; a counterpart, MERCOSUR, emerged in South America; in Asia, several nations got together to form ASEAN. Yet these organizations have remained no more than loose trading groups. The EU, Kagan concludes, has lost its bet. Russia has responded with traditional forms of power to blunt EU influence in the ex-Soviet states that border it. Heavily dependent upon Russia for its oil and gas supplies – as discussed in chapter 2 – the Union has proved an easy target for a resurgent Russia, which has had no problems dividing its member-states and concluding bilateral energy deals with some of them.

According to Kagan, the decline of the United Nations and other such international organizations is terminal: he speaks of the ‘demise of the international community’. The UN Security Council, which had a brief moment of cogency just after the Cold War, ‘is slipping back into its long coma’.[10] It has been undermined by the division between the democracies and the autocracies. The scramble for energy is one of the driving forces of this division.

Kagan suggests that a ‘Concert of Democracies’ should be set up, bringing together the democratic nations from the developed and developing worlds. Its role would be an interventionist one. The strength of the autocratic countries, he says, is in some ways more apparent than real. Unlike in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when democracy was the exception, China, Russia and other authoritarian states live in a world where it is preponderant. Hence they face problems of legitimacy that cannot simply be ignored, or not for long. Yet the democratic countries cannot expect to exert an influence just because of the values and ideas they represent. Quoting Hans Morgenthau, Kagan concludes that we should not imagine that at some juncture ‘the final curtain would fall and the game of power politics would no longer be played’.

How far this type of analysis is correct will make an enormous difference to the world’s chances of resolving the issues of climate change and energy security. Great powers acting in the traditional way treat resources in terms of a zero-sum game. If Kagan is right in his portrayal of the current state of international affairs, there is little likelihood of avoiding a battle for resources. As it deepens, it could very well lead to armed conflict, a potentially terrible prospect if nuclear states become involved. The UN would be powerless to intervene, since it would be rendered impotent by the very conflicts it was supposed to help overcome.

Thankfully, what Kagan says is valid only to a limited degree. Take the case of the United Nations first. It would be difficult to deny that the record of the UN since 1989 has been distinctly patchy, as even its strongest supporters concede. David Hannay, formerly Britain’s permanent representative at the body, has spoken of the early 1990s as ‘the crest of the wave’ in terms of the UN’s successes, ‘the moment when it was possible to hope that the organization was set on a new path, destined to become an effective component of the system of collective security’.[11]


[1] Peter Halden, The Geopolitics of Climate Change (Stockholm: Swedish Defence Research agency, 2007).
[2] Ibid., pp. 150–8.
[3] See Gerard Prunier, Dafur, the Ambiguous Genocide (London: Hurst, 2005).
[4] US Department of Defense, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China (Washington, DC: Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2006).
[5] Michael Klare, ‘The New Geopolitics of Energy’, The Nation (19 May 2008), p. 3. See also the same author’s Rising Powers, Shrinking Planet (New York: Holt, 2008).
[6] Department of the Navy, A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 2007).
[7] Klare, ‘The New Geopolitics of Energy’.
[8] Robert Kagan, The Return of History and the End of Dreams (London: Atlantic, 2008).
[9] Ibid., p. 3.
[10] Ibid., p. 77.
[11] David Hannay: New world Disorder (London: Tauris, 2008), p. 75.

Excerpted from The Politics of Climate Change by Anthony Giddens. Copyright © Anthony Giddens, 2009. All rights reserved.

Anthony Giddens is former Director of the London School of Economics, a Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and a member of the British House of Lords. He has honorary degrees or comparable awards from 21 universities. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the Russian Academy of Science and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He was the BBC Reith Lecturer in 1999, and was awarded the ‘Spanish Nobel Prize’, the Prince of Asturias Award, in 2002. His textbook Sociology has sold over a million copies. According to Google Scholar, Anthony Giddens is the most widely cited sociologist in the world. His many books include The Constitution of Society, Modernity and Self-Identity, Beyond Left and Right, The Third Way and Europe in the Global Age. His most recent major work is The Politics of Climate Change. His books have been translated into more than 40 languages.

Anthony Giddens: The Politics of Climate Change

Lord Anthony Giddens on the politics of climate change

The politics of climate change in the US – TechKnow

Be sure to ‘like’ us on Facebook


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here