Geopolitics don’t stop because climate change and other environmental pressures confront the global society. Cleo Paskal in her book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map offers little hope of human societies setting aside their differences to confront the common threat. Not that she’s sceptical of climate change — quite the opposite — but as a Chatham House Fellow she has a lively sense of how rooted we are in our perceived national and economic interests and how that may play out as climate change begins to bite. It won’t preclude co-operation, but it won’t exactly facilitate it either.
The first section of her book looks at the internal vulnerability of the US and other Western countries to environmental change. The West is foolish to consider itself relatively insulated from the worst effects. Katrina was a good example of the unpreparedness of the US for the sort of environmental crises likely to become more common. Damages were estimated at more than $100 billion, in a year when the spending on the Iraq war amounted to $87.3 billion. The US is not preparing itself adequately. The key organisation, the US Army Corps of Engineers failed in New Orleans. The Corps is used by politicians to steer jobs and money to their constituents, and lacks executive-branch oversight. The National Flood Insurance Program, which steps in when private insurers deem areas too risky to cover, is resulting in people continuing to live in hurricane pathways and flood zones. The military is not trained to manage repeated major domestic disasters. Voters are not made aware of some of the already unavoidable impacts of environmental change.
Europe too has its set of problems. The UK government is far ahead of the pack when it comes to assessing specific climate impacts such as flooding, but is so far not tackling them. Food and energy security are looming as major problems. Given the existing vulnerabilities in the developed world she finds it unsurprising that stability may soon hinge on the environment. Her complaint throughout the section is that shortsighted, narrow policies are undermining a home front threatened by climate and other environmental change. Those policies are also eroding the West’s position in the global balance of power.
Paskal devotes the next section of her book to changes in the Arctic environment. They may be a tragedy for the people trying to live there, but others see opportunities for resource extraction and for the much shorter transportation routes opening up for travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific. The Russian Northeast Passage has been clearing faster than the Canadian Northwest passage, providing Russia with a head start and bringing Russia and Asia much closer to each other. Melting in the frozen tundra poses infrastructure problems, some of which may be eased by a switch from pipelines to tankers. However most of her attention is focused on the Northwest passage and the failure of the US to support Canada’s bid for control over it. She sees the US preference for an international strait as bound up with the ambiguity with which the US has long regarded their northern neighbour, and thinks it runs the risk of destabilising the West. Until Canada’s claim to the Passage is recognised and defendable it is difficult for Canada to talk to other countries, including Russia, on an equal basis about the orderly development of the opportunities offered by the Passage. Instability threatens as a consequence.
The book moves to a lively section on the Asian giants India and China. Both face very serious environmental threats and both are likely to play an increasingly strong geopolitical role globally. Paskal differentiates the two countries’ handling of environmental problems. India benefits from grassroots initiatives but lacks cohesive central support. However with good management the author sees the possibility of India ending up more resilient to environmental change than many other great powers, including China. The Chinese Communist Party applies its massive levers of state to challenges, sometimes without a real grasp of on-the-ground realities; it has political will but lacks ground-level information to assess the real vulnerabilities and flexible and innovative policies to counter them. Increasingly both countries will, like the West, try to shore up home deficiencies by securing resources and geopolitical support from abroad. If the two countries muddle along allowing their competing interests to interfere with critical issues such as environmental change, there will be economic, political and security costs for everyone, including the West. Paskal considers various loose alliance arrangements which would avoid this. She has worked in India and puts some hope in the West discovering more respect for India and more ways of cooperating with her than heretofore. That’s her preferred path towards stability in a time of change.
What of the states which disappear beneath the rising sea? In a section partly given to political discussion of the manoeuverings of the powers for influence in Pacific nations Paskal asks whether the ocean territory of drowned states can remain in the ownership of their dispersed population. She discusses the possibilities in international law, which she acknowledges at base is largely a matter of international politics. Bangladesh has already achieved a fixed coastline under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. Retaining ownership of the exclusive economic zone by those whose homeland has disappeared could soften the impact of relocation, allowing the refugees to come into a new home as a kind of state within a state with something to offer their host, rather than as downtrodden and dislocated. The Maldives and India is offered as an example which could work to the benefit of both.
This is a book about adaptation to environmental change. Not that the author is ruling out mitigation of worsening effects, but she recognises that the impacts already being felt or in the pipeline represent a pervasive attack on the status quo. It is her view that no country is prepared. Sudden shocks can find the developed nations among the most wanting of protective measures. She compares the shambles of Katrina in the US with the way Mumbai coped with a great flood around the same time, and the relatively successful evacuation procedures in China in the summer of 2006 when eight typhoons hit the southeast coast. Nations can learn from one another. Economies which don’t have the political will and don’t come up with good basic engineering, long-term planning, and sustained funding, will suffer. More environmentally adaptive countries will rise, as will countries with less expensive infrastructures that can take hits and still stay functional, like India.
Paskal’s book is spirited and interesting. Her background in journalism probably contributes to the light touch with which she conveys some potentially heavy geopolitical material. Her insistence that climate and other environmental change demands a much higher level of preparedness than we have yet seen is plain commonsense for anyone understands the changes that are currently well under way. Her perceptions of how those changes will also help shape future geopolitical developments are worth attention, though I can’t help fearing that the disruptions may be more profound than she or any of us would wish.