10 June 2011
CLIMATE CHANGE AND GEOPOLITICS
Lt. Gen. Giovanni Marizza
Italian Atlantic Committee
Ladies and gentlemen good afternoon.
Since we are speaking of Geopolitics, let me start by recalling Napoleon.
Just before the battle of Waterloo he made an incorrect forecast, saying “Wellington is a bad General, I foresee victory before lunch time”. But at the end of the day, according to our school books, he was defeated by the Anglo-Prussian army. In truth, he didn’t know that he was actually defeated by a volcano that erupted in Indonesia two months earlier.
Volcano Tambora, on the island of Sumbawa, some 1.000 kilometers south of Jakarta, was 4.000 meters high before the catastrophic eruption and only 1.000 meters after. The heavy ashes produced by the explosion covered 2.5 million square kilometers and killed 100.000 people. The light ashes were propelled into the atmosphere and stratosphere and pushed by the winds up to the other side of the world, positioning over Western Europe, the North Atlantic and Northern America (surprisingly enough, the same area envisaged by the Washington Treaty in 1949). They caused low temperatures, huge clouds, heavy rainshowers, and thunderstorms, which resulted in the loss of crops, famine, migration. The so-called “year without summer” was beginning, a period with several serious consequences in 1815 and 1816, and Waterloo was just one among them. On the battlefield Napoleon was not able to employ his best tools: the cavalry and the artillery. Had that volcano not erupted in Indonesia two months earlier, maybe the final result of that battle and the history itself perhaps would have been different.
This is just to give you an example of how changes in the weather can influence Geopolitics.
To counter those influences, the human beings had a difficult job in the past and they will have an even more difficult job in the future. Recalling another example, 150 years after the “year without summer”, in 1965 there was the “year without monsoon”. As a consequence, India lost its yearly amount of rice and millions of people were starving. The problem was solved by the USA, when President Lyndon B. Johnson decided to give India one fifth of the American corn reserves. But it will be very difficult to replicate this commendable action in the future, since a considerable percentage of world’ crops have been devoted to biofuels.
NATO has been wise enough to consider also climate change within the future challenges depicted in the New Strategic Concept, along with terrorism, piracy, cyber security and energy security. In fact, a new discipline is emerging: resource security, comprising all security matters coming from the availability (or non-availability) of energy resources, water and food. Now, it’s time to implement the theory correctly foreseen by the Strategic Concept, keeping in mind that the future threats and challenges cannot be underestimated, starting with global warming.
Within this panel we don’t have to examine the technical aspect of the climate change, and global warming in particular, let’s only recall that the emission in the atmosphere of carbon dioxide produced by the human activities can affect and accelerate the global warming.
Similarly, we don’t have to consider the legal aspect of it and the several efforts produced by the mankind by organising almost yearly summits, conferences, workshops everywhere in the world from Rome to Kyoto and from Rio de Janeiro to Ottawa, signing treaties, accords and protocols, which at times contradict one another.
Let’s only focus on the geopolitical aspect of climate change and global warming in particular, underlining the main possible consequences of the melting of the polar icecaps.
The first one will be the rising of the sea level. According to some forecasts, if the raising follows current trends, it is foreseeable that at the middle of this century some islands of the Indian and Pacific Ocean, such as the Maldives or Tuvalu, will disappear under the waves, causing a flow of millions of “climatic refugees”. Who will take care of them? Just the willing states according to some analysts, or the major producers of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases according to others, proportionally to the quantity of the emitted gases. But this will have different impacts on rich and poor countries, amplifying the differences among them, with possible tensions, contrasts and instability.
A second consequence will be the opening of new communication lines, like the “North-western passage”, which will spare thousands of kilometers of sea travel between Europe and the Far East, saving also time, money and pollution. Also some controversial situations could also arise, for example USA and Canada don’t have the same vision about the legal status of the “new” waters (national or international waters?), but NATO, to which both countries belong, could provide a proper forum where to discuss and solve such different points of view.
Similarly, also the “North-eastern passage” is opening, providing the same opportunities to spare distances, time, money and pollution. Last summer, for the first time a German ship travelled along that passage from the Baltic to Japan without being helped by ice-breakers.
This reminds me of another historical example: the Russian-Japanese war more than one century ago. After the destruction of the Russian Pacific Fleet, a new fleet was established in St Petersburg, and it took one year to reach the Sea of Japan through the North Sea and the Atlantic, circumnavigating Africa and the Arabic peninsula and crossing the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits. When the Russian Fleet arrived in the Sea of Japan, it was in the worst possible conditions: the crews were tired and demoralised, the ships were damaged and the Japanese fleet triumphed again. Should the North-eastern passage have been available at that time, maybe the result of that battle (and the following history) would have been different.
The third consequence of the melting of the northern polar icecap will be the availability of new natural resources. In 2008 the US Geological Survey estimated the Arctic energy resources at 90 billion barrels of oil and 47 trillion cubic meters of natural gas. Those resources will be extremely useful to the five current Arctic littoral states: USA, Russia, Canada, Denmark and Norway, but they will have to clearly define an agreed partition plan concerning the future available waters by 2014, which will be delivered to the UN, which is currently holding the provisional sovereignty over the Arctic.
In the foreseeable future, the recipe to soften and solve similar problems is multilateralism. From this perspective, again the Alliance could provide proper forum (NATO itself, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the NATO-Russia Council, to whom all the involved countries belong) in which to discuss and solve bilateral and multilateral problems.
But new geopolitical actors could emerge in the Arctic scenario. A possible new geopolitical actor could be Greenland, should that country become independent from Denmark, an hypothesis not to be excluded in the near future. And China cannot be underestimated. After having lost Siberia in 1860 as a consequence of the “unequal treaties”, the Chinese presence in Siberia is constantly rising, favoured by several factors like the over-populated China and the under-populated Siberia, the need of manpower in Russia, the different growth ratio in Russia and China, respectively very low and very high, and the one-child-per-family policy, compulsory for Chinese people in China, not certainly abroad.
As a consequence, some Siberian towns and provinces already have a Chinese majority and if this trend continues, in 20 years time all of Siberia will have a Chinese majority. Since the fight between the two contrasting principles of the intangibility of the borders and the self-determination of the peoples has been won by the second one, we can imagine in perspective, as a possible consequence, another new Arctic littoral state, whose capital city is Beijing. This explains why in 2008 China asked (and was granted) to become an observer on the Arctic Council.
Approaching the conclusion, climate change in general and global warming in particular will certainly affect in the future areas like the African and the Asian continents. We cannot forget that the current uprisings in Northern Africa and in the Middle East have been provoked by the rising of the price of bread, determined by a termical anomaly in Central Asia in the summer of 2010 (unusual hot temperatures that caused a decrease in corn production).
Africa and Asia will be certainly important, but the most sensitive area will be the Arctic. Recently we observed some very telling facts, which show the growing interest for that region of many geopolitical actors in terms of national states and international organisations:
-Russia in August 2007, through its bathyscaphe “Mir 1”, deposited its flag under the polar icecap on the Northern Pole claiming its sovereignty over that point and over the surrounding one million square kilometers. One year later a Russian report didn’t exclude a conflict for the Arctic energy resources. In 2009 the Russian Security Council announced the establishment of an Arctic task force supported by a network of military bases and an intelligence structure. In March 2010 the Russian President Medvedev charged his government with the task of establishing a satellite system with the purpose to control the Arctic (the first satellite of the constellation is supposed to be launched in 2014),
- the United States of America, in a POTUS directive of 2009, said that “the USA is an Arctic power, with strong interests in the area”. Last February the US Coast Guard asked 12.3 billion USD for the next fiscal year in order to enhance its presence in the Arctic region,
- in March 2010 Norway begun planning to build air and submarine bases at Bodo, Evenes and Orland,
- NATO in January 2009 held at Rejkiavik a seminar about the security perspectives in the Extreme North,
- the European Union in 2008, through a report of the European Commission named “EU and the Arctic region”, defined the Arctic as a region of potential instability.
In conclusion, as far as the Arctic is concerned, there are also some encouraging signs. For example in 2010, after 40 years of negotiations, Russia and Norway signed a bilateral accord for the delimitation of the respective areas of influence over the Arctic. As another example, in May 2011 in Greenland the Arctic littoral states have signed an agreement for the common Search and Rescue, activity to be co-ordinated by a combined command and control center.
But there are also many signs of tension and attrition leading to a worst-case scenario with the militarisation of the Arctic, in which a new Cold War could eventually erupt. NATO can do much in trying to avoid this scenario, because it would be extremely disappointing to have a “Cold” War as a consequence of the Global “Warming”.