LUIZA CH. SAVAGE. How Russia and China are preparing to exploit a warming planet

Hurricanes, floods, and wildfires aside, climate change is delivering another threat: a remaking of geopolitics that stands to empower some of America’s adversaries and rivals.

As Arctic ice melts, Russia stands to gain access to oil and gas fields historically locked beneath northern ice — and is building up capability to launch cruise missiles from newly navigable waters to threaten America’s coastlines.

As polar seaways open up, China is eyeing a new “Polar Silk Road” — shorter shipping routes that could cut weeks off of shipping times from Asia to Europe.

And as drought drives more farmers and herders off their lands, extremist groups in Africa and the Middle East are finding fresh recruits.

These are just some of the ways climate change stands to reshape the power dynamics between nations that emerged from interviews for POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast.

Climate change is “making all of our challenges — whether it’s terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, violent extremism or great power competition between China and Russia — that much more challenging,” said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense who led studies of climate impacts on national security for the Center for Naval Analyses.

Some of the biggest power shifts are around the Arctic, which Goodman called “ground zero for the nexus of national security and climate change. In our lifetime, a whole new ocean has opened up because with climate change the sea ice is retreating, the oceans are warming and the permafrost is collapsing.”

A global quest for resources is already underway in the Arctic, said Goodman, now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Polar Institute. “There are thought to be vast stores of fossil fuels, oil and gas and minerals across the Arctic that have not yet been tapped. Russia is doing so today across its vast Arctic coastline with the help of China,” she said.

Russia is vying for control of Arctic seaways and has built some 40 icebreakers — ships that can channel through ice. “Russia envisions under Putin a northern sea route that is essentially a toll road that requires Russian Arctic escorts in the form of icebreakers or other patrol boats, escorting not only the Chinese but others who want to ship across the Arctic,” she said. By contrast, the U.S. has only two icebreakers, she said.

Meanwhile, China, which is not a polar country, has launched aggressive Arctic diplomacy and gained non-voting observer status for itself at the Arctic Council, the international forum that addresses policy in the Arctic. Last year, China issued its first arctic policy.

“It envisions a Polar Silk Road that stretches from Shanghai across potentially to Hamburg and Reykjavik and parts of Europe across Russia’s vast northern sea route hugging the Russian coastline and both exploiting the energy resources there, potential transport opportunities, shipping, research,” Goodman said.

President Donald Trump’s interest in buying Greenland was driven in part by resources newly available because of melting ice. The Danish government quickly rebuffed the idea, but the incident could be seen as an acknowledgment of climate change from a leader who has derided global warming as a hoax.

Climate change poses additional security consequences. U.S. military bases at home and abroad have already been strained by destructive hurricanes and flooding that have cost billions of dollars to repair — and extreme weather has stretched thin the disaster response capabilities of the military. When hurricanes hit Florida and Puerto Rico and the East Coast of the United States in 2017 and 2018, the military had to slow the flow of forces to Afghanistan in order to be able to provide relief at home. Meanwhile, troops have to operate in higher temperatures across Asia and the Middle East, where temperatures now regularly are over 100 degrees and face a broader array of infectious diseases.

Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base incurred billions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018 when winds tore through the roofs of hangars and destroyed buildings. Congress has in recent years directed the Department of Defense to address the climate resilience of military bases and climate risks to operating forces.

“The Department of Defense is beginning to integrate these risks into its strategy plans and plans,” Goodman said.

Another geopolitical threat is migration — whether from low-lying island states that stand to lose fresh water drinking supply or coastal areas susceptible to typhoons. Prolonged drought is believed to contribute to conflicts in the Middle East.

“We know that in Syria the prolonged drought that preceded the civil unrest there was a contributing factor to that unrest, which became instability, which led to the violent extremism, which has become the deadliest civil war in modern times,” she said.

Elsewhere, drought-prone countries are buying up land to grow water-intensive crops in what is called the “virtual water” trade. For example, China has been buying agricultural land in the U.S. and Europe to harvest water-intensive crops such as alfalfa.

Simon Dalby, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, told the podcast that the geopolitical consequences can be difficult to predict. He cited the impacts of a 2010 drought in Russia which led the Kremlin to limit wheat exports, setting off a chain reaction.

“International markets panicked. The price went up quickly — and it is indeed suggested that in fact part of the Arab Spring was partly a response to those price fluctuations. So political disturbances across the Middle East might indeed have been related to the drought in Russia, which was probably at least partly caused by climate fluctuations. So this is where we see how dramatically the global economy and the ecology is interconnected,” he said.

The world will need emergency stockpiles of food and disaster relief aid, he said.

And, he noted, while warming may open up certain regions to new agriculture, unpredictable rainfall and flooding can wreak havoc on crops. “This is much trickier than simply saying, ‘Oh because it’s warmer, Russia will do better.’ It’s not that simple,” he said.

Climate change is transforming agriculture itself.

Increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ramps up photosynthesis and makes crops grow more quickly. But the phenomenon has been shown to reduce nutrient density in some crops, like rice. Researchers have begun studying how many people might be at risk for iron or zinc deficiency as a result.

Like governments, businesses are studying how to address long-term risks to their business models, said Gary Litman, vice president for global initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“We definitely need to prepare, to adjust, to adapt to climate change to mitigate the impact of the industry on climate,” he said. But he added that it’s part of a broader pressure on companies to address long-term environmental sustainability and compete for increasingly scarce resources. “We’re dealing with finite resources. There’s not going to be more cobalt on this planet. There is not going to be new soil on this planet. There is not going to be a new oxygen on this planet,” he said.

He noted that advanced technologies, such as batteries, require rare metals. “You cannot address the climate issue — you cannot prepare, for example, for the rise of the oceans — if you don’t invest in new construction materials. How do you build the dam? If you use the current resources, you’ll run out of gravel before you build anything. If you don’t have access to reliable supply of cobalt, you won’t be able to switch to e-mobility,” he said.

This article was first published on POLITICO on 29 August 2019.

Luiza Ch. Savage is the executive director of cross-platform content for POLITICO.


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3 Responses to LUIZA CH. SAVAGE. How Russia and China are preparing to exploit a warming planet

  1. Avatar michael lacey says:

    How Russia and China are preparing to exploit a warming planet!

    How the West created the warming planet and exploited the rest of the planet!
    1000 years of European imperialism is coming to an end!

    Both US Americans and Europeans will, for the very first time in their history, have to behave like civilized people, which means that their traditional “model of development” (ransacking the entire planet and robbing everybody blind ) will have to be replaced by one in which these US Americans and Europeans will have to work !

    But still – there is hope. IF the Neocons don’t blow up the planet, and IF mankind is given enough time to study its history and understand where it took the wrong turn, then maybe, just maybe, there is hope.

    I think that we can all find solace in the fact that no matter how ugly, stupid and evil the AngloZionist Empire is, no other empire will ever come to replace it.

    In other words, should we survive the current empire (which is by no means certain!) then at least we can look forward to a planet with no empires left, only sovereign countries.

    And oh yes the climate issue will still be there what ever happens!

  2. Avatar Rex Williams says:

    If “exploit” is the right word, at least such nations are giving time, thought and resource planning to the inevitable, that is the long term effects of global warming. It is real.
    Countries like Australia, despite being engaged in a drought which should even allow a child to see the effect on agricultural products on which we depend so greatly, have shown little interest in taking this matter seriously. Wait until all our diary products are imported from New Zealand. Our grain supplies from other countries as well if we can find any growers prepared to sell, with an additional problem such as meat currently being priced out of the market for local consumption.
    Today, up to $40 for lamb chops as a guide.

    As for “exploiting” an opportunity, don’t expect too much of that out here. That requires planning ahead and we all know as the author has said that Russians and Chinese do it but it is not part of our make up. Just four examples being…….

    -billions of dollars on submarines on order with diesel fuel systems
    -gas exports shipped overseas owned by foreign organisations while Australians can hardly meet the costs of heating.
    -live cattle and sheep sold to all and sundry internationally while meat prices have blown out, almost beyond imagination over the past two years. Then there are the “live” cattle and sheep exports.
    – the ridiculous example of water supplies going to cotton farming, legally or illegally, while towns downstream go without water for crops in serious drought conditions.

    To top it off, the majority ownership of substantial resource export companies to the detriment to our own Australia, only to get worse as climate change expands and our dollar keeps losing value, daily, as it will.

    More time could produce more examples. They are everywhere. Add to that, a government that is sitting on its hands, with very limited parliamentary skills or imagination and few, if any, examples of intelligent policies or planning. The Captain of this slowly sinking ship, a glib marketeer with years to go before he can and should be replaced with a competent person.

    Now to read last weekend that Australia has become the second largest importer of military weapon systems next to Saudi Arabia, Saudi being a country with NO problem with balance of payments. Twenty-five million people; drought affected and extremely vulnerable; historical poor planning; job availability decreasing and unemployment rising; the rich to poor ratio increasing daily and to top it off, antagonising our major trading partner to play a little lapdog to a criminal, hegemonic bully called America.

    Balance of payments? Think on that.
    It somewhat challenging to anyone laying claim to being an optimist. So let’s exploit a few things ourselves while there is still something to exploit.

    Exploit………”a bold or daring feat”.

  3. Avatar Andrew Glikson says:

    Inevitably global warming will (already does) wreak havoc in large aprts of the world and destroy the remaining semblance of internations order. However the statements by Sherri Goodman bear little relation to projections of the consequences of climate change.In the case of China and Russia this would include flooding of much of low-lying coastal southeast China due to sea level rise, the extensive bushfires in Siberia, central and southern Europe and elsewhere.

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