In his book Climate wars-the fight for survival as the world overheats (2010), author Gwynn Dyer proposes a “chronicle” of the coming decades, through a series of eight geopolitical scenarios going from 2019 to 2055 (“The Year 2045; Russia 2019; United States, 2029; Northern India, 2036; A Happy Tale; US and UK, 2055; China, 2042; Wipeout”).
These scenarios are attempts to study the most probable political behaviours of governments, while climate change goes out of control. As the latter will affect the cycle of water, monsoons, seasons, thus food and water supply all over our world, whole nations will be faced with massive challenges and gigantic flows of “eco refugees”, while strategic tensions and risks of regional nuclear exchanges over climate politics and failed geo engineering will grow (Dyer, ibid).
These scenarios must be cross-referenced with current events. For example, the social and political radicalization that accompanied the initial contestation of the Assad regime in Syria in 2011, was exacerbated by the consequences of a long and dangerous dry-spell. Drought, thus, became the context and one of the drivers of what is now a regional war and of the emergence of the Islamic State and its expansion both in Syria and Iraq (Werrell and Fermia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013).
In the meantime, one sees Russia rehabilitating former Soviet bases in the Russian Arctic, and creating new ones, as well as new naval military forces dedicated to securing the region in the name of strategic interest (Valantin, “The Russian Arctic, Energy and a Massive Power Shift”, The Red Team Analysis Society, October 6, 2014).
Furthermore, a great number of urban populations around the world are not only extremely sensitive, not to say vulnerable, to extreme weather events, but also to the availability of basic food staples, which prices, quantities and availability are deeply related to climate and weather (Michael Klare, “The Year of Living Dangerously Rising Commodity Prices and Extreme Weather Events Threaten Global Stability ”, TomDispatch, January 23, 2011).
In other words, climate change already forces contemporary political authorities to face the emergence of new and complex relations between climate and domestic and international violence, which is most likely to worsen with the heightening of global warming.
“War is merely the continuation of politics through other means”
A growing number of institutions and people are trying to understand if climate change is going to trigger new wars (Valantin, Guerre et Nature, 2013), or to intensify existing ones as well as coming ones (US Department of Defense, “Trends and implications of climate change on national and international security”, 2011).
However, war does not exist in and by itself, but as Carl von Clausewitz (On War, 1832) defined it, “war is merely the continuation of politics through other means” (Ibid, book one), which means that climate change is not war and will not “trigger” wars, but will facilitate the emergence of international tensions that will lead given political authorities to try to resolve them through war.
So, the main issue is to anticipate the links that are going to relate climate change to war situations, i.e. these “duels”, as Clausewitz defined it, led by armed groups in order to attain defined political goals, largely determined by the consequences of climate change.
Given that climate change endangers basic life conditions as water supply, food supply, and infrastructures (Dahr Jamail, “As casualties mount, scientists say global warming has been “hugely underestimated”, Truth Out, 20 October 2014), it appears that it can, and will exacerbate disputes rooted into the access of populations to these basic resources (Harald Welzer, Climate wars: what people will be killed for in the 21st century, 2012). In other words, “climate wars” should really be called “climate-exacerbated resource wars”.
This has already started to happen, for example, during the current war in Iraq, especially during the fierce battle for the Mosul Dam, in July and August 2014, which opposed the Peshmerga Kurdish forces, allied with the Iraqi army, supported by US Air power, to the Islamic State (IS) militants (Al Jazeera, “Iraqi Kurds battle Islamic State Fighters”, 17 August 2014).
The battle stopped with the retreat of the Islamic State forces on 18 August. It ended a cycle of battles for Iraqi dams and water initiated by the IS at the beginning of 2014, repeating its water strategy in Syria, through the conquest of the Fallujah dam in January, and the destruction of the oil pipeline of Bayji, which massively polluted the water supply of Bagdad (Fred Pearce, “MidEast Water Wars: In Iraq, a Battle for Control of water”, Yale 360°, 25 august 2014).
The Fallujah dam has been used by the IS to cause extensive flooding in the Anbar province in order to accelerate population displacement (Jessica D. Lewis, “Warning Intelligence Update: ISIS Besieged Areas near Bagdad on the Eve of Elections”, Institute for the Study of Iraq War Updates, April 25 2014).
The offensive on the Mosul dam, if successful, would have given IS the control of the most important dam on the Iraqi Tigris, and thus on the downstream water supply and electricity production (Jeremy Bender, “A Jihadi That’s too Radical for Al Qaeda Threatens Iraq’s Water Supply“, Business Insider, june 10, 2014).
In other terms, the political goal of these offensives and counter offensives is not simply territory, but also the control of the flow of water and its social and political use, in a hot and arid country already hammered by climate change (Martin Chulov, “Is Iraq next crisis ecological?”, TomDispatch, December 13, 2009). In Iraq, the flow of water determines where and how the population can live.
Thus, water is the most defining political and strategic resource that must be politically controlled in Iraq, knowing that controlling water means controlling the territory of one of the most important oil exporting country in the world, which, in the same time, is very vulnerable to climate change (Pearce, ibid).
Thus political authorities, from the local level of tribes to the national level of the state are put under the permanent pressure of the interactions of climate change with all the related environmental, infrastructural, social, economic, religious, political and military tensions that affect this country.
Climate change, violence and the future of the state
This leads us to a corollary interrogation on the future of the state, because it incarnates the centre of political authority in its modern form and thus decides of war and peace: if climate change can exacerbate the resource wars where they occur, what effect can it have on the relation between the state – i.e. the contemporary main body of political authority, and thus a main actor of war – and collective violence ?
According to major political thinkers such as Thomas Hobbes, (The Leviathan, 1651) Max Weber (Politics as vocation, 1919) and Norbert Elias (The civilizing process, vol.II, State formation and civilization, 1982), the state concentrates the monopoly of legitimate violence and a great capital of legitimacy, i.e. the right to rule as recognised by the population protected by the state.
In other terms, the legitimacy of the state is deeply rooted in its capacity to forbid other actors the use of violence on its defined territory, thus protecting people from the violence of invasion, civil war and, on another level, from crime (Norbert Elias, ibid).
From this point of view, the destruction of New Orleans by the consequences of a hurricane is, so sadly, a very useful case study. In effect, on 30 August, hurricane Katrina destroyed some of the main levees of New Orleans, which came with the flooding of the lowest part of the city. In a few hours, numerous inhabitants, which had not fled the city, were turned into “climate castaways”, refugees on the rooftops of their homes, into a city turned into an archipelago (Douglas Brinkley, The Great Deluge, 2007).
From the point of view of political analysis, considering a “Weber-Elias” framework, the City and federal political authorities lost their capability to protect the population, and thus their monopoly of violence. This loss went immediately with a rapid growth of individual and collective acts of violence (Brinkley, ibid), as well as with self-emerged and self-organised chains of collective solidarity (Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise built in Hell, 2010).
However the inability to protect American people from the violence of the “natural” destruction of their habitat, as well as against predatory human violence, had the immediate consequence of removing the New Orleans territory from the zone defined by the hegemony of the state, through the rule of law and the legitimate control of violence (Elias, ibid). In other terms, the safety of citizens and the rule of law were quickly, strongly and dangerously weakened.
As Hobbes defined it (The Leviathan, 1651: Of Man) the New Orleaneses were faced with the massive danger of having their lives returning to a “pre-law” – qualified of “natural” – state. According to him, then, human life becomes “poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short”, because the political and social order promoted by the legitimate political authority (in this case the state) collapses, which unleashes the “war of all against all” (ibid).
The only way to re-establish order, i.e. to reinstate the monopoly of the state on violence while protecting people, was to send troops, especially from the infamous “Blackwater” private security company (Jeremy Scahill, Blackwater, 2007), and thus to return New Orleans to the territory of the U.S. as defined by the U.S. law and the collective protection of citizens. “Katrina” has been a seminal moment for the integration of climate change by the U.S. military and its strategic thinking (Valantin, Guerre et Nature, 2013).
Thus, “Katrina” shows us how climate related events can endanger the state, thus the basic functions of collective protection that it insures on a given territory, leaving people alone to face the environmental destruction of their life condition and the possible unleashing of civil violence, which conjugate with the new and dangerous conditions created by the environment.
The two cases of the “Hobbesian” situation of New Orleans and of the “Clausewitzian” push to the extremes of the political, religious, water and oil war, which determines the climate-exacerbated ideological and resource war along the Tigris and the Euphrates, lead us to wonder about the future of political authority. In effect, how are political authorities going to integrate the worldwide political and strategic dangers exerted by climate change, in order to remain functional, and to protect the populations, while, as a result, retaining, or even renewing their legitimacy.
When it comes to fighting climate change, given the alternative inferred by the loss of capability and legitimacy based on the protection and the control of violence, it is tempting to add that “failure is not an option”.
Jean-Michel Valantin, (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.