The geopolitical landscape at the end of the year 2015 is especially strange. In effect, it is both dominated by the enormous gathering of heads of states and governments in Paris for the “COP 21”, which aims to make possible an international treaty on climate change, and by the war against the Islamic State, as the French president works to make possible a new cooperation between the U.S.-led coalition and Russia against the common foe (Yves Bourdillon, “Hollande, Poutine et Obama se liguent contre Daech”, Les Echos, 17/11/2015) after the terrible attacks on Paris on 13 November, following the downing of the Russian Plane on 31 October, the attack in Lebanon on 12 November and the bombing in Tunis on 24 November.
One must keep in mind that the extremely rapid and powerful current climate change is the consequence of the continuous injection of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution around 1750, due to the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas, which are powering our societies (IPCC, fifth report, 2014). The yearly rounds of international negotiations on climate change aim at curbing down the greenhouse gas emissions.
In the same time, the world economy is shaken by the effects of the abundance of cheap oil on the energy market (Tyler Durden, “Presenting BofA’s “Number One Black Swan Event For The Global Oil Market In 2016“, 11/20/2015, Zero Hedge). This abundance is created by the economic competition between Saudi Arabia and other producers, especially the U.S. shale oil and gas industry, which takes the form of high production and low barrel prices (Valantin, “The Kingdom is back”, The Red Team Analysis Society, December 15, 2014).
In other terms, the energy geopolitics is going through a deep transformation, driven by the very complex interactions between the energy and resources geopolitics, which are contributing to organize the international relations since the 19th century (William Engdahl, A Century of war, Anglo-american oil politics and the new world order, 2004), and what we call here “climate politics”, which are the politics that aim at regulating the interactions between the modern uses of energy and the global climate.
Thus, we need to investigate how these politics are both in contradiction with each other, while combining, and thus transforming each other, while participating in the emergence of an international system that integrates the new forms of necessary cooperation induced by the mitigation and adaptation to the lasting consequences of climate change.
The great contradiction: energy geopolitics and climate change
Energy and resource geopolitics seems to be in total contradiction with climate change. In effect, the current industrial and consumerist worldwide civilization depends on the continuous production of oil, its refining and distribution and selling of oil products all around the world (Michael Klare, Rising powers, shrinking planet, 2008).
This dependence is an extremely powerful principle of organisation for national and international politics. In effect, the world economy and the daily life of 7 billions human beings is powered by the daily consumption of 98 millions barrels of oil (“Oil”, International energy agency).
For example, since 1944 a large part of the foreign, defence and security policy of the United States is organised around the necessity to guarantee oil imports from the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, (Michael Klare, Blood and Oil, 2005).
The importance of the oil flow from the Middle East to the U.S. has evolved in conjunction with a massive U.S. military built-up in the region. It has been exemplified by the building of permanent bases all around the Persian Gulf, for example in Qatar, and by, among other factors, the direct involvement of the U.S. military against Iraq during the Gulf war in 1990-1991, as well as by the U.S.-led massive operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 (Gordon and Trainor, The Endgame: the inside story of the struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, 2012).
The coordination of U.S. forces in the Middle East and in Central Asia is assured by the US Central command. Furthermore, U.S. sea power is committed to ensure American energy security in this region with the fifth and the sixth fleet (Chalmers Johnson, The Sorrows of Empire, 2004).
The area of responsibility, as assigned by the US Navy, of the fifth fleet is the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and the Arabian Sea, where it patrols and intervenes in the region dominated by Saudi Arabia, the Arab United emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, i.e. major oil and natural gas producers, in order to maintain and secure the US national interests (ibid.). The U.S. sixth fleet patrols the Mediterranean side of the Middle East (ibid.).
Another example of the deep intricacy between energy policy and geopolitics is the world-scale Chinese strategy named “the New Silk Road” (Valantin, “China, the New Silk Road and resource security”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 18 may 2015).
“The New Silk Road”, or “One Road, One Belt” initiative, seeks to both expand the influence of China and attract the resources necessary to answer the huge Chinese needs and thus demand in energy, commodities and products necessary to a developing society and economy of one billion and four hundred million people, in an immense country with limited natural resources (Craig Simon, The Devouring Dragon, 2013). For example, China imports daily 7,4 million barrels of oil, thus more than the U.S., which imports 7,2 million barrels of oil a day (“Pétrole : la Chine importe plus que les USA”, Le Figaro avec Reuters, 11/05/2015).
These are but two examples of the way energy geopolitics is structured by the world energy market and national energy necessities, because, on the five continents, urban and rural life, political authorities, culture, and social cohesion from the local to the national scale, depend, among other factors, for its material and immaterial continuity on the combustion of hydrocarbons and coal (Andrew Nikiforuk, The Energy of slaves, Oil and the new servitude, 2012).
In other words, modern energy geopolitics is a system that seeks to guarantee the continuous flow of oil, natural gas and coal, knowing that each and every territorial political entity needs this flow, without which it is not possible to produce electricity, to power transports, to produce food, to process water, to develop services, etc. (Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy, Political power in the age of oil, 2013). Energy geopolitics with its political contradictions, and its immense potential for violence, is a fundamental dimension of the current human life on Earth.
In the same time, energy geopolitics has a totally unintended global consequence, which is the “securing” of the constant growth of greenhouse emissions, to the point that it has almost reached the very dangerous level of 400 parties per million in the atmosphere (NOAA Mauna Loa Observatory). This trajectory, if is not curbed, will mean a global planetary warming of more than 2° from now to 2100, which will entail a global destruction of the life conditions upon which humanity and all the current animal and vegetal species depend (IPCC, ibid).
Thus, the great contradiction is in the way the current use of energy is aimed at maintaining the modern civilisation, while endangering it through its consequences on the climate of our planet.
The great hybridation: energy geopolitics meets climate change
From a political perspective, the current global climate change is the driver of a deploying gigantic strategic crisis, on a scale unknown in human history, except maybe in the 12th century B.C., when the civilisations of the Mediterranean world were destroyed by the connection of calamities that affected these interdependent societies (Erick H. Cline, 1177 B.C, the year civilization collapsed, 2014).
In effect, the climate is the behaviour of the atmosphere (John Mc Neill, Something new under the sun, an environmental History of the twentieth century, 2000). As such, it interacts with the totality of the ocean, of the water cycle, of the land, of the biosphere, and human life conditions and activities (Tim Flannery, Here on Earth, a twin history of the Planet Earth and of the human race, 2011.
A rapid climate change induces a rapid change of the basic human life conditions, i.e. access to water, food production, social cohesion, the integrity of infrastructures, and other basic life conditions. The permanence of these conditions is at the core of the social contract and of the legitimacy of political authorities (Norbert Elias, The civilizing process, vol.II, State formation and civilization, 1982).
However, climate change is hammering these basics of the modern human life, endangering societies, governments and international stability (Valantin, “Environment, climate change, war and state”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 16, 2015).
For example, the Syrian civil war turned international has been “prepared” by a long drought going from 2006 to 2010, which destroyed crops, turned 60% of the country into a very arid place, killing the livestock and triggering the rural exodus of dozens of thousands of families into unprepared cities (“Syria: Drought driving farmers to the cities“, IRIN, 2 September 2009). The numerous hardships that awaited these refugees, as well as urban-dwellers, created deep tensions that pre-existed and were invested into the civil war, started in 2011 (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013.
The Syrian case thus reveals how extreme climate events and geopolitics have started to interact and how the former can reinforce social unrest and political violence.
Furthermore, as in the Arctic, climate change can also fuel energy geopolitics. Due to specific atmospheric conditions that concentrate the greenhouse gas in the region, the Arctic warms faster than the rest of the planet (Charles Emmerson, The future history of the Arctic, 2010). During the summer, Arctic sea ice increasingly melts. Consequently, a larger portion of the ocean is ice-free, and absorbs a larger quantity of solar heat. In return, the melting is more powerful, and the freezing season starts later. The whole process is sustained by what some climatologists and glaciologists call the “Arctic death spiral” (Joe Romm, “Arctic Death Spiral: Sea Ice Extent Hits Record Winter Low As Thickness Collapses », Climate progress, Mars 26, 2015).
As shown by Joe Romm (ibid.), if, in 1978, the ice sea surface at the end of summer was covering 7.2 millions km2, it sharply declined since then. Its surface was of only 5.3 millions of km2 in 2005, 4.9 in 2007, and 3.6 in 2012 (NASA: climate change and warming). The process is not linear, and shows ups and downs, but the trend is clear: in summer, Arctic sea ice melts quickly, on a massive scale, and the phenomenon accelerates (US National Snow and ice data centre).
This geophysical transformation of the Arctic region turns it into a geopolitical attractor in the context of the current global competition for energy and resources, because the Arctic deposits could represent 30% of natural gas reserves and almost 13% of undiscovered oil deposits, not mentioning precious metals such as platinum (Michael Klare, The Race for what’s left, 2012).
Russia is working at quickly militarizing its economic exclusive zone there, and at starting the development of Arctic natural gas deposits (Emmerson, ibid). Meanwhile, it develops the Siberian sea route going from the Bering Strait to Northern Europe, and multiplies joint efforts with China in this endeavor (Valantin, “Arctic Fusion: Russian and Chinese convergent strategies”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 23 June 2014).
In that case, climate change opens the possibility for new access to hydrocarbons, which development and use will only further the intensity … of climate change. One could say that the dynamics of energy geopolitics are reinforced by the climate change that they fuel.
Towards the “Anthropocene security”?
The link between the combustion of coal, oil and natural gas, the emissions of greenhouse gas and the current global climate change is a scientific epic that started at the end of the 19th century. At the start of the 1980s, numerous researchers, and among them James Hansen (James Hansen, Storms of my Grand children, the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, 2009), demonstrated that climate change was accelerating, due to the modern uses of energy, and that it could become dangerous at a global level. In 1988, the United Nations created the Intergovernmental Panel on climate change (IPCC), in charge of a quadrennial assessment of the phenomenon.
In 1992, it was decided, at the first Earth Summit, that climate change had to be put under control. This led to the launch of yearly international negotiations aiming at reducing the greenhouse gas emissions, and thus to “climate politics”, i.e. politics aiming at regulating the changes in the atmospheres through diplomacy (Spencer R. Weart, The discovery of global warming, 2003). Furthermore, these climate negotiations are meant to emulate national politics. In other words, the international negotiations on climate have been the emerging conditions of climate politics.
However, if climate politics is a tool to try to control climate change, energy geopolitics has as impact to nurture it.
Beyond the contradictions between energy geopolitics and the climate politics that aim at reducing the greenhouse gas emissions, it appears that the negotiations in Paris will be about finding innovative ways to “domesticate” the new reality created by the carbon-induced development. This new reality is created by the interactions between the type of development adopted since the beginning of the industrial revolution and its globalisation, and the effects it has on the planetary life conditions.
This new reality is qualified as the “Anthropocene era”, i.e. the contemporary geological era that a growing number of geophysicists and biologists define as the current new geological and biological era. It is labelled as such because scientists identify the human species as, now, the principal source of pressure on the planetary environment (Zalasiewicz, Anthropocene: a new epoch of geological time ?, 2011).
In other words, the COP 21 will be about the regulation of climate change through an attempt at politically controlling its anthropogenic causes.
Thus, one can wonder if the COP 21 is not going to be a surprising political experience where climate politics and energy geopolitics are going to meet in order to find a way not to collide. In effect, given the conditions of life on the human-changed Earth, what must be found is ways to “domesticate” the Anthropocene, i.e. to re-invent the notion of international security, by transcending notably the geopolitical tensions related to energy with a common planetary challenge.
These talks are a decisive political, geopolitical and strategic step in human history.
Let’s welcome them.
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.