A titanic worldwide bombing is rampaging the Earth: its name is climate change.
That change is becoming the equivalent of a planetary-wide and permanent and deepening social, economic, political and environmental crisis (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Is climate change a geostrategic issue? Yes!”, The Red Team Analysis Society, 14 October 2013. It became especially obvious in 2017, when the devastatingly powerful hurricanes Harvey and Irma ravaged respectively Texas and Florida, after Irma brought its deadly toll on the Caribbean Islands. Furthermore, this happened after several months of other massive climate-related catastrophes, around the world (Robert Scribbler, “Half a World Away From Harvey, Global Warming Fueled Deluges Now Impact 42 Million People”, Robert Scribbler, Scribbling for environmental, social and economic justice, August 30, 2017).
Those series of climate shocks are impacting and transforming the current world economic and geopolitical order
The permanently growing list of climate crisis related catastrophes must be understood as ever stronger signals of the fact that the human, social, economic, political and geopolitical state of affairs is now deeply climate change-centred through permanent and complex impacts. This means that the multiplying extreme weather events are interlinking societies, nations, agriculture, industry and finance systems with the permanently growing climate crisis ((Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016).
Beyond the immediately catastrophic impact of the extreme weather events and their human, social and economic toll, it must be understood that these events are signals of a new planetary and geopolitical reality. Those extreme weather events are not a sum of “climate accidents”, but are set in series of extreme weather events related to the current global climate crisis. Those series of climate shocks are impacting and transforming the current world economic and geopolitical order (Dennis and Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III, The Limits to Growth, the 30-Year-Update, 2004).
In this article, we shall see first how the international economy is now impacted by climate change. Then, we shall underline how this new state of affairs is also putting geopolitical relations under pressure. Then, we shall stress the novel necessity to integrate climate change to understand current geopolitics.
Climate change-centred geoeconomy
In our globalized world, the combination of the titanic hurricanes Harvey and Irma on Texas, Louisiana and Florida and the mammoth wildfires in California and Canada, as well as the series of giant wildfires throughout the south of Europe, Siberia, as well as Greenland, the massive floods in South Asia, the multiple typhoons in Hong Kong and Macao, must not be understood as isolated and contained phenomena, but as events being part of larger series and having multiple kinds of social, political and economic consequences.
For example, if we focus on the U.S., the mammoth disasters wrought by hurricane Harvey in Texas are alone putting a massive pressure on economic activities and on the insurance sector because of the direct damages wrought to the infrastructures, cities, homes, fields and industries. To these costs will have to be added those of repairs, of business interruption, and of detoxification made necessary because of the massive industrial chemicals and sewage spillage (Erin Brodwin and Jake Canter, “A chemical plant exploded twice after getting flooded by Harvey – but it’s not over yet”, Business Insider, 30 August, 2017).
“Hurricane Harvey has damaged at least 23 billion dollars of property…”
These human and economic costs are going to be multiplied to consider those incurred by Houston and the whole state of Texas, as well as by Louisiana. It must also be remembered that a lot of oil extraction and transaction operations have been suspended, and thus impact the companies involved in these activities (Matt Egan and Chris Isidore, “Tropical storm Harvey threatens vital Texas energy hub”, CNN Money, August 26).
If we take a look at just the counties of Harris and Galveston in Texas, for example, we see that “Hurricane Harvey has damaged at least 23 billion dollars of property…” (Reuters, Fortune, 30 August 2017). 26% of this sum is land value, the remaining part is being constituted by dozens of thousands of houses, buildings and infrastructures.
They will be unable to pay their mortgages.
The banks will not be able to seize their destroyed houses, furthermore located on lands which value has sharply decreased…
with potential huge impact for the U.S. banks and finance industry…
Some of those are insured but a lot more are not, which means that, potentially, millions of people find themselves brutally projected in very precarious situations. They will be unable to pay their mortgages, while the banks will not be able to seize their destroyed houses, furthermore located on lands which value has sharply decreased. This could easily lead to important problems for the managers of mortgages portfolios, which are an important part of the U.S. finance industry, as the subprime default crisis, which almost broke the world economy in 2007-2008, has shown (Kevin Phillips Bad Money: Reckless Finance, Failed Politics, and the Global Crisis of American Capitalism, 2008).
The cumulative costs of Harvey and Irma will be around a staggering 290 billion dollars.
They will have an impact on the entire U.S. economy and on the federal budget.
To these tremendous costs must be added those resulting from the heavy damages wrought by the giant Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Keys to infrastructures, cities, business and agriculture, especially to the orange production (Berkeley Lovelace Jr, “Irma could be “the last straw” for the Florida orange industry, commodities expert says”, CNBC, 8 September 2017). This means that, if we only take into accounts the lower estimates, the cumulative costs of Harvey and Irma will be around a staggering 290 billion dollars and will have an impact on the entire U.S. economy as well as on the federal budget (Rob While, “The estimated costs of hurricanes Irma and Harvey are already higher than Katrina”, Money, September 11, 2017).
Irma and Harvey U.S. global estimated cost = 290 billion USD
2011 – 2016 Syrian war estimated cost = $275 billion USD
As a result, the comparison between climate change related disasters and an air bombing campaign becomes meaningful indeed. In terms of financial costs – without considering war related human sufferings, which remain incomparable – the 290 billion dollars costs of damages inflicted by hurricanes Harvey and Irma inn the U.S. can be compared to the damages in Syria, as evaluated by the report published by the charity World Vision and consultancy firm Frontier Economics. According to this report, the Syrian war had cost the country an estimated $275 billion between 2011 and 2016 (World Vision & Frontier economics, The cost of conflict for children, 5 years of the Syria crisis, 2016).
It must also be remembered that these costs must be added to those related to the 2016 extreme weather events, such as the two giant flooding events in Louisiana in March and in August 2016. The cumulative costs for these are beyond 10 to 15 billion dollars, considering direct damages, losses in property value and in tax revenues from businesses, as well as direct and indirect damages to agricultural activities (“USA-Louisiana Floods to Cost US Economy 10 to 15 Billion Dollars Says AON Benfield”, Flood List News in Insurance USA, 9 September 2016). Meanwhile, human impacts, such as loss of job, combination of health and financial insecurity and exhaustion should also be taken into account.
In 2017, by September, California had burnt with 4900 wildfires.
While titanic hurricanes Harvey and Irma hammered down and drowned Texas, half of Louisiana and Florida, California was ravaged by its third giant wildfire, the most important among the so far 4900 wildfires accounted for in 2017, some of them having entered the Yosemite Park and the giant sequoia grove. Those wildfires are also inflicting heavy damages on the economy, and are new occurrences of the series of catastrophic weather events that have battered the U.S. for years (Dahr Jamail, “Welcome to the new world of fires”, Truth Out, September 09, 2017). In the Californian case, those costs must be added to those stemming from the already long series of growing damages wrought by wildfires, especially since 2000 (“Chart: 13 of California’s 20 largest wildfires burned since 2000”, Climate Signals).
The long drought of the summer 2012 impacted more than 80% of American agricultural land
This new climate related economy insecurity also takes other forms. For example, the long drought of the summer 2012 impacted more than 80% of American agricultural land. If the effects were less severe than expected, they were nonetheless felt on livestock food prices during the last quarter of 2012 and through slight but widely distributed rises in prices for different kinds of agricultural products (cereals, dairy, poultry, fruits) on the U.S. and international markets (USDA: U.S Drought 2012, Farm and Food Impacts, July 26, 2013.
The multiplying series of climate change related disasters are creating what we call here a “disaster glocalization”
Those hurricanes that have hammered Texas, Louisiana and Florida, and all the other extreme weather events fueled by climate change and their human, economic and political costs are creating a regional, national and global system of immobilized capital destruction, i.e. of net loss for the individuals, the businesses and the governments, while insurance and re-insurance companies have to adjust their costs and models. In others terms, the economic and financial dimension of globalization have become the vectors and means of the local pressures exerted by climate change, in the U.S. as well as all over the world, as the devastating wildfires in Chile in January 2017. The multiplying series of climate change related disasters are creating what we call here a “disaster glocalization” (remark by Dr Hélène Lavoix, 14 September 2017).
Climate change-centred political and military tensions
The huge costs implied by Harvey and Irma are only parts of the climate shocks known by the US and the whole world in 2017. In Europe, the giant heat wave dubbed “Lucifer” gripped Spain, France, Italy, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Greece, Hungary, Poland and triggered catastrophic wildfires which also occurred … in Greenland (Robert Scribbler ibid and Dahr Jamail), “Greenland is burning: wildfires and floods surge worldwide”, Truth Out, 5 September 2017). In India, for the third year in a row, gigantic wildfires ravaged the country between April and June. Then India was hit, along Nepal and Bangladesh, by record monsoons and massive floods, which killed 1200 people for the whole of South Asia (Haroon Siddique, “South Asia floods kill 1200 and shut 1.8 million children out of school”, The Guardian, 31 August 2017).
In a globalised world, these destructions and disruptions have international and strategic ripple effects.
In a globalised world, these destructions and disruptions have international and strategic ripple effects. For example, the drought in India is increasing geopolitical tensions over water sharing rights with Pakistan, which is also impacted by drought, and with China. These tensions are inscribed in the already overcharged geopolitical and strategic landscapes between India and Pakistan, which conflict over Kashmir and the way they share the Indus waters, since 1947, while the two countries are now nuclear powers since 1998 (Fazilda Nabeel, “How India and Pakistan are competing over the mighty Indus river”, The Independent, 7 June 2017).
New tensions have arisen in 2016 and 2017 between the two countries, centered on the overexploitation of the Indus (Muhammad Daim Fazil, “Why India must refrain from a water war with Pakistan”, The Diplomat, March 08, 2017). Tensions also tend to often mar India and China relationships (for a recent example, Michael Auslin, “Can the Doklam dispute be resolved? The dangers of China and India’s border dispute”, Foreign Affairs, August 1, 2017).
Meanwhile, China and Pakistan have signed a memorandum of agreement for the construction of two giant dams on the Indus, one of them in the Gilgit-Batilstan region, in the Himalayas, claimed by both India and Pakistan and close to China (Drazen Jorgic, “Pakistan eyes 2018 start for China funded mega dam, opposed by India”, Reuters, June 13, 2017). These dams will produce 4200 MW and 2700 MW of electricity respectively, and their construction will cost 27 billion dollars. They are parts of the Chinese “One Belt One road – New silk road” agreements signed between China and Pakistan in 2015 (Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy”, The Red Team Analysis, May 18, 2015).
The Indian political authorities are concerned about the consequences of these dams on the Kashmiri water flow, which is a major source of water for the country, as well as for Pakistan.
These tensions take place in a context defined by the accelerating melting of the mountain glaciers because of climate change, when the sources of major Asian rivers, necessary to the lives of billions of people are located in these very glaciers and when the development of these countries and the multiplying heatwaves that impact them necessitate to use increasingly more water (Robert Scribbler, “The Glacial mega flood: global warming poses growing glacial outburst flood hazard from Himalayas to Greenland and west Antarctica”, Robertscribbler: scribbling for environmental, social and economic justice, August 19, 2013).
The creation of a new kind of geopolitical crisis of an incredibly large scope
Now, these three countries together dominate South Asia and East Asia, while being regional and international economic and political powerhouses. Furthermore, their overall population amounts to almost 2.5 billion people – i.e. a third of human beings. As a result, the tensions created by their competition for water in a warming world is a new kind of geopolitical crisis. It means that climate change is putting an increasingly growing pressure on political and military actors, which are already at odds with each other, while putting water cooperation systems under an intensifying stress. Climate change thus becomes an amplifier of current and future geopolitical crises.
Understanding the geopolitics of an increasingly warming planet
The climate crisis-centredness results from the interconnections between climate change, economic vulnerabilities and the geopolitical fault lines of the international system.
These examples, which are nothing but instances of global series of events and of their impacts, show us how our interconnected world is now climate crisis-centred, directly and indirectly. The climate crisis-centredness results from the interconnections between climate change, economic vulnerabilities and the geopolitical fault lines of the international system. This means that, in our current globalised world, climate change is a game changer that will keep on impacting the fabric of societies, their economy and their political system, while permanently modifying the international balance of power.
It comes from this new reality that all actors from governments to the corporate sector have to start preparing themselves, in a very pro-active way, to live on a dangerously and rapidly shifting planet. The new global and strategic reality must imperatively be included as such in any operation, investment planning, budget, or more largely human activity. Scenarios are the best way to anticipate now exposed activities.
About the author: Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) is the Director of Environment and Security Analysis at The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: GOES-16 Sees Hurricanes Katia, Irma and José
GOES-16 captured this geocolor image of three hurricanes in the tropical Atlantic on the afternoon of September 8, 2017. NOAA – Credit: CIRA – Public Domain