On 3 December 2018, i.e. two days before the opening of the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference – its 24th meeting (COP 24), in Katowice, at the very heart of Poland coal country, Jair Bolsonaro, the new president of Brazil, announced that his country would not organize the following round of negotiations, i.e the COP 25, and that he was contemplating Brazil’s withdrawal from the Climate Paris Accord (“Brazil withdraws candidacy to host UN climate change conference 2019”, XinhuaNet, 2018, 11, 29).
A few days before, California firemen had finally succeeded in stopping the two megafires that had been ravaging “the Golden State” during almost a month.
Meanwhile, on 1 December, the leaders attending the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina, released a joint statement reaffirming their commitment to fighting climate change by upholding the Paris Accord, even if the U.S. President Donald Trump refused to endorse the statement (Catherine Lucey and Almudena Calatrava, “Trump alone on climate change as G20 find common ground on climate, migration”, Business Insider, 3 December, 2018).
Those different political stances are literally drawing the political cartography of the way climate change is becoming a political issue. However, this must be seen in the light, first, of a continued growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which has not been hampered or slowed since 2015 and second, of the international negotiations of the Paris Accord during the COP 21. Considering thus the context, we may wonder if the different actors really understand the nature of climate change as a profoundly singular threat: climate change is a planetary threat, and thus is “something” that is totally unknown of the collective history; it is not present within the memory of humanity.
Thus, the emergence of a new kind of political frame of mind must also accompany the understanding this new reality.
In this article, we look at the very singularity of climate change and how it imposes a new way of thinking about the relationship between modern societies and a rapidly changing planet. We explain how the new planetary condition is tantamount to a “hyper siege”. Finally, we focus upon the geopolitical consequences of the understanding and misunderstanding of the nature of climate change as a planetary threat on the political frame of mind.
A new planetary condition
Climate change is not a crisis.
A crisis implies the passage from a given situation to another. This is not what is happening in the case of climate change. On the contrary, the very expression “climate change” encapsulates the fact that the planetary climate has left the stability zone known as the Eocene, during which “homo sapiens” developed. Since then, with the industrial revolution and the massive development of the use of carbon fuels, the planetary climate has entered a trajectory of change unknown in its speed and scale in the geophysical history of our planet ( James Hansen, Storms of my Grand children, the truth about the coming climate catastrophe and our last chance to save humanity, 2009).
The relationships between the human species and our planet started being understood as un-secure in 1972, when the Club of Rome, a futurist group composed of bankers, industrials and economists, published its famous report “The Limits to Growth”, which it had commissioned to a team of scientists of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Dennis and Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, William W. Behrens III). The report established that the combined pressures exercised by both the growth of industrial production on the planetary resources and the growth of pollution and environmental degradation would increase the costs of the economic system, while decreasing its efficiency, until growth would no longer be possible. These twin dynamics would go on until the whole system would stop being able to support and sustain itself, once the planetary carrying capacity would be exhausted and the environmental conditions and life conditions fatally degraded. These “limits to growth” were meant to be reached around 2020. This pioneer report opened multiple areas of research, out of which emerged the wider field of research about sustainability and its limits. It was updated in 2004 (Dennis and Donnella Meadow, The Limits to growth – the 30 years update, 2004).
In 2005, Jared Diamond, building on transversal studies, and thus following the methods pioneered by the Club of Rome, demonstrated with his monumental “Collapse: How societies choose to fail or survive”, how the choice of certain forms of development could be inadequate, given the carrying capacity of the regional environment and, as a result, lead entire societies to collapse.
This was the “official” start of what we could call the “sustainability versus collapse” studies. In this new field, the report: “Planetary boundaries: Exploring the safe operating space for humanity”, led by Johann Rockstrom, director of the Stockholm Resilience Center (Ecology and Society, 2009) has been a conceptual breakthrough. The research team defined nine “planetary boundaries”, which must not be crossed, because crossing them would fundamentally alter the collective life conditions of humanity. If crossed, these thresholds would be nothing but “tipping points” towards deeply changed life conditions on Earth.
The nine boundaries are: “ climate change; rate of biodiversity loss (terrestrial and marine); interference with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles; stratospheric ozone depletion; ocean acidification; global freshwater use; change in land use; chemical pollution; and atmospheric aerosol loading” (Ibid.). The report warns that three of these thresholds, i.e. climate change, the biodiversity crisis and the interferences with the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, are already crossed. Since this research has been published, the world faces the multiplication of extreme environmental events, which are impacting immense regions, such as the Arctic, as well as the economic development of the weakest as well as the strongest economies on Earth, while endangering hundred of millions of people (Harry Pettit, ‘The ocean is suffocating’: Fish-killing dead zone is found growing in the Arabian Sea – and it is already bigger than SCOTLAND”, Mail on Line, 27 April 2017 and Eric Holtaus, “James Hansen Bombshell’s climate warning is now part of the Scientific canon”, Slate.com, March 22, 2016).
Welcome to the planetary hyper siege
Beyond the fundamental importance of scientific research, it must be understood that climate change is a planetary threat through the multiplication of impacts felt throughout the world. It means that the alterations of the Earth-system geophysics are turning geophysical conditions against humanity and endangering the very fabric of the conditions necessary for collective life.
This is why climate change, in the words of California governor Jerry Brown, “is not the new normal, but the new abnormal”. He made this declaration while California firemen were waging a desperate fight against the two mega fires ravaging California (“Gov. Jerry Brown says massive fires are “the new abnormal” for California”, The Week, November 11, 2018).
In a previous article, we explained that climate change was tantamount to a “long planetary bombing” (Jean Michel Valantin, “Climate Change: the Long Planetary Bombing“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 18 Sept 2017). This qualification is truer than ever, but needs to be reinforced through the idea of “hyper siege”. This means that contemporary societies are being literally “immersed” into the new and adverse geophysical conditions that are besieging them (Jean-Michel Valantin “Hyper Siege: Climate change versus U.S National security”, The Red Team Analysis Society, March 31 2014, and (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth, The fate of the Humans in the Anthropocene, 2017).
For example, while the ocean is increasingly rapidly submersing Bangladesh, forcing dozens of millions of people to flee rural lands, the coupling of intense and repeated drought and of the U.S.-China trade war puts the U.S. agriculture under growing pressure (See Jean-Michel Valantin “Climate change, a geostrategic issue? Yes!” and “The US Economy, Between the Climate Hammer and the Trade war Anvil – The US Soybean Crop case”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, October 8, 2018). In both cases, the vulnerabilities of societies and of their economies are being put under a permanently growing climate pressure that will neither stop nor abate. In other terms, the planetary conditions are becoming a threat for the very conditions upon which modern societies are dependent.
The geopolitical consequences of understanding or misunderstanding the nature of the planetary threat
Understanding the new planetary condition implies a new political frame of mind. This frame of mind must enable to think the evolution of modern societies in relation to the “Defiant Earth” as being in a constant state of both flux and danger. In other words, it means that the political and economic decision-makers and actors have to develop a worldview centred on the idea of change and adaptation, which is not that remote from the way of thinking a strategist would have (Jean-Michel Valantin “Strategic Thinking in the Russian Arctic: Turning Threats into Opportunities (part 1 and 2)”, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 19 December, 2016).
For example, the rapid warming and geophysical transformation of the Arctic is motivating Russian, Chinese, American and Canadian political, economic and military authorities to develop economic, industrial, energy and military strategies aimed at adapting the different national interests to climate change (Jean-Michel Valantin, “Militarizing the Warming Arctic – The Race to Neo-Mercantilism(s)“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, November 12, 2018). This adaptation of the policies of the Arctic countries’ authorities to the geophysical change of the Arctic signals the integration of the Earth-system state of rapid change by the worldview of political authorities.
This new political frame of mind is the key to striving and succeeding in finding adaptive and attenuating responses in the face of the planetary threat. Failing to acquire it is not an option.
Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Geopolitics Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defence sociology with a focus on environmental and artificial intelligence geostrategy.
Featured image: A wildfire approaches Naval Base Ventura County: NAVAL BASE VENTURA COUNTY, Calif. (May 3, 2013) Naval Base Ventura County has evacuated some residents due to smoke concerns as a fast-growing wildfire along the Pacific Coast Highway northwest of Los Angeles has forced residents to leave the area. (U.S. Navy photo/Released) 130503-N-ZZ999-003 – Public Domain.