Climate change and geopolitics

Simon Dalby is the CIGI Chair in the Political Economy of Climate Change at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, who works in the disciplines of environmental security and critical geopolitics. This article is an historical overview of the relationships between climate change and geopolitics which emphasizes how current debates about security and international policy need to be careful to avoid misleading twentieth century assumptions that geography shapes politics.


Below is an excerpt from his most recent article about the future of climate geopolitics.

The increasing alarm with which climate change is being discussed in the aftermath of the Paris Agreement is in part a recognition that climate change is already happening; no longer is it being considered a problem for the future or the long-term future. In addition, it is gradually dawning on decision-makers that climate change isn’t a simple linear warming, nor an “environmental” problem unrelated to key functions of states. In the early 21st century, it is understood as a matter of changes that are already starting to happen with unforeseen effects that potentially affect all states, albeit in different ways (Mayer, 2012). Hence the widespread support for the Paris Agreement process despite American objections.

The point about the Anthropocene is that human activities are now of such a scale that they are remaking the context in which political actions take place (Biermann et al., 2016). The global economy is effectively making places, and needs to be understood as such. This economy is shaping the future configuration of key geographical factors, and theorizing about security and politics has to engage with the rapid transformation of the planet. This requires a more fundamental rethinking of the rapidly changing global context (Kareiva & Fuller, 2016) than much of the resilience discussion has, so far at least, seriously contemplated (Mobjork, Smith, & Ruttinger, 2016). Anthropogenic change is now a key factor in the changing global political order.

This is the context in which the future of climate geopolitics, in particular, has to be discussed. It’s a direct reversal of early-20th-century notions of environmental determinism, and it requires an engagement with such fields as geophysics and the engineering plans of both corporations and states in discussing the future configuration of planetary systems. The future context of geopolitics is now being decided in decisions that are made about energy systems, and how climate is going to be tackled in coming decades, whether explicitly in accordance with the Paris Agreement process or through other policy initiatives. The rich and powerful parts of humanity are increasingly shaping the future configuration of many parts of the planet, providing the changing context for cooperation or rivalry among states and other actors. Understanding this key point is essential to 21st-century geopolitics.

Historic discussions of climate often suggested that it caused societies to have certain qualities. In the 19th-century, imperial representations of the world environment frequently “determined” the fate of peoples and places, a practice that has frequently been used to explain the largest patterns of political rivalry and the fates of empires and their struggles for dominance in world politics. In the 21st century, climate change has mostly reversed the causal logic in the reasoning about human–nature relationships and their geographies. The new thinking suggests that human decisions, at least those made by the rich and powerful with respect to the forms of energy that are used to power the global economy, are influencing future climate changes.

How climate is invoked in political discussions is tied to diverse cultures; hence climate comes to be part of public discourse in numerous different ways. How state policymakers and political advocates of diverse ideological stripes situate “their” states in the world and in relationship to other states and within a wider world system is a crucial part of how political identities are constructed and appropriate courses of action rendered legitimate. These processes are key to how geopolitics works and how politicians and public opinion shape policies.

Read the full article by Simon Dalby here>>

Author: Simon Dalby