Perspectives

Geopolitical Impact

Climate change is redrawing the map, not just of the physical world, but the political and economic.

Every square inch of the globe faces jeopardy, but look at key risks to particular areas and their likely outcomes can give a glimpse into the extent of the threat. As the tundra melts, Russia stands to become the most fertile country on the planet, even as Southern Europe is set to lose arable land due to extreme heat. The rising frequency of extreme storms, fueled by warmer oceans and accompanied by dangerous sea-level rise, could make homes on the US East Coast uninsurable. The unpredictable weather patterns of Africa’s Lake Chad are putting the 30 million people who depend on its water at risk.

Mass migrations from any of these outcomes are likely to strain the resources of neighboring communities and nations. Meanwhile the transition to renewable energy sources will shift the balance of global energy trade. And all of it together means a very different geopolitical world is on the horizon.

Let’s take stock of the risks by region.

UNITED STATES The strong tech sector makes the US well positioned for the clean energy transition. However, the country will also be hit hard by physical impacts. Loss of snow on the western mountains may exacerbate severe water shortages and wildfires in California. A rise in extreme storms threatens Florida and the entire Chesapeake Bay area. Combined with rising sea levels, these may lead providers to stop insuring homes in the most affected regions, resulting in Dust Bowl-like migrations away from afflicted states.

RUSSIA's economy is driven by fossil fuel exports, making a significant transition to renewables difficult. But the physical impacts could also transform the vast, frigid tundra into the world’s largest expanse of arable land, critical for a food-stressed world. Already, President Vladimir Putin has made expansion of infrastructure investment in the Arctic a priority; the possibility of new navigable trade routes could add momentum.

INDIA has ambitious transition targets, particularly for wind energy. However, climate change will melt glaciers that feed the Indus, Ganges, Mekong and Yangtze rivers. At first, summer flooding will increase, but late in the 2040s, the major rivers systems will collapse, creating a risk of widespread famine and population displacement, which may threaten the political stability in the region and inflame longstanding tensions.

MIDDLE EAST countries have in place economic transition strategies to move away from their dependence on fossil fuel exports. But the region is already living off a critically low 1,000 cubic meters of fresh water per person per year. River depletion will make traditional farming and grazing next to impossible. The future will depend upon large-scale desalination technologies and the affordable energy to power them.

CHINA has invested heavily in renewables and next-gen nuclear power. However, its river systems will become severely depleted as ice on the Tibetan Plateau and Tanggula Mountains melts. The northern summer monsoons may disappear, and agricultural productivity fall. Heavily populated coastal cities will be affected by sea-level rise and mass internal migration could result.

EUROPE's solar and wind development will benefit most of its economies, and climate change may benefit agricultural productivity in Nordic countries. But vast stretches of arable land in Southern Europe may be lost to extreme heat. Even with an expected decline in Europe’s population, food security and food prices will become a political issue. Rising sea levels may cause populations to retreat from the northern coasts.

CENTRAL AFRICA’s high solar potential may allow a level of energy independence. However, the livelihood of the residents of Lake Chad, a source of water to more than 30 million people, is at risk as unpredictable and severe weather conditions are making the area unlivable. Similar impacts in many parts of Africa could lead to an increase in political instability and conflict, as well as mass migrations across the continent and into Europe.

 

Photographs: Kevin Vandivier, Flavio Veloso, SeppFriedhuber, franckreporter, Yin Wenjie, Thierry Rannou/Gamma-Rapho, Geraldine Hope Ghelli/Bloomberg, all via Getty Images

Brunswick Review Sign Up

Download (2 MB)