How climate change efforts have created new arctic security challenges

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In just over a week, parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will hold their annual meeting, dubbed COP26, in Glasgow, Scotland. At this meeting, tens of thousands of negotiators, government officials, businesses and citizens will come together to discuss ways to build on the achievements and momentum of the landmark 2015 Paris climate accords.

In a sense, this is just another annual meeting of the UNFCCC. But most experts believe that COP26 has a unique emergency. Because as important as Paris is, there is broad agreement that countries must now go even further than they did at this previous summit if a climate catastrophe is to be avoided. In this sense, COP26 is considered by many to be a decisive moment in the fight against climate change.

One of the reasons behind COP26 – and indeed the entire multilateral effort to tackle climate change – is the belief that global climate change poses a clear and current danger to the world. international peace and security. This is not the only justification, of course. Climate change is important for a range of economic, environmental, development and humanitarian reasons. And, for a very long time, the link between climate-related environmental change and various security threats was not considered particularly important. It was certainly not a major driver of the global effort to deal with this problem when it first gained political weight.

But over the past decade and a half or so, what is now commonly referred to as “climate security” has taken a significant place on the international political agenda. Indeed, both nationally and internationally, the impact of climate change on international peace and security has shifted from non-problem status to one of the most pressing political concerns of our time.

At the root of this relatively new concern about climate security is the assumption that climate change is a powerful ‘threat multiplier’, a phenomenon that both magnifies and complicates existing risks to peace and security. From this perspective, the threat to international peace and security does not come from climate change itself, but from how climate change interacts with existing social conditions and political dynamics to undermine human, national security. and international.

Climate change, for example, can contribute to a wide range of destabilizing trends, including internal displacement of people, cross-border migration and political unrest. In turn, these trends can amplify state fragility and internal conflict, which can lead to state failure and collapse. Climate change can also disrupt existing international security dynamics in sensitive geopolitical environments such as the Arctic and the South China Sea.

An obvious and policy-relevant corollary of this premise is that climate change mitigation will necessarily go a long way in mitigating these direct and indirect security threats. If the climate change-induced rise in sea level compromises security, for example, it stands to reason that taking action to mitigate climate change in a way that moderates sea level rise will help to enhance security. security.

And this corollary is valid, as far as it goes. But this is only part of a very complex picture.

As with most human efforts to tackle big challenges, initiatives to tackle climate change are likely to have unintended, perhaps even perverse, consequences. In the world of climate change, one type of perverse consequence is the so-called ‘rebound effect’, defined as the tendency of energy efficiency gains to make energy-intensive technology less expensive to use, thus encouraging people to use it. more often. This is perverse because it results in an overall increase in energy consumption, the opposite of what was expected.

In the narrower area of ​​climate security, something analogous is starting to emerge: a sort of ‘geopolitical rebound effect’ in which efforts to tackle climate security create new security dynamics that are at least as dangerous as the ones they were meant to mitigate. .

Take, for example, how the growing demand for rare earth elements (REEs) – a key component of green technologies such as electric car batteries, solar panels and wind turbines – is amplifying geopolitical competition in the Arctic. . Driven in part by a desire to secure access to one of the world’s largest untapped sources of these increasingly important minerals, Russia, China and the United States are positioning themselves for a new cold war in the world. ‘Arctic.

Russia, for example, has significantly expanded its military footprint in the region in recent years, establishing new military commands and units in the Arctic; the construction or renovation of airfields, ports and military bases; and the deployment of coastal air defense and missile systems, early warning radars and various other military assets along its Arctic coast.

China has also entered the arena, declaring itself a “near arctic” state, calling for greater Chinese participation in the development of arctic shipping lanes as part of a so-called “arctic route.” polar silk ”and planning to expand exploration and exploitation of resources in the region. China is also considering a greater role for the Chinese military in securing China’s polar interests and is considering developing power projection capabilities – forces, basic infrastructure, etc. – which would allow it to fulfill its arctic vocation.

Finally, the United States also strengthened its military presence in the Arctic, re-establishing the 2nd Fleet for operations in the North Atlantic and the Arctic, launching freedom of navigation operations in Arctic waters, deploying B1 bombers -B in Norway and mobilizing NATO countries to strengthen their own army. deployments in the region.

These efforts are not simply aimed at securing access to rare earths, of course. As always, there are other interests in the mix. And, perhaps ironically, the intensification of geopolitical rivalry in the High North is only possible due to climate change and the shrinking polar ice cap.

But the basic point still holds. The geopolitical rebound effect of adopting greener technologies increases geopolitical competition – increased friction, more conflict, and perhaps even outright hostilities – as states seek to secure access to these resources.

Something, perhaps, for those attending the next COP26 to think about.

Andrew Latham is Professor of International Relations at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.


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