Nov 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Climate shuffles superpowers

Map of areas with potential for climate hazards

Data: Department of Defense Risk Analysis Oct. 2021; Map: Jacque Schrag/Axios

Drought, rising sea levels and melting ice caps are transforming the geopolitical map at the same time China's rise and revanchist Russia are testing the limits of American power.

Driving the news: These dynamics, outlined in the first-ever National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on climate change, released last month, played out this past week at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. President Biden rebuked China's Xi Jinping for failing to show up or present new commitments.

Why it matters: U.S. intelligence assessments show climate change is threatening military assets and opening new fronts in the great-power competition defining the 21st century.

  • Biden has sought to place the "existential threat" of climate change squarely at the center of his national security policy, while at the same time casting China as the "biggest geopolitical challenge" facing the U.S.
  • Those two priorities are inextricably linked: China is the world's largest source of carbon emissions, and its cooperation is critical to preventing some of the worst effects of global warming.

Details: The NIE, which was mandated in Biden's first week in office, lays out three main risks to U.S. national security interests through 2040.

1. Geopolitical tensions will intensify as countries debate who bears responsibility to act — and who is not doing enough to combat climate change.

  • Chinese officials have refused to agree to U.S. requests on climate until the Biden administration drops its rhetoric on Beijing's human rights abuses and aggression toward Taiwan.
  • Some Chinese officials also point to the fact that industrialized countries have far higher cumulative emissions, and have accused the U.S. of politicizing the climate agenda to depress China's economic growth.

2. The global map itself is physically changing, establishing new frontiers for competition and exacerbating cross-border flashpoints.

  • Melting sea ice in the Arctic will create new shipping routes, free up oil and mineral resources, and pave the way for greater economic competition.
  • The risk of military confrontation or miscalculation will also grow, as the U.S. and China seek to bolster their presence in a region dominated by Russia.
  • In the Indo-Pacific, which the Biden administration has identified as the new global center of strategic rivalry, sea-level rise and more frequent extreme events will put key military assets at risk, the Pentagon said in a new climate risk analysis.
  • Growing water and resource scarcity could turn China's simmering tensions with India — another burgeoning global power and a key partner to the U.S. — into an outright conflict.

3. The effects of the climate crisis will be felt most acutely in developing countries, which will depend on humanitarian assistance and foreign investment to bolster their resilience.

  • China already has a strong foothold in many sub-Saharan African and Asian countries, and continues to grow its influence through the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative.

The bottom line: Addressing climate change while staying competitive with strategic rivals is not a zero-sum game, says John Conger, a former senior Pentagon official who oversaw energy installations and the environment during the Obama administration.

  • He equated it to a chess match in which players sitting across from each other must navigate a changing board.
  • "If you start losing or gaining squares, that is part of the whole picture," Conger told Axios. "And they're not immune from any of this."
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