Geopolitical Impacts of Climate Change: An Overview

The geopolitical implications of climate change are wide-ranging, creating not only local and regional instability, but also impacts seen on the international stage, creating security concerns. Climate-driven conflicts can occur all around the globe, however they tend to concentrate in areas where economic and political security are low. Increasingly frequent and severe floods, droughts, and other extreme weather events create resource scarcity, causing thousands of migrants to leave their homes and congregate in resource-rich areas. Lack of resources is a major driver of human migration and displacement, creating large geopolitical challenges for countries struggling with resource scarcity. This paper will examine four geographical regions with specific examples of the geopolitical implications of climate change. By examining these case studies, an emphasis on the global, interconnected nature of politics and climate is clearly formed.

Case Studies
The following regional case studies were selected to illustrate the geographic diversity and global impacts of climate change on geopolitics. The origin of climate-related issues, geopolitical repercussions, and local success and failures will all be discussed. However, the below regions should not be considered an all-inclusive list, as the impacts of climate change on geopolitics span the globe.

Middle East
Within the Middle East, climate conditions are regularly hot and arid. The region is home to 12 of the world’s 17 most water stressed countries. Agriculture depends on irrigation from major rivers and water sources. The changing climate has begun to elongate droughts and extreme weather events, forcing people of lower socioeconomic status to migrate to urban areas or other regions of the world, like Europe, to ensure their economic stability. The Middle East is warming at twice the global average. Limited resources are also a large driving factor in climate-related conflict and creates conditions conducive to the recruitment citizens into terrorist organizations. Lack of fresh water, desertification, extreme oil prices, and unreliable food production systems that are within or around countries in conflict or post-conflict transitions increases instability and violence.1,2,3

The Middle East and greater Mediterranean region have known conflict since ancient times, driven largely by the geography where three continents come together with the major powers of Europe, Asia and Africa. Competition for resources and power through two World Wars, the Cold War, and the Global War on Terror has left the region scarred and divided in terms of politics, social issues, and economic development. The already hot and dry climate and general lack of economic resources leaves the region more vulnerable to the ramifications of climate change compared to other parts of the world. Political instability makes efficient use of limited resources, especially water, difficult. This may be one reason that organized and modern farming practices utilized in developed nations is virtually non-existent in the region. The water stress of the region makes these modern farming practices more important. Climate change may decrease agricultural productivity, increasing the region’s reliance on food imports.4

Instability is used as a driving factor in resource management and prolonged resource scarcity at the hands of corrupt or insurgent governments, paving the way for terrorist organizations to monopolize scarce resources and further engage in violence. The violence, instability, and lack of basic resources are all factors driving emigration from the region by the millions in the last decade. Approximately 46% of the 30.6 million migrants leaving the Middle East and North Africa in 2019 stayed within the region with Saudi Arabia (3.4 million), Jordan (3.3 million) and Lebanon (1.7 million) taking in the most migrants. In the same year, the United States accepted approximately 1.3 million migrants from the Middle East and North Africa. Turkey accepted the largest number of migrants at approximately 4 million, followed by France at 3.3 million, and Germany at 1.3 million each. European nations are becoming weary of migration as the continent grapples with the effects of large-scale African migration and refugees from the war in Ukraine.5,6

Energy resources are also a significant source of geopolitical conflict. Advances in technology are making renewable energy sources more viable, however the emerging technologies cannot support global energy and transportation needs. Oil, natural gas, and coal still account for 86% of global energy consumption. The middle east accounts for nearly half of easily accessible oil worldwide and one-third of natural gas. Energy production drives economic development in the region which will be adversely affected by the transition to renewable energy long term. In the short term, the war in Ukraine leaves the EU looking for alternative energy sources outside of Russia. China, now the world’s largest net importer of oil, is investing in oil and gas exploration projects throughout the Middle East. The need to move these resources from the Middle East to the rest of the world creates tension along historic trade routes. The Strait of Hormuz, Strait of Malacca, Suez Canal, and other choke points on shipping lanes see frequent naval exercises and geopolitical posturing amongst world powers. China’s Belt and Road Initiative along these trade routes strategically places Chinese government influence in resource-rich regions. Countries participating in the initiative often find themselves indebted to China for the infrastructure projects China provides.7,8

Africa experiences the effects of climate change differently depending on the region. Across the continent, in 2020, one in five people faced hunger. Droughts in sub-Saharan Africa and the Horn of Africa, coupled with extreme flooding in West and Central Africa, creates unstable and uninhabitable conditions for millions of people. Recently, drastically changing weather patterns have caused flooding in parts of the Horn of Africa, forcing local populations to relocate. West Africa has been identified as a climate change hotspot, as the region’s crop yields diminish and create large impacts on food security. As resources are consistently scarce across many of the 52 countries that make up the continent of Africa, displaced persons are traveling north and crossing the Mediterranean Sea in hopes of reaching Europe. Limited resources create a perfect storm for armed conflict and terrorist organizations. Violence in many of these areas are due to both resource competition and a lack of governmental oversight and regulation, mostly related to corruption.9,10,11

Governmental forces or non-state armed groups have been implicated in human rights abuses in over 15 armed conflicts across Africa. Although the Central African Republic, Guinea and the International Criminal Court have opened trials in some cases, atrocities often go unpunished. Seeking justice for such crimes is difficult given the regularity with which local leaders manipulate elections and legal processes. Additionally, harassment and violence against journalists, activists and political opponents suppresses free speech and solidifies tyranny. Further complicating these issues is the presence and spread of foreign terrorist fighters, mercenaries (including Russia’s Wagner Group), and the influence of opposing international governments including the U.S., European countries, Russia, and China. Armed conflict has created a myriad of internally displaced people, refugees, and migrants to flee the violence, repression, poverty, and environmental factors.12

The level of migration into Europe has the European Union negotiating new policies on how to process asylum seekers. Italy and Greece are on the front lines of Mediterranean migration north, and while some EU nations are offering support, others are against receiving asylum seekers. This is especially true of Poland and Hungary who are currently hosting significant numbers of refugees from the war in Ukraine. As part of the current EU agreement (which has not had a final vote) countries would have the option of receiving migrants after a vetting process or paying 20,000 Euros for each migrant they do not accept.13

Moreover, conflicts such as the war in Ukraine have a grave impact on the receipt of critical resources, such as wheat, to East Africa. Twenty-five African countries import more than 1/3 of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine, while Benin in West Africa receives 100% of their wheat from Russia, and Somalia in East Africa receives 70% of their wheat from Ukraine and 30% from Russia. Russia recently reimposed their blockade of Ukrainian grain exports. Due to the instability the war has caused in supply chain, millions of people in Africa face extreme hunger and famine. The number of food insecure people worldwide has doubled in the past two years from 135 million to 276 million with more than half a million people living in famine conditions. This is an increase of 500% compared to 2016 levels. The G7 have pledged assistance to address food insecurity in Africa and there is some discussion of U.S. and allied navies potentially escorting Ukrainian grain shipments across the Black Sea.14,15

Although Africa has significant energy reserves, a lack of refining capacity means that resources must be exported overseas for refining and imported back into Africa. Worldwide economic issues and inflation exacerbate the issue causing a spike in African energy prices. African healthcare systems were stretch to the limit during the global pandemic are struggling to recover and resupply. Additionally, the World Bank recently issued warnings that developing countries owe record amounts of debt to wealthier nations, banks, bondholders, and China in particular. The G7 is considering backing off their previous commitments not to finance natural gas projects overseas. This may be the result of Europe’s changing views on importing Russian natural gas as Europe looks for other sources of energy.14

Africa has large reserves of natural resources, especially rare earth minerals. Africa could someday surpass China for rare earth mineral production, making it strategically important to global powers and fueling geopolitical tension in the region. China and Russia have been expanding their influence throughout Africa in recent years, often offering infrastructure projects and military support making countries indebted in virtual perpetuity. As the U.S. and European nations seek to ease the tension of migration, offer help to African nations, and potentially become involved in African energy projects, the great power competition in Africa is likely to become even more heightened.16,17

The implications of climate change in Asia are also highly concerning. Heavy monsoon rains and intense flooding, elongated droughts, and increased temperatures make regions in Asia, such as the South, one of the world’s most vulnerable regions. Extreme weather events occur more frequently there, leaving minimal recovery time for communities. This strains agricultural industries and the freshwater supplies across the continent, forcing millions to migrate, often from rural to urban areas. Mass migration affects infrastructure and resource availability in the cities to which people relocates, willingly or otherwise. The nature of their migration is called “climate mobility.”18,19

Climate mobility describes three (3) forms of population movement, including displacement, where people are forced to leave; migration, wherein they move voluntarily; and, finally, planned relocation, which is enforced by the state. These forms can overlap and may happen simultaneously, making it difficult to monitor trends. There were 38 million instances of displacement in 2021 worldwide, with 14.3 million (37.6%) from the East Asia and Pacific region, which includes those displaced more than once. More than half of these displacements (23.7 million) worldwide and 95% in the East Asia and Pacific region were due to weather. The Southeast Asian countries with the most displacements due to weather in 2021 were the Philippines (5,681,000), Indonesia (749,000), Vietnam (780,000), and Myanmar (158,000). Half were from rural areas, including indigenous communities, and half had already been displaced by weather in the past.20

In South Asia, most weather-related migration is also from rural to urban areas. Weather events like Cyclone Amphan in May 2020 often force populations to leave. In May 2009, Cyclone Aila forced out 2.3 million citizens in India, along with almost a million in Bangladesh. Pakistan’s July 2010 floods damaged or destroyed 1.1 million homes and displaced about 11 million people. Many resettled in urban areas. In 2012, floods displaced 1.5 million in the Indian state of Assam. In dry regions, water shortages have caused farmers, fishermen, and others dependent upon the water supply to migrate to cities. This mass displacement is compounded by the large number agricultural workers and those from densely populated coastal areas.21

Weather-related disasters can be exacerbated by inadequate facilities and infrastructure, which pose risks to human health, particularly in rural areas with limited response capacity. Warm conditions and heavy rainfall are precursors to a myriad of vector-borne diseases. Certain insects such as mosquitos that carry diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and zika become increasingly prevalent, creating a large health hazard for those living in such conditions. An increase in disease causes an increased strain on health and hospital resources, particularly in areas where resources are scarce.18

Central and South America
Climate-related disasters such as extreme weather events, irregular precipitation patterns, deforestation, and high temperatures across Central and South America contribute to high food insecurity and uninhabitable living conditions. It is estimated that 17,000,000 people in Latin America will be forced to relocate within 30 years due to climate related changes in agriculture production and regional stability. As with their counterparts in Asia, these migrants will relocate from areas with less water and inadequate crop yield and from areas affected by rising sea levels and storm surges. This will have implications for climate-sensitive industry, for infrastructure, and for social support systems, particularly in urban areas where climate migrants are likely to settle.22,23

Since 2014, farmers have lost an estimated 70% of their crop during many harvests due to droughts. Recent studies have indicated that, although climate change has not necessarily reduced rainfall, it has increased heat and evaporation and made droughts worse. For example, 2022 was central Argentina’s driest year since 1960, with the region receiving roughly half its average rainfall during the last four (4) months of the year. Low rainfall combined with high temperatures led to widespread crop failure. Agricultural exports for 2023 are projected to further drop 28% compared to 2022. Uruguay also declared an agricultural emergency in October 2022 when 60% of the country’s territory experienced significant drought. Along with natural disasters exacerbated by climate change, crop failure can force residents to relocate to areas where resource stability is prevalent, and critical infrastructure is better able to withstand natural disasters. It also causes migrants from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and elsewhere to travel to the southern border of the United States to seek asylum. Mass migration affects infrastructure, law enforcement, and the resources of local and national governments along a group’s path. It also creates security concerns in and around areas of congregation and at a group’s final destination.24,25

The harmful effects of climate change in the Middle East, Africa, Asia, and Central and South America include famine, mass migrations of persons to resource stable areas of the world, growing violent extremism, and conflicts over resources and the procurement of future resources. These issues create strain on governments and non-governmental organizations who are working to ensure the displaced populations have their basic needs met. Persons fleeing climate-related instability and conflict congregate around areas where such organizations are present, to include U.S. military installations. It is assumed that the installations will provide persons with basic necessities, such as food, water, shelter, and basic emergency health care. This can strain installation resources and affect the installation’s security posture. Moreover, host nations are only able to provide limited resources to such communities, creating strain on supply systems and host nation security forces. Both the short- and long-term effects of climate change will continue to disrupt and uproot civilians around the globe, resulting in notable impacts in the geopolitical realm. RMC’s Intelligence & Analysis Division continues to monitor relevant climate and geopolitical developments in order to analyze potential impacts to client assets, personnel, and operations.


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