Climate Change and Geopolitics Workshop | June 24, 2021

July 21, 2021
By Scott Moore | Perry World House

The acceleration of climate change impacts makes it ever more apparent that climate change will be a defining feature of international relations, international security, and geopolitics for the foreseeable future. Yet for the most part, these fields lack a clear and coherent set of organizing principles to guide scholarly thinking on the effects and implications of climate change.

At the same time, recent debates over engaging China on climate change indicate that climate and energy policy must take greater account of the prevailing paradigm of great power competition. The policy relevance of these issues is highlighted by Executive Order 140008, signed by President Biden on January 27, 2021, which orders government agencies to identify and “mainstream” climate-related risks and issues into policy and strategic planning. 

To help address these issues, Perry World House convened a diverse group of scholars and policymakers for a workshop on Climate Change and Geopolitics on June 24, 2021. The gathering fostered greater dialogue between scholars of international relations, security, and geopolitics on the one hand and climate change and the environment on the other, both within their respective communities and with each other. This dialogue addressed specific theoretical and practical questions, such as the durability of the nation-state-centric world order and corresponding role of non-state and sub-state actors; and how to reconcile the need for collective action on climate change amidst pervasive geopolitical, economic, and ideological rivalry between the United States, China, and other powers.

The convening included three sessions, each of which aimed to address a specific set of questions within these overall topics and to assess the implications for policy at every level. The first addressed “Implications of Climate Change for the International Order: Non-State Actors, International Trade, Migration,” asking: What existing or potential climate impacts are ignored or insufficiently addressed by the current international institutional framework? Who should take the lead in filling these gaps? The second looked at the “Geopolitical and Security Dimensions of Climate Change: China, Transatlantic Relations, Gulf States, and International Organizations.” Participants spoke to how climate change will re-order relations between the United States, other major powers, and international organizations, as well as what policymakers need to do to respond. The final session picked up on this angle, as leading policy experts from municipal and national governments, the United Nations, think tanks, and the private sector answered: What do scholars miss about policymaking at the intersection of climate and national security policy? How can scholars and researchers help inform better policy?

At least four major themes emerged from the workshop as a whole that help to identify gaps in the current academic literature and in the understanding of policymakers. First, the nexus between climate change and geopolitics is relatively well explored with respect to a few countries or regions, especially the Arctic, high-latitude countries, and China, but not well covered in the literature with respect to other countries and regions. Second, the increasing centrality of climate change in international security is creating more complex dilemmas and tradeoffs between climate action and other normative issues and concerns. Perhaps the most poignant of these are accounts of forced labor and human rights abuses in China’s renewable energy supply chain, much of which is located in Xinjiang. Third, standard climate science products are not well geared to the needs of policymakers. While climate data itself is abundant, much of it is still not presented in an easily digestible form to policymakers, potentially increasing the possibility that policymakers have not fully internalized the risks of phenomena like non-linear climate effects, which are difficult to communicate succinctly. Fourth, finally, and on a related note, more sophisticated and spatially downscaled data and analysis are needed to help present policymakers with a more complete picture of climate risk, including not just changes to the physical environment but also the distribution of people and resources and their relationship to social and political systems.

Perhaps most important of all, the workshop created and strengthened a network of scholars and policymakers interested in exploring the impact of climate change on international security, and international security experts interested in addressing climate change, that can help support future work at the intersection of climate change and geopolitics. Watch this space!

This workshop was organized with support from Carnegie Corporation of New York.