How Climate Change Is Shaping International Relations

Bread riots, water wars, an influx of climate migrants, growing tensions in the world and the retailoring of the political landscape – all of these are potential consequences of global warming for world politics. Recognition of the importance of climate change and the need to counter it are considered to be the proprieties for politicians in all countries, but political considerations are preventing the formulation of global approaches to this issue. The first part of the Valdai Club’s project “Climate and Politics” describes how the climate agenda is affecting international relations.

In 1992, Rio de Janeiro hosted the Third Earth Summit, the biggest conference on environment in UN history. On the eve of the summit, the leading Western countries that were going through the triumphal end of the Cold War were strongly criticised by the environmental activists for “shamelessly high” levels of natural resources consumption, which threatened the planet’s sustainable development. It is claimed that in response to this the then US President George H. W. Bush is reported to have said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiations. Period.” Following the example of the most responsible authors, we will not ascribe these words to him with 100 percent certainty. However, ten years later, his son was reminded of them since his administration refused to upgrade the fuel efficiency standards for off-road vehicles and SUVs, which are popular in the US. Even if George Bush’s words were not quoted precisely, the US Government developed its own climate policy in the first half of the 2000s in the belief that the Americans were entitled to the sacred right to burn as much fuel as they like. Not to mention that this “way of life” ensures permanent income for the powerful oil corporations.

Today, such statements cross the line of political decency. “World leaders perceive continued emissions [of carbon dioxide] as the number one threat,” says Valdai Club Programme Director Oleg Barabanov. “All real political moves, be it the Kyoto Protocol, the Paris Agreement or the European Green Deal emphasise the fact of temperature change,” he adds. Even US President Donald Trump who rejected the impact of the anthropogenic factor on climate change until recently, is now trying to position himself as a champion of environmental protection. “As someone who cares deeply about the environment, which I do, I cannot in good conscience support a deal that punishes the United States – which is what it does – the world’s leader in environmental protection, while imposing no meaningful obligations on the world’s leading polluters,” he declared announcing America’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. In the same speech, Trump said he loved American workers and American miners who must not be disadvantaged by the deal imposed on the US, and expressed readiness to start talks on the agreement “on terms that are fair to the United States.”

Nevertheless, the statement on the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement has threatened the efforts to achieve goals set on preventing the temperature increase on the planet because America is still one of the three top polluters. Obviously, the issues of global warming can only be resolved at the global level. Meanwhile, it is difficult to reach international consensus on this issue.

“The international community finds it very difficult to sign any international agreements that provide for tough commitments on reducing pollution because of the strong resistance of the states and companies that will be the hardest hit by regulation,” says Igor Makarov, head of Laboratory for Economics of Climate Change, Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs at the Moscow-based Higher School of Economics. “Probably, there is only one successful example at the global level – The Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer. That said, even its success was largely determined by the appearance in the market of new ozone-safe technology that gradually ousted traditional ones,” he says.

Donald Trump’s example convincingly shows how national leaders can disrupt the implementation of the global climate agenda. What matters is not their political orientation but commitments to their voters and the need to uphold the interests of business. “Even liberal darling Justin Trudeau pushed through the purchase by the Canadian government for $3.4 billion of the Kinder Morgan Corporation’s Trans Mountain pipeline,” says Richard Lachmann, Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany. “The purchase will allow Canada to then spend government funds to triple the pipeline’s capacity to transport oil sands from Alberta to Pacific ports where it then can be exported. Oil sands produce more CO2 than any other type of oil.”

This is exactly why non-government actors are playing the leading role in promoting the climate agenda. The ideas of climate protection are increasingly gaining a foothold in public opinion. Corporations producing fossil fuels are one of the main targets (although it should be noted for justice’s sake that its consumers – primarily transport and electricity generation facilities – account for over a half of all greenhouse emissions). Richard Lachmann is convinced that only large-scale protests can defeat oil-and-gas corporations, “Protesters will need the support of intellectuals and journalists who can uncover and expose the corruption behind the continuing massive subsidies governments, rich and poor offer to fossil fuel industries.”

Indeed, many political decisions are made owing to public concern over climate change and the penetration of the political agenda by environmental issues in the broad sense of this word. Tougher regulations and concern about their image are prompting companies to change their conduct. “At present, many oil-and-gas companies are actively investing in renewable energy sources,” Igor Makarov notes. “Nobody compels them to do this. They are guided by sober premeditation – if they do not diversify their assets and adapt to this green transformation of the global economy, they may end up on a scrapheap,” he explains. Makarov believes that an efficient international regime of countering climate change may be established from “the bottom up.” “There are companies and enthusiastic states that are ready to invest in clean technology, gradually making it less expensive,” he goes on to say, “With time, their policy is turning into an international standard. Those economic agents that do not follow it lose their competitive ability because their customers are giving up on them and they face administrative barriers in the markets of industrialised countries. Being ‘green’ in this situation is becoming an advantage.”

So, the main actors of the climate drama unfolding on the international scene are societies, governments and corporations. The growth of public concern over climate issues is increasing their role in political programmes. Attitudes toward climate change vary from country to country and from generation to generation. However, those who do not see it as a threat are in the minority on a global scale as well. According to the Gallup poll in 2019, such individuals amount to a mere 13 percent. Professor at Georgetown University in Qatar Anatol Lieven says, “On the one hand, most decent people care at least a bit about the wellbeing of their children and grandchildren. On the other, any serious and responsible national leader spends at least some time thinking about the future of his or her nation.”

As for businesses, the more far-sighted companies are striving to anticipate legislative trends and prepare for tougher climate standards. This will allow them to claim shares in the market from those unable to adapt to the new reality, as well as to receive green economy subsidies. In addition, the non-green image will have far-reaching negative consequences for companies. In 2016, the Norwegian oil company Statoil sold its assets engaged in the development of the afore-mentioned Canadian oil sands, and in 2019 the Norwegian Pension Fund Kommunal Landspensjonskasse, which manages $81 billion in assets, declared its refusal to work with companies that receive a profit of over 5 percent from oil-bearing sands. Russia’s Tatneft was on the list of these companies.

Rich vs poor

The problem of responsibility is one of the main reasons making it so difficult for the international community to find a common language on countering climate change. China and India are first and third in the world in greenhouse emissions. However, the current level of greenhouse gases in the air is primarily a result of the industrial advance of the Western countries, which, until the last third of the 20th century, were not constrained by any environmental considerations. Now that there is universal awareness of the threat to the climate, it is the Western states that have the finances and technology for transitioning to a greener economy.

As for China and India, and a number of other so-called emerging economies, national development remains their priority. About 300 million people in the world live on less than one dollar per day and have no access to electricity. They are resolving these tasks by using the resources available to them: coal, one of the dirtiest hydrocarbons, accounts for about 60 percent of all electricity generation. It is also coal that is to blame for the absolute majority of carbon dioxide emissions.

Resources: Leaders of Consumption
The existing constraints on access to resources, innovations, technology, knowledge and the global labor market are a source of growing disaffection. Global fragmentation is prevailing over global cohesion.

These countries refuse pointblank to be punished by the international emission control rules for pursuing their national development goals. This is one of the few issues in which India and China are in solidarity. In May 2015, the leaders of the two states issued a joint statement, pointing out that the developed and developing countries bear “differentiated responsibilities” for climate change. They called for the leadership of developed countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and providing finance, technology and capacity building support to developing countries.

There are models that make it possible to assess the level of responsibility of different countries for global warming, proceeding from their historical contribution to greenhouse emissions. According to one of them, created by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI), as of 2010, the US accounted for 37 percent of this responsibility, the EU (with the UK) for 24 percent, Russia for 7 percent, Japan for 5 percent, China for 2 percent and India for 0.1 percent. A fair solution of the global warming problem would imply proportionate efforts of the states concerned. It is no surprise that people in the developing countries are very enthusiastic about such calculations.

Moreover, a considerable part of the developing countries’ emissions are sent to advanced states as a carbon footprint. This amounts to “the outsourcing of emissions.” The authors of the report The Carbon Loophole in Climate Policy (2018) note that a quarter of all produced emissions are being exported, with China being the largest exporter and the US the biggest importer.

“Of course those countries are correct that they have produced very little CO2 and so should not have to pay much toward the solution. Of course the rich countries should assume most of the costs,” says Richard Lachmann, adding, “However, poor countries should realize that today green energy is cheaper to install than power plants that use carbon fuels. Poorer countries’ decisions to build carbon fuel plants are the result of corruption not rational planning.”

By way of example Lachmann mentions the business empire of Indian billionaire Gautam Adani. According to him, Adani used long-term ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi to receive loan guarantees, subsidies and benefits for the coal electric power station Mundra Thermal Power Plant. “Green power entrepreneurs in South Asia now will have to compete against subsidised coal power,” notes Lachmann. In early 2020, Adani declared that he intends to make his company a world leader in solar energy by 2025 and in renewable energy sources by 2030. In simple terms, the strategy is aimed at first making money on “dirty” energy and then investing into “clean”. This strategy is bound to receive understanding in the Government.

Yet, it is the developing countries that are threatened with the most destructive consequences of global warming. “It is the poorer countries of the world that are going to be the worst affected by climate change, and earlier than anyone else,” notes Anatol Lieven, “whether due to their greater geographical exposure to floods and droughts; the fact that many of them are already suffering from severe water shortages; the lack of adequate disaster prevention and relief facilities; over-population; and ethnic, religious and social strains which are likely to be worsened by mass migration due to climate change. They therefore have vital national interests of their own in the effort to limit climate change.” In fact, the leaders of many developing nations are facing today the “survival vs development” dilemma, which is aggravated by electoral considerations. Claims to leadership on behalf of the Western countries are probably one of the most consistent parts of their climate agenda.

“Experts are increasingly often talking about ‘environmental neocolonialism’ when advanced countries are denying the poorest states the right to development,” Oleg Barabanov notes. “For the most part, the poorest states reduce the problem to asking for money and that’s it. But there are indicative exceptions: Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are ahead of the whole planet in promoting the ideas of blue economy,” he says. 

Tiny SIDS control about 30 percent of all seas and oceans by means of their exclusive economic zones. This is why the policy that is called “green” on the ground goes under the name of “blue” in their case. One of its instruments is “blue bonds” that are used to finance projects aimed at preserving the oceans. The Seychelles placed the first blue bonds under the World Bank’s free loan guarantees in 2018. They are designed to expand protected marine areas, control over fishing zones and development of the insular economy. The new financial instrument was welcomed by the market and now Indonesia is going to follow suit.

Climate riots and climate migrants

As a result of unprecedented drought, grain harvests in Russia in 2010 dropped by 35 percent and an embargo on wheat exports was introduced. Egypt had been one of the biggest importers of Russian grain since the start of the 21st century. By that time, Russian grain was a market leader owing to its competitiveness. Production and supply of cheap bread to the people played a key role in ensuring social stability in the country: a system of food aid covered almost 70 percent of the Egyptian population. Lack of bread due to Russian supply shortages became one of the reasons for the popular unrest that led to the end of the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak.

Experts believe it was the 2010 heat wave that prompted Russian society to realise the importance of climate change, while Egypt offered an example of how climate may influence political processes. Bread and water are two vital resources access to which is threatened by the global warming.

“Food riots have taken place in history many times,” recalls Igor Makarov. “The lack of fresh water is more recent. However, in the 1990s a number of water riots took place in Bolivia, Tanzania, and Argentina, to name a few. Of course, there is every reason to believe that the number of such riots will increase in the future,” he predicts.

Can conflicts over base resources become international? “Former World Bank Vice President Ismail Serageldin made a famous prediction, ‘If the wars of this century were fought over oil, the wars of the next century will be fought over water.’ However, this prediction is not coming true,” Makarov notes. “Water is an important issue of differences between many countries but an armed conflict will break out only if this factor is aggravated by ethnic, territorial or other contradictions.”

In 2019-2020, tensions escalated in the dispute between Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan over the Nile. Ethiopia is building the Hidase hydroelectric power station (the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam) that is supposed to be the most powerful in Africa. Its capacity is enough to meet all electricity requirements of the nation of 100 million inhabitants. At the same time, it threatens water supplies to Egypt, which also is home to 100 million people. The expected reduction in the water flow in Nile may cut down fresh water reserves, cause the disappearance of thousands of hectares of irrigated land and a drop in electricity generation at Egypt’s largest Aswan power plant. Egypt demands that Ethiopia fill the Blue Nile reservoir with water for ten years and that it be under the control of the states located downstream. Ethiopia is blatantly against this. The countries are holding talks on a Nile water agreement but there has been no progress in the offing and observers warn that Egypt may try to resolve this problem by force.

However, this situation is more an exception than a rule. “At least in the near to medium term, I don’t think that war between states is the greatest threat,” Anatol Lieven says. “This will only be the case if things become truly desperate. Rather, the danger is of increased conflict within societies, leading to internal and international migration.”

Challenge of Migration
The global migration problem has only grown more urgent in recent years. A prime example is the migrant crisis in the European Union that has led to the collapse of European solidarity.

“It is hardly possible to allocate a special category for climate migration,” Igor Makarov warns. “It is difficult to isolate the climate factor from the socioeconomic context: people rarely move abroad because of climate change alone. However, climate change may play an important intermediary role when, for instance, a territory becomes unfit for agriculture due to increasing droughts,” he notes.

According to the UN, in 2018, the number of migrants who left their homes because of climate change amounted to over 17 million in 142 countries. According to the World Bank, from 2018 to 2050 the number of such migrants will reach at least 143 million. Experts believe that by and large the world is not ready for such a population shift, all the more so since 85 percent of all refugees are accepted by developing rather than developed nations, noted Director of the Migration Research Center (MRC) Dmitry Poletayev. Anti-migrant attitudes spread there in exactly the same way as in the wealthy Western countries but the consequences may be much worse.

“The problem of the gradual flooding of Bangladesh territories has been discussed for over a decade, Poletayev says. “However, the tough position of India (which almost wholly surrounds Bangladesh) has already become an obstacle for a potential mass migration from that country. India has recently upgraded its migration law and will not accept a mass flow of Muslim refugees from Bangladesh where the overwhelming majority of the population profess Islam.” “The most ferociously enforced border fence to stop migrants is the one that was created by India along its border with Bangladesh, along which more than 1,100 Bangladeshi civilians have been killed by Indian border forces during the past decade. This policy has become even tougher under the Hindu nationalist government of Narendra Modi,” Anatol Lieven adds. 

A dislike of migrants is also changing the political landscape in the West. Left-wing movements traditionally protect migration and corporations have unexpectedly started to align with them. “Many Western capitalists desire cheap imported labour for economic reasons and as a way of undermining trade unions and lowering wages,” Anatol Lieven notes. However, the latest electoral trends show that societies are increasingly prone to support politicians opposing migration – either forced or those seeking work, both of which, according to Dmitry Poletayev, are much more amenable to control.

“Apparently, we are seeing a long-term trend towards the growth of restrictions on permanent-residence entry for all categories of migrants, including climate refugees,” the expert notes. “During the ‘the perfect storm’ of 2020, the global migration aftermath which will still have to be assessed, developed countries will be even less willing to accept refugees. We can only hope that the international community clearly understands the danger of growing “migrantophobia” and is will strive to avoid ‘a war of everyone against everyone,’” he says.

Returning to climate, it should be noted that it is the anti-immigrant right-wing forces that are the least prone to agree with the climate agenda. “The anger towards migrants fuels right-wing parties that are the least willing to counter climate change,” Lachmann says. This cycle of political feedback will only make the situation worse, he warns. This is not least because environmental initiatives have long been the province of left-wing parties and are offered in a package with socio-economic measures that are resented by the right-wing camp. But there are also justified apprehensions that a transition to a green economy will deal a blow at traditional sectors and give the advantage to those transnationals that will be the first to adapt to the new reality. All these factors create the groundwork for the growth of political polarisation and social tensions.

Protecting climate during the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic that started in 2020 has again raised the issue of relations between humans and nature. Contrary to internet-memes that circulated in spring, nature is not “healing”. A September interdepartmental report of the leading research organisations United in Science 2020 states: “Climate Change has not stopped for COVID 19.”

Atmospheric CO2 concentrations have continued to increase to new highs. After a temporary reduction in emissions caused by the COVID-19 confinement policies and a drop in the economic activity, they are again approaching pre-pandemic levels, “The world is set to see its warmest five years on record – in a trend which is likely to continue – and is not on track to meet agreed targets to keep global temperature increase well below 2 °C or at 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels,” the report observed.

All negative changes brought about by the warming continue, the report authors wrote. A reduction in emissions as a result of suspended economic activity will not decrease CO2 concentrations in the air. The melting of polar ice accelerates the rise in sea levels of the world’s oceans. Droughts and floods lead to catastrophic consequences. The measures taken to reduce emissions are not sufficient. Humanity must change its consumption models.

Nonetheless, experts believe the pandemic has influenced human attitudes toward nature. “Many people recognize because of the pandemic that humans are not able to control the natural environment and that we must be more respectful of our place on the planet,” notes Richard Lachmann. He is echoed by Anatol Lieven, who says: “The pandemic has shown us how a natural phenomenon can inflict colossal damage even on wealthy societies (and by the way, one universally predicted consequence of climate change is the spread of tropical diseases).”

Certain changes have also taken place in political culture. “The pandemic has echoed past experiences of wartime, in that it has accustomed people to the idea that states have the right to impose severe restrictions on human behaviour and freedoms for the sake of the public good (though many societies have resisted this strongly),” goes on.

When Disasters and Epidemics Become a New Normal
Oleg Barabanov
Over the past half century, or in the 75 years since the end of World War II, the human community has developed at an unprecedented speed. The scientific and technological revolution led to a real breakthrough in the field of transport communications; the Internet and mobile communications not only caused a revolution, but also qualitatively changed the areas of trade, investment, etc. Globalisation, understood not only as a single system of world trade, but as a new quality of mobility and the interconnectedness of people, has become a reality that transcends state borders.

Many analysts believe that we are entering a new era where our goals will be not to develop and increase consumption but to counter the risks that will be increasingly acquiring a global scale. Under these circumstances, the almost forgotten concept of sacrifice may return to political reality, Lieven believes. “Serious sacrifices will be necessary if carbon emissions are to be rapidly reduced,” he says. “Higher fuel prices, higher taxes, higher prices for imported goods, limits on international flights. Our societies have become deeply hostile to the idea of sacrifice. That is why nationalism (or patriotism, if you prefer) is so important as a motivating force. At the same time, we should not join sections of the Left (like Naomi Klein) in fantasizing that we need to abolish capitalism in order to combat climate change. That is not going to happen (unless or until modern society collapses as a result of climate change). Rather, we need to reshape and regulate capitalism, as was done by the USA and European states in the 1930s and 40s in response to the Great Depression and the Second World War.”

In the second part of our project we will explore how capitalism could adapt to the new reality.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.