How Russia and China are preparing to exploit a warming planet

POLITICO’s latest Global Translations podcast explores how climate change is reshaping power dynamics among America’s adversaries.

Hurricanes, floods, and wildfires aside, climate change is delivering another threat: a remaking of geopolitics that stands to empower some of America’s adversaries and rivals.

As Arctic ice melts, Russia stands to gain access to oil and gas fields historically locked beneath northern ice — and is building up capability to launch cruise missiles from newly navigable waters to threaten America’s coastlines.

As polar seaways open up, China is eyeing a new “Polar Silk Road” — shorter shipping routes that could cut weeks off of shipping times from Asia to Europe.

And as drought drives more farmers and herders off their lands, extremist groups in Africa and the Middle East are finding fresh recruits.

These are just some of the ways climate change stands to reshape the power dynamics between nations that emerged from interviews for POLITICO’s Global Translations podcast.

Climate change is “making all of our challenges — whether it’s

  • terrorism,
  • weapons of mass destruction,
  • violent extremism or
  • great power competition between China and Russia —

that much more challenging,” said Sherri Goodman, a former deputy undersecretary of defense who led studies of climate impacts on national security for the Center for Naval Analyses.

Some of the biggest power shifts are around the Arctic, which Goodman called “ground zero for the nexus of national security and climate change. In our lifetime, a whole new ocean has opened up because with climate change the sea ice is retreating, the oceans are warming and the permafrost is collapsing.”

A global quest for resources is already underway in the Arctic, said Goodman, now a senior fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center Polar Institute. “There are thought to be vast stores of fossil fuels, oil and gas and minerals across the Arctic that have not yet been tapped. Russia is doing so today across its vast Arctic coastline with the help of China,” she said.

Russia is vying for control of Arctic seaways and has built some 40 icebreakers — ships that can channel through ice. “Russia envisions under Putin a northern sea route that is essentially a toll road that requires Russian Arctic escorts in the form of icebreakers or other patrol boats, escorting not only the Chinese but others who want to ship across the Arctic,” she said. By contrast, the U.S. has only two icebreakers, she said.

Meanwhile, China, which is not a polar country, has launched aggressive Arctic diplomacy and gained non-voting observer status for itself at the Arctic Council, the international forum that addresses policy in the Arctic. Last year, China issued its first arctic policy.

“It envisions a Polar Silk Road that stretches from Shanghai across potentially to Hamburg and Reykjavik and parts of Europe across Russia’s vast northern sea route hugging the Russian coastline and both exploiting the energy resources there, potential transport opportunities, shipping, research,” Goodman said.

President Donald Trump’s interest in buying Greenland was driven in part by resources newly available because of melting ice. The Danish government quickly rebuffed the idea, but the incident could be seen as an acknowledgment of climate change from a leader who has derided global warming as a hoax.

Climate change poses additional security consequences. U.S. military bases at home and abroad have already been strained by destructive hurricanes and flooding that have cost billions of dollars to repair — and extreme weather has stretched thin the disaster response capabilities of the military. When hurricanes hit Florida and Puerto Rico and the East Coast of the United States in 2017 and 2018, the military had to slow the flow of forces to Afghanistan in order to be able to provide relief at home. Meanwhile, troops have to operate in higher temperatures across Asia and the Middle East, where temperatures now regularly are over 100 degrees and face a broader array of infectious diseases.

Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base incurred billions of dollars in damage from Hurricane Michael in 2018 when winds tore through the roofs of hangars and destroyed buildings. Congress has in recent years directed the Department of Defense to address the climate resilience of military bases and climate risks to operating forces.

“The Department of Defense is beginning to integrate these risks into its strategy plans and plans,” Goodman said.

Another geopolitical threat is migration — whether from low-lying island states that stand to lose fresh water drinking supply or coastal areas susceptible to typhoons. Prolonged drought is believed to contribute to conflicts in the Middle East.

“We know that in Syria the prolonged drought that preceded the civil unrest there was a contributing factor to that unrest, which became instability, which led to the violent extremism, which has become the deadliest civil war in modern times,” she said.

Elsewhere, drought-prone countries are buying up land to grow water-intensive crops in what is called the “virtual water” trade. For example, China has been buying agricultural land in the U.S. and Europe to harvest water-intensive crops such as alfalfa.

Simon Dalby, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, told the podcast that the geopolitical consequences can be difficult to predict. He cited the impacts of a 2010 drought in Russia which led the Kremlin to limit wheat exports, setting off a chain reaction.

“International markets panicked. The price went up quickly — and it is indeed suggested that in fact part of the Arab Spring was partly a response to those price fluctuations. So political disturbances across the Middle East might indeed have been related to the drought in Russia, which was probably at least partly caused by climate fluctuations. So this is where we see how dramatically the global economy and the ecology is interconnected,” he said.

The world will need emergency stockpiles of food and disaster relief aid, he said.

And, he noted, while warming may open up certain regions to new agriculture, unpredictable rainfall and flooding can wreak havoc on crops. “This is much trickier than simply saying, ‘Oh because it’s warmer, Russia will do better.’ It’s not that simple,” he said.

Climate change is transforming agriculture itself.

Increased concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere ramps up photosynthesis and makes crops grow more quickly. But the phenomenon has been shown to reduce nutrient density in some crops, like rice. Researchers have begun studying how many people might be at risk for iron or zinc deficiency as a result.

Like governments, businesses are studying how to address long-term risks to their business models, said Gary Litman, vice president for global initiatives at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

“We definitely need to prepare, to adjust, to adapt to climate change to mitigate the impact of the industry on climate,” he said. But he added that it’s part of a broader pressure on companies to address long-term environmental sustainability and compete for increasingly scarce resources. “We’re dealing with finite resources. There’s not going to be more cobalt on this planet. There is not going to be new soil on this planet. There is not going to be a new oxygen on this planet,” he said.

He noted that advanced technologies, such as batteries, require rare metals. “You cannot address the climate issue — you cannot prepare, for example, for the rise of the oceans — if you don’t invest in new construction materials. How do you build the dam? If you use the current resources, you’ll run out of gravel before you build anything. If you don’t have access to reliable supply of cobalt, you won’t be able to switch to e-mobility,” he said.

How conservatism is changing in the Trump era

The 1970s saw the proliferation of single-issue interest groups that constituted the New Right. The first Conservative Political Action Conference was held in 1973. In 1977, a year after losing the Republican nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford, Reagan addressed the conference. “The new Republican party I am speaking about,” he said, “is going to have room for the man and the woman in the factories, for the farmer, for the cop on the beat, and the millions of Americans who may never have thought of joining our party before, but whose interests coincide with those represented by principled Republicanism.”

.. American Affairs got its start as a blog, the Journal of American Greatness, whose objective was to provide, in the words of its most famous contributor, “a sensible, coherent Trumpism.”

.. It is not Trumpism but this larger concept that needs to be made sensible and coherent. I am speaking of nationalism.

.. It is not Trumpism but this larger concept that needs to be made sensible and coherent. I am speaking of nationalism.

.. When the Cold War ended, Mitchell writes, victorious elites in Washington, London, and Brussels began constructing a world where attachments to national identity would be attenuated or even severed. One would belong to a group above the nation — be a “citizen of the world,” an employee of a multinational corporation or NGO, a partisan of Davos, a subject of the EU — or to a hyphenated group below it.

.. Increasingly, power is shifted away from individuals elected to represent the political community toward unelected officials qualified to hold the positions responsible for administering the government — that is, providing for consumption. Like all managers, they derive their power from the administrative expertise and credentials that qualify them for office rather than from democratic legitimacy. They are accountable, that is, not to the political community but to the other managers that define their qualifications.

.. This lack of accountability has been highlighted again and again over the last 16 years. First 9/11 happened and no one was fired. Then Saddam turned out not to have had WMD and no one was fired. The economy came close to collapse — and the banks were bailed out.

.. This lack of accountability has been highlighted again and again over the last 16 years. First 9/11 happened and no one was fired. Then Saddam turned out not to have had WMD and no one was fired. The economy came close to collapse — and the banks were bailed out.

US ‘got it so wrong’ on Saddam Hussein, says CIA analyst who interrogated dictator

‘We never thought about using weapons of mass destruction,’ former Iraqi ruler told CIA

Mr Nixon also criticised the conduct of George W Bush, under whose leadership America invaded Iraq, saying the former president heard “only what he wanted to hear” on the topic.

..

During the interrogations, Mr Nixon asked Hussein if he’d ever thought of engaging in a pre-emptive strike with WMDs against US troops based in Saudi Arabia.

According to Mr Nixon, writing in the Mail on Sunday, the former dictator’s reply was: “We never thought about using weapons of mass destruction. It was not discussed. Use chemical weapons against the world? Is there anyone with full faculties who would do this? Who would use these weapons when they had not been used against us?”

 .. Hussein then said America had made such a grave misjudgement because “the spirit of listening and understanding was not there” and some of the blame for this lay with himself.The faulty intelligence surrounding WMDs wasn’t the only mistake the Americans made about Iraq.

According to Mr Nixon, Hussein warned him against the nation building the American government was attempting in the country.

“You are going to fail,” Hussein told him. “You are going to find that it is not so easy to govern Iraq.”

If Donald Trump Is So Upset About Iraq WMD Lies, Why Would He Want to Hire John Bolton?

DONALD TRUMP’S REACTION to news that some U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia intervened in the 2016 presidential election on his behalf was to fire back: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.”

He might have had a point — were it not for the fact that he was being so obviously and ludicrously insincere. Case in point: Trump is said to be on the brink of appointing John Bolton as deputy secretary of state. He is arguably the man most responsible for hiding the truth about Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs.

.. The Bush administration, with Bolton as undersecretary of state for arms control, arrived in Washington, D.C., in 2001 with the goal of invading Iraq. They weren’t motivated by whatever WMDs Iraq might or might not have, but, as a senior administration official later explained, by the simple and highly galling fact of Saddam Hussein’s “defiance” of the U.S.

.. When the September 11 terrorist attacks gave them the opportunity, the administration’s conservative wing, including Bolton, had no interest in sending inspectors to Iraq to see if Hussein had WMD. They wanted to simply use WMD as “justification you can jump on” to invade — without bothering to check whether Iraq actually had anything.

.. Iraq had informed the OPCW in late 2001 that it wanted to sign the treaty. This would require Iraq to provide the organization with a list of any chemical weapons stockpiles it possessed — and submit to intrusive OPCW inspections.

.. This set off loud alarm bells in the Bush administration, since inspections could not just delay their desired war, but undermine the case for it in the first place. As Bustani put it years later, his willingness to consider inspecting Iraq “caused an uproar in Washington,” and it quickly “became evident that the Americans were serious about getting rid of me.”

According to Bustani, “Everybody knew there weren’t any [banned chemical weapons]. An inspection would make it obvious there were no weapons to destroy. This would completely nullify the decision to invade.”

.. Bolton took the lead in ousting Bustani and replacing him with someone more pliable. After the Bush administration failed to win a March 2002 no-confidence vote from OPCW’s executive committee, it threatened to cut off its funding of the OPCW, which accounted for 22 percent of its budget.

.. they were unable to prevent later inspections of Iraq under the auspices of the U.N. Those inspectors then failed to find anything — since Iraq did not actually possess any banned weapons — and the U.S. and its allies went ahead and invaded anyway in March 2003.

.. If Bolton becomes part of the Trump administration, he’ll be an extremely loud voice for war with Iran. In November, he said that overthrowing Iran’s government is the “only long-term solution” to the country’s supposed threat to the U.S.

California Looks to Lead the Trump Resistance

Mr. Trump has reportedly chosen a retired Marine general, John Kelly, to run the Department of Homeland Security. He seems to fit the Trump pattern of seeing immigrants not as a resource to be tapped, but as a threat to be neutralized, beginning at the border. General Kelly, who led the United States Southern Command, warned Congress last year of the danger of terrorists and “weapons of mass destruction” coming in from Mexico. He admitted he had no evidence, but was clanging the alarm all the same.