The Geopolitics of Climate Change

Blue Marble 2002We’ve all seen them; the movies that predict what it will be like when global warming takes over the planet and wreaks havoc on Earth. In The Day After Tomorrow, a gutsy scientist and his steely-eyed companions work against what little time is left to save their friends and family while Lady Liberty goes under water. In 2012 an environmental disaster brings about the end of the world as the Mayans predicted. And the list goes on.

It’s unfortunate that, at a time when Earth’s rapidly changing climate is a legitimate concern, it is still featured as no more than an abstract, two-hour cinematic production. The truth of the matter is that climate change is not abstract, and its effects, while not as dramatic as the end of the world, are very real. Recently I sat down with Arizona State University astrophysicist Steve Desch to discuss what might happen in real terms in the near future as the climate continues to shift, why this future isn’t taken seriously, and what scientists and policy-makers can do to better manage the situation together.

Zach Yentzer: We can agree based on dominant scientific evidence that the climate is changing. Can you give me an example of a real-world geopolicy dilemma that might come about from this change?

Steve Desch: Sure. Let’s look at the European Union, currently a weakened structure struggling through a financial crisis. Now, imagine it gets hotter in the Mediterranean. Italy, one of the EU’s largest export-oriented countries, can no longer produce the agricultural goods it bases its economy on. This automatically creates food insecurity and availability, both inside Italy and throughout the EU.

As food becomes more insecure and less available, not only will the economy take a major hit all over Europe, but now we’ll have to be thinking about migration. Why will Italians want to stay where there is no food, or other Europeans stay where there are shortages? As Europeans all over begin to migrate in and out of countries based on economy and resource availability, international relations will become even more strained than they already are, making it harder for nations to agree. Will Europe then begin to balkanize, and, if so, what ethnic and racial disputes might arise? And what new international migration laws will need to be developed? Can a country keep people in to preserve world peace? Would this become a human rights issue?

ZY: Why isn’t this alarming more people? Surely putting it in these terms has to create some amount of concern?

SD: Well, I think the 5 Stages of Grief apply to science as well. Most people don’t want to accept the fact that, while there are astrophysical reasons for the climate changing, there are also clear human causes for what we’re seeing now. And most people don’t want to do what it takes to reverse the situation. Also, scientists are naturally contrary, and argue constantly with each other. It’s what we do; science is based on this interaction, the search for truth based on facts and numbers and challenging what is assumed to be true. Outside our community, though, it looks like disagreement and ignorance, and people pick up on that as a way to say “Well the scientists can’t agree anyway so there’s no reason to take climate change seriously.”

ZY: Looking back over the past forty, fifty years, there have been times when policymakers and scientists were able to look at public issues and develop scientific solutions to them. What’s changed?

SD: Yes, this is true. To be clear, though, policymakers have always been trying to solve a different problem than scientists. Their problem is trying to get elected again, and that always shifts the modus operandi.

ZY: Can you suggest ways in which both scientists and policy-makers should adjust to become more productive again, together?

SD: Sure. To start, scientists are not the best of communicators. We don’t think about our audience as much as we should. We think abstractly, but the rest of the world thinks in concrete terms. People want to know how what we do affects them; they are largely disinterested in the theory of it all. As scientists we need to adapt stylistically to become more compatible with the public sphere. That will help enormously. We also have a responsibility to present our research not just in alarmist tones, but to also offer practical solutions.  In terms of climate science, too many scientists raise the alarm but too few explain the options.  The problems we face are real, but so are the solutions if we can remain pragmatic and calm.

As far as policy-makers go, they could of course compromise better, be more pragmatic, and less divisive. We realize all these things pretty clearly. The bottom line though is that collaboration between science and policy-makers occurs usually under some kind of pressure. I predict that in 2020 the ice caps on the North Pole will be completely gone and climate change will be something so visible and alarming on its own that both the public and policy-makers will call for action. Scientists will be brought in to create the solution, and collaboration will begin at a much higher level than it is now.


Image courtesy of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, used under CC BY 2.0 license. Thanks NASA!

Disclaimer: The opinions and views expressed by invited bloggers and interviewees do not necessarily reflect the opinions or views of the Center for Science and the Imagination, Arizona State University, the Arizona Board of Regents, or the State of Arizona.

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