Climate change, nearly by definition, is slow, moving at a pace that constrains policy debate and typically precludes it from being the most important geopolitical event of any day. However, a report released last night by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the United Kingdom's Royal Society — building on a major Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment released in September — reflects a consensus in the scientific community that the world is changing in ways that could influence the actions of countries for decades to come. Though the issue of climate change remains politically controversial, the public scientific consensus makes the issue essentially geopolitical and warrants a focus on its possible economic and general policy implications. How then can we use the imperfect scientific tools available to anticipate the effects of a changing environment?
What is a Geopolitical Diary? George Friedman explains.
Like all science, climate change research is in a constant state of evolution. Our understanding of how different aspects of climate interact is expanding, as is our ability to forecast future environmental behavior. Increased computing power increases modeling capacity. However, we are still limited by instrumentation and by our inability to measure and fully understand climate conditions. Scientific models used to predict the magnitude of climate change, as well as the effects climate change will have in various regions, are not completely reliable. Because there are so many variables involved in developing climate models, structural uncertainty is inevitable. Every equation output is used as an input somewhere else, exponentially increasing the effects of any mistake or incorrect assumption, and each iteration can breed new errors.
There are also several ways to model climate scenarios, depending on the variables included and the weight given to each one. Limited and uneven data further complicate matters — more data are available on land than sea and more temperature readings are collected in highly developed countries than in developing ones. Forecasts also invariably rely on assumptions about future human behavior and technological development.
So while the exact effects of climate change are difficult to predict, it's reasonable to believe that governments will have to operate within them, no matter what they are. For example, annual increases in average temperatures and shifting weather patterns could create unforeseen environmental constraints on state policies and behaviors.
As the field develops and as researchers gain a better understanding of climate interactions — and as data improves thanks to new technologies like those used in the Japanese-U.S. Global Precipitation Measurement satellite that launched Thursday — climate models will become more accurate. However, despite their current imperfections, climate models can provide useful geopolitical insight, even if they cannot necessarily predict the extent of climate change.
Available models lead us to confidently say that the atmosphere is warming and that some regions will get wetter while others will see less precipitation, even if we cannot predict when or where hurricanes, tornadoes or droughts will strike. When used with historical data from past warming periods, they also enable us to construct future scenarios illustrating the effects of a warmer planet, even if they cannot determine when climate change will become intolerable for a country or region. For example, without knowing how much temperatures will rise, agriculture production may decline in certain regions due to the loss of arable land or water scarcity. Meanwhile, warming at northern latitudes could expand the agricultural capacity of northeastern China, with significant implications on the country's ability to be self-sufficient. A warming trend in northern countries such as Russia and Canada would increase the importance of control over Arctic territory and shipping routes.
Moreover, the scientific consensus about climate change will influence how governments formulate energy and agricultural policies and encourage technological development, including improvements to renewable energy production and new crop varieties. Governments could use the public's concern about climate change to justify stricter environmental regulations while increasing research and development spending in "green" industries as a way to boost employment.
Worldwide coordination is never easy, and any global effort to deal with climate change would be asymmetric, with certain countries prepared to implement mitigation measures long before others. Wealthy, technologically advanced states are simply better equipped to deal with the economic impact of climate change. These countries would benefit from scientific consensus on the issue (though political barriers would still remain) to promote needed investment in energy-efficient technology. Middle-tier countries would need to develop such technology or obtain it through other means. The least-developed states would have to rely on developed countries and international organizations to help manage any consequences.
Ultimately, the scientific tools needed to predict exact effects of climate change are unready, and current methods must be used, their shortcomings notwithstanding. But while statistical uncertainties remain, so do geopolitical certainties. National policies are molded by geographic and demographic constraints, so climate will be a major geopolitical component. If it affects public perception and people's livelihoods, so too will it shape state behavior.