As climate change intensifies, a major issue is to understand how rapidly changing geophysics and war are intertwined. Since 2013, at the Red Team Analysis Society we study the way climate change, the military and geopolitics interact (Climate change security, The Red Team Analysis Society).

Since then, things have changed dramatically. The complex relationship between climate change now evolves increasingly rapidly. To understand this relationship, we must first understand what are or will be “climate wars”.

“Climate wars” are wars

It’s politics, stupid!

All around the globe, there is a growing involvement of the military in response to multiplying extreme weather events. This may appear as an obvious link between climate and war. However, we must keep in mind that, as Clausewitz defines it “War is a mere continuation of policy by other means” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War, chap. I, 24, 1832)

In other terms, political authorities decide to wage war, or not. Politics is the decisive factor.

Danger Zone

Furthermore, the state of the climate may have consequences upon the living conditions of human groups and impose a major stress. For example, climate change endangers agriculture and the water cycle of small, large and very large populations and societies (Jean-Michel Valantin, “The Midwest Floods, the Trade War and the Swine Flu Pandemic: the Agricultural and Food Super Storm is Here”, The Red Team Analysis Society, June 3, 2019).

This kind of situation has the potential to trigger competition for basic resources, such as food and water (Richard S. Cottrell, “Food production shocks across land and sea”Nature Sustainability, 28 January, 2019).

As it happens, at the world level, several years of bad cereal crops took place between 2006 and 2011. Those bad crops resulted of a series of extreme weather events in the most important regions of cereal farming.

There was a heatwave in the rice farming Chinese south in 2006. In 2008 and 2009 and 2010, we had giant floods in the U.S. Midwest, heatwaves in Canada, Australia, Ukraine and Russia. Then, the relatively low agricultural yields triggered speculation (Werrell and Femia, The Arab Spring and Climate Change, 2013).

The consecutive price inflation badly hurt Arab societies from Morocco to Syria (Ibid.). Indeed, bread is the basic staple for 70% of the population in these countries (Ibid.). Thus, tensions were triggered in already overstressed countries. As a result, the first demonstrations to contest Ben Ali in Tunisia were demonstrations denunciating the unbearable price of bread (Ibid.).

These bread protests were the trigger events of the massive social, political and geopolitical reactions called the “Arab Spring”. This massive process entangles political upheavals, civil and international wars and prolonged itself with the Syrian war (Werrell and Femia, ibid).


From Himalaya with (not so much) love

We must keep in mind that there are several families of war, and different levels of intensity and scales. We must not confuse a state of tension with a state of war. However, the latter may emerge from the former.  

For example, on 1 June 2020, Indian and Chinese patrols fought each other during a skirmish in the Ladakh region. Twenty Indian soldiers died and there were 43 Chinese casualties (Aijaz Hussain, “India: 20 troops killed in Himalayas clash with China”, AP News, 16 June, 2020). Since this uniquely violent incident, there has been military and political tensions flaring up between the two Asian giants.

This incident appears to have been triggered by mounting tensions between the building of roads, dams and fortifications by both China and India along the border. Since 2020, China and India keep on building military infrastructures while amassing thousands of troops. And thus, aggravating the risk of military and political escalation (Baani Grewal and Nathan Ruser, “ A 3D deep dive into the India-China border dispute”, ASPI- The Strategist, 21 October 2021) .

We must note that six months after this military skirmish, Beijing announced that PowerChina will build a dam on the Yarlung Tsangpo river in Tibet. This is likely to change the political context of these tensions into an explicit international water dispute. Indeed, when it leaves Tibet, this river passes through India. There, it becomes the Brahmaputra in India and the Jamuna in Bangladesh (Jagannath P. Panda, “Beijing Boosts its Position as a “Himalayan Hegemon” through Hydropower”, The JamesTown Foundation, June 7, 2021).

Dams for climate, dams for geopolitics

For China, on the one hand this new dam is necessary for securing enough water for the South-North Water Project. Mao first thought about this project in 1950. The new dam was finally announced in 2014. It aims at transferring water from the southern water rich region in order to support the development of the North.

On the other hand, the 60 gigawatts dam will support the Chinese climate change mitigation policy. Its renewable electricity production will support the development of the Chinese energy mix by diminishing the national coal consumption (Shan Jie and Li Xiaoyi, “China to build historic Yarlung Tsangpo river hydropower project in Tibet”, Global Times, 2020/11/29).

However, these new water politics and military tensions are inscribed in the already overcharged geopolitical and strategic landscapes. As it happens, China and Pakistan, India’s arch-adversary, have signed a memorandum of agreement for the construction of two giant dams on the Indus, one of them in the Gilgit-Batilstan region, in the Himalayas, claimed by both India and Pakistan and close to China (Drazen Jorgic, “Pakistan eyes 2018 start for China funded mega dam, opposed by India”, Reuters, June 13, 2017).

These dams will produce 4200 MW and 2700 MW of electricity respectively, and their construction will cost 27 billion dollars. They are parts of the Chinese “One Belt One road – New silk road” agreements signed between China and Pakistan in 2015 (Valantin, “China and the New Silk Road: the Pakistani strategy”, The Red Team Analysis, May 18, 2015). The Indian political authorities are concerned about the consequences of these dams on the Kashmiri water flow, which is a major source of water for the country, as well as for Pakistan.

These strategic tensions take place in a rapidly changing ecological and climate environment. This “dam race” happens when the melting of the mountain glaciers accelerate because of climate change.

Climate change: it changes everything

As it happens, climate change is a major factor of geopolitical and strategic tensions, because the sources of major Asian rivers, necessary to the lives of billions of people are located in these very glaciers.

And the development of these countries necessitate to use increasingly more water (Robert Scribbler, “The Glacial mega flood: global warming poses growing glacial outburst flood hazard from Himalayas to Greenland and west Antarctica”, Robertscribbler: scribbling for environmental, social and economic justice, August 19, 2013).

Who’s Water?

Now, China and India together dominate South Asia and East Asia, while being regional and international economic and political powerhouses. Furthermore, their overall population amounts to almost 3 billion people – i.e. almost 40% of all human beings.

As a result, the tensions created by their competition for water in a warming world is a new kind of geopolitical crisis. It means that climate change is putting an increasingly growing pressure on political and military actors, which are already at odds with each other, while putting water cooperation systems under an intensifying stress.

Since 2020, those military tensions are heightening and both powers are accelerating the militarization of the Himalayas (Shweta Sharma, “India and China Ramp Up border firepower with Howitzers and rocket launchers”, The Independent, 21 October, 2021).

The geophysics / geopolitics nexus

Climate change thus becomes an amplifier of current and future geopolitical crisis. Indeed, first it accelerates the glaciers melting. Then, for China, those dams are also a way to mitigate climate change, while having enough water for its development. Yet, this approach is a major driver of competition for India, which refuses to depend upon the Chinese hydropower.

So climate change drives the emergence of a new kind of geopolitical crisis of an incredibly large scale. The nexus of this crisis of a new kind is the complex relationship between securing access to water for giant countries while suffering the effects of climate change. In the same time, they try to mitigate climate change, while adapting to it.

In other terms, the very nature of the growing military tensions between China and India is the transposition of their historical depth in the context of the current geophysical crisis. Water being life, especially for 1,5 billion strong nations, climate change “turbocharges” those and turns them into something that may turn into existential conflicts.

War for basic needs?

The 2011 Arab Spring and the 2020-2021 military tensions between China and India reveal how climate change is inflicting major stress on food and water access to entire countries, including the two most populous countries on Earth.

This tells us that climate wars, under the guise of civil or international wars, are wars for basic needs. As such, if there is no massive effort for mitigation of climate change, the threat on basic needs may very well lead to military and strategic rise to the extremes.

Featured image: Image by Gerd AltmannPixabay, Public Domain. 

Published by Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris)

Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red Team Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy. He is the author of "Menace climatique sur l’ordre mondial" (Climatic threat on the world order), "Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale" (Ecology and world governance), "Guerre et Nature, l’Amérique prépare la guerre du climat, "(War and nature: America gets ready for climate war) and of "Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington".

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