The strategic minerals debate is back—but starring some new rocks. One that has received much recent attention is lithium, which is used in cell phone batteries, as well as those under development for electric cars.
Turns out lithium isn’t found in too many places. Around 50 percent
of known reserves are in Bolivia, underneath some very dramatic and desolate salt flats. Worldfocus
has a terrific news story
that gives a glimpse of the place, the politics, and the battle over lithium extraction. Talk of an OPEC-like lithium cartel with China and Chile suggests that the politics at the international level will be just as contentious as the Bolivian domestic scene.
Our good friends over at the Center for New American Security are taking a fresh and systematic look at the strategic minerals question in their new Natural Security initiative. And we are hearing more and more about it from the advocacy community. For example, ENOUGH has ramped up its Come Clean 4 Congo campaign, which stresses the links between our cell phones, mineral extraction, and continuing violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It is reminiscent of the “blood diamonds” campaigns that led to the Kimberly Process.
The lithium story and the complex social, economic, and political disputes it could engender in Bolivia should flag for us an important consideration in the fight against climate change: trying to do right by climate change and energy security might trigger unforeseen conflicts. Greening our transportation sector with more powerful batteries is going to create a new set of winners and losers around the material inputs like lithium.
We need to be much more cognizant of these impacts as we move forward in addressing climate change and the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. The Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program will be tackling this specific dimension of the climate and security debates—the potential for conflict induced by climate mitigation efforts—in the months ahead.