A New Dimension to Geopolitics: Geoff Dabelko on the Latest IPCC ReportMarch 31, 2014 By Schuyler Null
“The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is an attempt to get an international group of scientists together to assess what we know about climate change,” says Geoff Dabelko in an interview with the Wilson Center’s Context program. “That is not a quick process.”
The IPCC’s fifth assessment report since 1990 is being released by its member governments in parts this year, with the latest coming out last night. Dabelko, a senior advisor to ECSP and director of environmental studies at Ohio University’s Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, is one of several authors of a new chapter. “For the first time, this fifth assessment includes a chapter on human security and what climate change is going to mean for human populations quite explicitly,” Dabelko says.“We need to find ways to become more nimble in adjusting our understanding of what we know”
The chapter authors, including New Security Beat contributors Neil Adger, Jon Barnett, and Marc Levy, examined a broad set of issues. Climate change is adding a “new dimension to geopolitics,” Dabelko says. Water flows will change, access to resources of all types – including energy and food – will change, transportation routes will change, there will be new migration patterns as people adjust, and there may be new tensions between countries as a result.
From the Bay of Bengal and small-island states to northern Europe and the southern United States, “there are different timelines, there are different sets of vulnerabilities depending on those places, but they do have common vulnerabilities,” Dabelko says. For example, it’s commonly assumed that the poorest countries will be hit hardest, which is largely true, but that doesn’t mean richer areas are immune to changes. He points out that wealth and built infrastructure are more concentrated in developed countries, making damage to even relatively small areas potentially devastating. “Whether it’s the vulnerability of wealth and a lot of built infrastructure…or whether it is the lack of that intense and dense infrastructure in other parts of the world, they’re both vulnerable and they both have real challenges that will literally affect tens of millions of people.”
It may be human responses that have the biggest potential for creating new conflict. Geoengineering – a concept that encompasses a wide range of ideas, from rain-cloud seeding and deploying solar mirrors to dumping iron into the sea – is a potential “extraordinary response” that some states or even individuals might turn to if they feel they have no other choice. Some call it fantasy, others call it the only approach we have left to address these issues, Dabelko says, but there is real danger:
We have no basis for understanding who gets to deploy them, who gets to evaluate them…it’s a whole area where international norms, let alone international law, are just absent, and those are going to be negotiations that should be going on among states and we’re really just beginning to appreciate how that’s going to pose some challenges in that geopolitical realm.
Change Is the New Norm
“What I think we have learned in the seven-year time between the last assessment and this, is that the science is moving much faster, our understanding is moving much faster, and that understanding tells us that we need to be more responsive,” says Dabelko. “The level of complexity and the connections are just truly staggering.”“Nature doesn’t change in response to increased greenhouse gases in a smooth, linear, and incremental way”
He suggests scientific and policymaking processes need to speed up to keep pace, and that waiting for absolute certainty about the future is foolish. “Nature doesn’t change in response to increased greenhouse gases in a smooth, linear, and incremental way…it’s going to be punctuated in ways that are almost impossible to anticipate,” Dabelko says. “So just when we think we’re comfortable in understanding how these changes may happen and see them as modest and slow, we get surprises that suggest things are happening faster than anticipated, which again urges us to take these up now, even in the face of not having it all precisely understood.”
“We need to find ways to become more nimble in adjusting our understanding of what we know and then taking into account serious dialogue for how we respond to these changes,” says Dabelko. “Whether it’s our political institutions, whether it’s our built environment, whether it is how we plan and live in our communities, we need to do that in a way that is flexible and resilient and assumes change and variability, rather than stasis.”
Video Credit: Context at the Wilson Center.