Headlines from around the world serve as a dire chronicle that long-standing predictions rooted in careful scientific analysis have become a reality: the planet is in an increasingly dire set of climate and ecological crises—raising fundamental questions about sustainability, governance, geopolitics, and security. India just experienced a record-breaking heat wave. Corn crops in middle America are facing an increasingly constrained growing season. Germany suffered devastating floods. In the Congo, a race is on for essential minerals to build batteries. Meanwhile, from the Pacific to the Caribbean, the ocean is encroaching on small island states. Insect infestations leave trees deadened into kindling for wildfires. Texas, an oilman’s state, is becoming a bastion for wind power. A battery-making iconoclast is the richest man on earth.
More change is coming, affecting ecosystems, governance and geopolitics, economics, and technology. Right now, the well-being of billions is imperiled in some of the world’s most vulnerable communities. In the near future, vulnerability will become more widespread and systemic. How the world responds to the current inflection point and how it accelerates on climate action during the crucial decade to come will have a massive impact not only on the health and dignity of much of the global population, but on security and geopolitics, governance, and ultimately the long-term sustainability of humanity itself. Getting the response right means focusing on more than just short-term solutions to scrape by in the immediate crisis. It is that longer-term view, and the cold-eyed analysis required, where independent think tanks have a crucial role to play in the years ahead.
From the days of the Kyoto Protocol, major economies too often dealt with the climate crisis as a topic of marginal importance compared to other priorities. When they did incorporate climate issues, they focused on two domains. The first was climate diplomacy, supporting multilateral negotiations on emission reductions like the 2015 Paris Climate Accords. The other was climate security, seeking to make sense of the ways in which climate change would impact conflict dynamics and strategic security considerations, most vividly seen in the proliferating climate and security working groups at the Pentagon.
Outside of those two domains, there is a dangerous deficit of interest, budgets, programming, and imagination. Climate diplomacy has struggled to make the necessary strides, and as a consequence, climate security gained more traction in foreign policy circles, with the recognition that the world was slowly entering dangerous territory.
What’s at stake
We’re now realizing that what is at stake is not just security, but the way in which life organizes itself on Earth. The biophysical changes underway will ultimately affect all aspects of policy—from global trade down to what diets human beings can rely upon; from how we govern ourselves to where we can safely exist; from the technology we use to the electricity we generate to run our economies.
Various studies have demonstrated that even though climate change is an accepted reality in most societies, most policymakers fail to acknowledge fully or even comprehend the impending effects. The latest two IPCC reports note that a rise of 1.5 degrees Celsius is the ceiling to limit the devastating impacts of global warming and that climate disruptions are coming faster and with greater force than initially foreseen. Experts now say that humanity has less than three years left to halt the growth of emissions and clarify what policy designs are most appropriate to create ecosystems of scale for energy, industrial, and governance changes to implement the necessary fixes to accelerate societal, ecological, and technological transformations. Yet, so far, the inertia remains greater than the urgency. The facts are daunting to everyone, including policymakers and scholars, and the level of collective efforts needed to achieve a just and effective transition is unprecedented in human history.
This requires a dedicated focus on the transition’s geopolitical, governance, and economic blind spots. Rather than pursuing policy analysis and support based on a world that we have known, we need to question assumptions against a future that we have yet to understand and struggle to even imagine. In the coming years, we will expand our contributions to the research and analysis that can support policymakers, diplomats, and leaders as they reckon with the systemic evolutions we are experiencing and will experience.
What does this mean for think tanks?
Within the global knowledge community, think tanks are positioned to be an advocate for humanity, challenging the agendas of the private sector and governments and calling on policymakers and business leaders to do what’s necessary to save the planet, and nothing less.
To best address the full range of challenges associated with our climate and ecological crises, think tanks should draw from history and contemporary analysis to challenge prevailing ideas, offer new frameworks, and develop concepts that government officials and the private sector cannot or will not create on their own.
Think tanks engaged in independent analysis can make headway against the crisis by developing a set of ideas to fight climate and ecological breakdown based on interdisciplinary expertise, grounded in a diverse dialogue that spans world regions and cultures. Successful efforts will recognize that climate justice is central. Think tanks who seek to contribute solutions must grapple with the legacies of colonialism and global inequities. They will also need to investigate how new competitions over even scarcer resources affect all forms of security, starting with the most directly impacted and climate-vulnerable communities.
The work of our time will be to contribute thinking into the current solution sets while preparing stakeholders to move beyond these to truly address the root drivers of our ecological crises. Carnegie commits to undertaking this work with a seriousness of purpose, a commitment to diversity, as we pursue collective resilience.
Reimagining geopolitics and transitions
As climate change recasts the relationships between geography, the environment, and man-made systems, what will be the impacts on the natural systems that have contributed to defining legal sovereignty, economic and political systems, and human cultures for millennia?
These changes will also be influenced by geoeconomic models that seek to create a new industrial revolution that will have wide repercussions in terms of relationships between and within nation-states. Climate and digital transitions are now at the heart of geopolitical competition, but with what actual effects on the stabilization of the global climate regime and geopolitical equilibriums? We will monitor how civil societies and public- and private-sector actors react and adapt to these changes, as well as shape them.
We will examine the role of climate change in foreign policy engagements and its impact on geopolitical competition. Nations and players who may have remained in the margins of great power competition carry significant portfolios in the climate debate today such as island nations and coastal states in the developing world. Our work will highlight the views and perspectives of smaller nations and islands and how their climate-centric foreign policy choices impact current geopolitics. And we will work to consider the case for and potential of the development of new international governance institutions whose missions correspond to the challenges at hand.
Global South–Global North relations
The inequitable distribution of the costs of climate is exacerbating deep fault lines with serious implications for international cooperation. One major example is the divide between Global North and Global South. Development trajectories paved by the world’s richest countries in the Global North since the first industrial revolution of the eighteenth century have been carbon-intensive, relying primarily on fossil fuels as well as heavy resource consumption. Now, the world’s low- and middle-income countries in the Global South hold legitimate aspirations to transition from poverty to prosperity, build economic resilience, and strengthen human dignity—but do not have the luxury of using the same carbon-intensive playbook as the Global North.
The concept of “just transitions” is increasingly invoked to highlight the need to balance the disparities of the climate crisis on low-income groups, low-skilled workers, and vulnerable communities around the world. How do we reconcile legitimate aspirations in the Global South with the urgency of curbing greenhouse gas emissions to confront the climate crisis? What do just transitions mean for the world’s vulnerable populations and ecosystems? Efforts to address these questions and bridge these divides to identify a common but differentiated approach, as articulated in the 2015 Paris Agreement, will either lay the foundation for a future of co-management that goes far beyond climate or exacerbate tensions with spillover effects.
Catastrophic threats strain governance, as do collective action challenges. The climate crisis entails both. The long-term effects on democracies—as they experience more emergencies and disasters and as climate costs are incorporated for the first time into consumption costs—are yet unknown. What kinds of civic action can we expect to drive and respond to policy changes? Have any liberal democracies identified promising methods for keeping populism at bay in the context of climate shocks and the demands of the energy transition? How will international climate finance affect governance in less developed countries? And in a growing context of international instability which translates into macroeconomic, monetary, geopolitical and commodity shocks, how will democracies ensure that they do not fall prey to targeted attacks by those who seek to exploit democratic discontent?
The future of security and the building blocks of the international system
The understanding of human security and of the rights that underpin it has expanded over time to include so-called negative duties, such as protection against violence, and, increasingly, positive duties, such as access to clean drinking water. The climate crisis has introduced new ways of understanding both what others must refrain from doing alongside the duties that governments have toward citizens. Emerging understandings of these are likely to shape both domestic and global political landscapes.
Moreover, the rationale underlying the political organization of the sovereign state—the provision of physical security—is challenged by climate change. When a state cannot defend its citizens from catastrophe, it will lose a component of its legitimacy. Similarly, an international organization generally earns its legitimacy by its ability to provide meaningful governance over some international issue. How will the climate crisis and international responses to it change the prospects for multilateralism writ large?
Further, climate change is still sometimes viewed as a soft security issue, which tends to push its urgency below more conventional security concerns, especially while formulating strategic and defense policies. Yet challenges emerging from climate and ecological breakdown impact traditional security concerns in a manner significantly different than in the previous century. How does the climate crisis affect these security issues, and what are its implications on strategic and defense policy calculations?
By addressing these questions, think tanks, including Carnegie, will be better able to help countries and policymakers through an enormously fraught, consequential, and complicated period of human history. In the next few decades, the world must respond to the aspirations of billions of people seeking living standards that are already common in the developed world—aspirations that will likely fuel rising per capita energy consumption—while responding to the climate and ecological emergencies and addressing underlying economic and governance questions in a regenerative, geopolitically sound way. Solutions depend on the right policies, and the right policies depend not only on political deals and strategic calculations but sound ideas.