The implications of peak oil and global warming for world security
“The modern global economy has been built on cheap oil and its abundant availability.” –
The security agencies and defense departments of the world’s strongest superpowers do not have the luxury of pretending that climate change is not happening. They’re not able to blithely deny that resource shortages, burgeoning world populations and runaway global warming will have ramifications for their regions and their countries. While their governments and politicians might outwardly deny that climate change is real or that society has any real limits, their militaries and their policy hardheads are quietly planning for the worst.
The reality is that our world economy, the political structures that shape it and the peoples that make up her nations are fragile, susceptible to any number of crises that could bring the system down. The 21st century sees a number of separate but related crises arriving more or less at once, and these crises will undeniably reshape the world around us.
At the root of these crises is oil, and our planet’s industrialisation borne on the back of cheap, plentiful energy. This boon has led to top-heavy societies that are too globalised to survive on their own. The abundance of oil has led to unparallelled prosperity, booming populations and mind-boggling technology, all entirely reliant on the continued availability of the resources that sustained their growth. And it has led inexorably to climate change and the host of disasters that this presents.
Governments and academics around the world are waking up to the geopolitical ramifications of climate change. Indeed, in the past few years we’ve seen the first upheavals whose roots can be attributed to changing climate. If unchecked, climate change will lead to a bleak future of climate refugees and interminable, bloody war. This is not histrionics. This is the considered view of very senior academics and powerful military strategists. The only questions are whether we might be in time to slow climate change through global action, and how first-world countries with resources available will respond as the world sinks into deprivation and conflict. The signs on both fronts, unfortunately, are not good.
By itself, climate change does not have to lead to war and tyranny. Climate change and its effects are, like any other political force, a challenge for governments to overcome. The real danger is in how governments respond to climate change. But the challenges of the future are likely to be too great to ameliorate.
The 21st Century will see a perfect storm of crises upon us. They are already in view.
Climate change – driven by the industrialised world’s dependence on oil for energy – is striking us hardest just when oil is becoming harder to supply. The world depends on cheap oil for energy as well as for agriculture, but we are reaching the limits of our ability to provide this essential resource before we’ve gotten serious about finding alternatives. And the intensive and growing use of oil is leading to global climate change that will have the effect of accelerating collapse and disorder.
So what are some of the national security implications of climate change allied to resource shortages? In terms of security, the outcomes are unrest and revolution, climate refugees and conflict and war.
Instability, unrest and revolution
In just the last few years we have watched from afar as nations across the globe have struggled with upheaval, revolution and internal strife. Many in the comfortable west probably put these conflicts down to tribal politics, racial hatreds or religious intolerance. Whilst these elements are undoubtedly present, religious ideals rarely lead to revolutions in the real world. From the Crusades onwards, people with extreme views on religion and race have taken advantage of conflicts already begun for other purposes. In the modern day we have seen this in Iraq, in Syria, and in Afghanistan, conflicts that began for other reasons but are now entrenched in the narrative of “sectarian warfare”.
At core, however, most or all of these conflicts can be attributed to the perfect storm of resource shortages and climate change. Let’s look at a few of the most current examples.
The core of the conflict in Syria is not, as some would have you believe, islamic militants trying to overthrow a democracy, nor a tyrant attempting to mercilessly crush freedom-fighters. The core of the issue is drought and food shortages.
Drought and agricultural collapse have forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians into the cities where they become dependent upon the government’s support. However, the government’s ability to support these climate refugees has collapsed along with the country’s economy. It doesn’t help that the regime is not sympathetic to the peoples’ needs. This combination of factors has led to a situation where, for many people, simple survival becomes a higher priority than good social behaviour.
If Syria had plentiful monetary resources and the willingness to spend, it could provide food and water for its people. Through purchasing food, desalinating water, irrigating and artificially managing its agriculture, it could deal with the challenges. But it is neither able nor willing to go down this path. The result, as we have seen, is civil war and a country in miserable turmoil. But they’re not alone.
THE ARAB SPRING
The Arab Spring had its roots in a water and food crisis. The series of uprisings across the middle east is held up as a shining example of populations attempting to throw off the shackles of oppressive masters, and to some extent there is some validity to this interpretation. But people will tolerate a lot of tyranny so long as they are comfortable. Freedom is not the panacea the US would have people believe. (This is why the Chinese people, on the whole, are very happy with their situation despite their lack of freedom: they have the comforts they require for daily living.) At the core of the Arab Spring was not a hunger for freedom, but simply hunger. The regimes were not living up to their side of the bargain.
In Thailand, drought and floods combined to hit domestic food supplies and food exports. Recovery from the floods, plus the hit to export revenue caused by the decimation of their food exports, combined with the country’s dependence on foreign oil to eat into the government’s ability to afford to meet the needs of its people now, let alone plan into the future for energy diversification and economic renewal.
This combination of factors has led to high levels of debt for the low-paid workers, high living costs and high unemployment. The eventual and inevitable result has been social unrest. In Thailand’s case this had led to martial law and, currently, to yet another military coup. But the people continue to suffer and while guns on the street may enforce order, they can’t address poverty and starvation.
For a final example, consider Egypt. Egypt also suffers water and food shortages. For decades it has been a net importer of food. When the price of wheat effectively doubled in 2010 and 2011, the result was swift and fateful. Mubarak fell in early 2011. That revolution, so full of hope at the time, has not led to the utopian society Egyptians hoped for, as it does nothing to address the core issues. In truth, the core issues are largely outside the scope of Egypt’s government to contend with.
“As energy accounts for over a third of the costs of grain production, high food prices are generally underpinned by high oil prices. Since 2005, world oil production has remained on an undulating plateau that has kept prices high, contributing to surging global food prices.
According to the New England Complex Systems Institute, if food prices go over a threshold of 210 on the FAO Food Price Index, the probability of civil unrest is greatly magnified.”
The FAO has been hovering at or above 210 since at least 2010. If climate change reduces global food output, inevitably the price of food will increase. If oil becomes scarcer or more expensive, the price of food will increase. To these issues, under the current system, there is no clear or easy resolution.
Conflict and war
Internal conflict is not the only outcome of resource shortages and climate change. As nations across the world find it harder to keep their populations supplied with the food, water, energy and goods that keep them happy, the pressures will increase to find and secure new sources. Despite the comforting narratives that keep western civilians believing that conflicts in far-flung and uncivilised nations are due to local religious squabbles, modern nations are very aware of the precarious nature of their power, and will be willing to go to great lengths to avoid travelling down the same path.
CONFLICTS OVER OIL
As a result, in the past decades we have seen conflicts in Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq explode into worldwide wars with the involvement of great powers. It is hardly a secret that America was not in Iraq primarily because of the sufferings of a few Iraqis, but because Saddam was not friendly to the oil needs of the US. Much of the current situation in Ukraine can also be attributed to Russia’s intent to secure oil reserves.
At the current moment there are territorial disputes across the South China sea: primarily, conflicts between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands, and between China and the Philippines over the Reed Bank. Even Australia is not immune from territorial disputes over oil: witness the dispute between Australia and Timor over the Timor Sea maritime boundary. Whilst all of these disputes are currently diplomatic, there have already been military incidents in some of them, and any of them could blow up into serious conflict. They will not be the last such disputes of this century.
CONFLICTS OVER FOOD AND WATER
Water shortages are arguably the greatest challenge facing the world of the immediate future. According to the UN, “…by 2025, two-thirds of us will experience water shortages, with nearly two billion suffering severe shortfalls.”
China is in perilous state with drought affecting its farmlands: it’s the world’s biggest user of imported water. “Land grabs” in Africa – and Australia – are intended not as assaults on those continents but are an attempt to secure productive land to grow food and ship it back home.
Attempts by China to procure land in Australia may be a false economy; there is a decent chance that Australia may soon be joining China in a need for fresh sources of fresh water and arable land. The oncoming El Nino may be salutary.
Desalination can play a part in providing for the water needs of cities and of agriculture. But desalination is energy-intensive and expensive, and requires a large amount of political capital. Things will need to get worse before the people will realise the need for things to get better.
CONFLICTS OVER TERRITORY
We live in a post-Empire world. In the modern era, nations do not generally invade or annex other nations for the sake of world domination; the world has reached a form of equilibrium and any such attempts would be roundly resisted. International conflicts now are driven by more prosaic concerns, such as the desire to secure energy and mineral resources.
In such a world, any unclaimed or untapped resources take on a greater level of significance. Currently, there are three major fields which may help nations address their ongoing needs, and it is in these fields that we are likely to see expansionist movements and potential conflicts over the next decades. These fields are the open ocean, Antarctica and space.
We are already seeing conflicts over claimed areas of ocean. We can expect to see ongoing exploration in international waters for new resource fields. However, in general, resources are both rarer and harder to extract when they are in international waters. Deep sea trenches were never landmasses, never supported forests and ecosystems, and thus hold little or no oil. Combine this with the fact that at present we find it difficult even to reach the ocean floor across much of the world – witness the fruitless search for MH370 – and drilling for oil or minerals across the ocean becomes a prohibitive challenge.
Similar challenges exist for space. Enormous resources and energy are required just to get there, let alone manage any attempts at extraction. However, even within our own solar system there are greater reserves of resources than our planet contains in its entirety. Space is the battleground of the future. It will not, however, be practically useful to nations in the first half of the 21st century.
Antarctica is protected by the Antarctic Treaty, which prohibits any change in territorial claims. The Madrid Protocol, an addendum to the Treaty, prevents mining within Antarctica. Treaties, as history has shown us, are made to be broken. Many nations have significant interest in the untapped resources of Antarctica and some are already beginning to explore and plan their exploitation of this continent on Australia’s doorstep. It seems likely, if not inevitable, that the next major battleground of the 21st century might be this southernmost continent – particularly as global warming potentially makes the continent more accessible and, eventually, suitable for habitation and agriculture.
Peak oil by any definition
Global social unrest and international warfare might be avoided if the world can continue to provide fresh reserves of oil to support our insatiable need for growth and industry. Unfortunately this is not going to be possible. Many commentators have discussed the concepts of peak oil; for decades the idea has been a looming threat. Official estimates have consistently denied that crisis is imminent, but it now appears that peak oil may be closer than anyone had hoped. The US seems to think so.
That we are at or near ‘peak oil’ is demonstrated by the industry’s continual push to open new resource fields and extraction methods, regardless of the expense and complexity. The end of the world’s access to cheap fossil fuel energy is a threat worthy of an article of its own – or perhaps even its own blog. Suffice it to say here that the price of oil, and the price of food, is not going to stop increasing any time soon.
With resource crises, food shortages, water shortages and increasing climatic disruption caused by hurricanes, wildfires, droughts and floods, not to mention sea level rise over the coming decades which will flood and permanently destroy huge swathes of the world’s low-lying agricultural lands, the 21st century is in the grip of a perfect storm of crises that have the potential to reshape the face of humanity on this planet far more quickly than most Australians realise.
What can Australia learn?
Both Syria and Egypt are finding that their economies are suffering due to a downturn in fossil fuel exports – both due to depletion. Without the revenue from oil exports, these governments have found themselves less able to provide for the needs of their people. Australia needs to heed this example. We are not a heavy exporter of oil; however, our economy is heavily reliant on the export of coal and mineral resources. If these markets collapse, we will find ourselves in a parlous economic situation. The Abbott government is effectively pursuing an austerity budget even whilst the nation is not in economic crisis. As climate change and El Nino drive our farmers off the land and our food production inevitably declines over the rest of this decade, we will see increased demands on government resources. Diversifying our economy is absolutely vital.
The uprisings in the middle east may have been driven by economic and resource woes, but they were enabled by despotic regimes that did not do enough to support the needs of the people. Uprising became the only way out for populations on the edge of starvation.
Australia does not have an autocratic dictatorship in command – although it pains me to have to add the word “arguably”. Despite our inclusive system of politics, already we have seen social unrest with government policies and with the democratic process in general. Already we see protests against governments of both breeds. We’re a long way short of the critical mass of the people who would rebel against their government but the seeds are there. It is hubris to think that Australia could never suffer the kind of uprising that has been witnessed in Thailand or Egypt. It won’t happen in the next ten years; we’re still a prosperous nation. But the decisions made now will have impacts on the society and governance of the 2050s and beyond.
It is more likely, in the immediate term, that we will face the ramifications of unrest from neighboring regions than experience it ourselves. This will manifest as growing pressure to accept climate refugees, combined with an increasing range of domestic crises.
How will we respond?
Most of the current areas of unrest are in the middle east, for a reason. These regions suffer a combination of resource dependence, early effects of disruptive climate change, and despotic or immature regimes with too great a reliance on resources that are now declining.
Australia, for the moment, is buffered by our remote location, delaying the worst impacts of climate change; by our system of government and our existing social contract and social support structures; and by our relatively high standard of living. This gives us time to consider the future and our response to the oncoming challenges – if we choose to recognise them.
We have seen the trajectories of nations where these crises come together. With a little forethought, we can see our own nation’s weaknesses and start to plan wisely for the future.
An obvious and critical answer to all of these challenges is to divest from oil. Renewable energy is not just an answer to climate change; it’s a solution to the energy crisis that will affect us all. With efficient renewable energy, we can manage our water resources better, and this will allow us to secure our domestic food production. If we act now, we may be able to retain our standard of living.
Alternatively, we could dismantle our climate change bodies and our renewable energy institutions. We could defund solar and wind power, while funnelling ever greater subsidies into fossil fuels in an attempt to shore up our revenues for a few more years. We could leave the challenges of the oncoming food, fuel and water crises to future governments and future governments.
Yes, I guess we could do that.