The period at the end of the great Cold War also coincided with the commencement of global awareness pertaining to the risks involved with the rapidly changing climate. Ever since, the world has witnessed significantly dramatic political, economic, social, and climatic shifts along with incredible technological advancements that included our ability to predict the changes in climate and its consequences for international security (Schlussner, et al., 2017). While some of these changes might’ve caught the global security communities off-guard, we’ve seen many of these climate-change risks coming for several decades.
Geopolitical Changes Post-Cold War
Over 350 high-level political leaders and scientists from 46 states came together in June 1988 for the “World Conference on the Changing Atmosphere and its Implications for Global Security” (WMO, 1988). The Conference Statement warned about climate change by affirming that “such drastic changes represent a significant threat to the international security as they’re already causing harmful consequences for several parts of the world.” This warning was taken seriously by the UN, where it was agreed in the General Assembly Resolution that climatic changes could be “disastrous for humankind if timely and appropriate steps aren’t taken at all levels (UN, 1988). The resolution also prompted the creation of the IPCC, a cooperative body that functioned to understand the common threat caused by the changing climate.
It also presaged a wave of unprecedented international cooperation on several major issues regarding trade, security, and the environment. The Soviet Union (SU) and the United States agreed to eliminate their shorter-range and intermediate-range missiles in June of 1988 in an Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (Arms Control Association, 2017), which signaled a dramatic de-escalation in the hostilities. In addition, the Montreal Protocol in 1989 was designed to save the depleting ozone layer. One hundred ninety-seven states entered the global agreement into effect (US State Department, 2018). Last, towards the end of 1989, the first segment of the Berlin Wall also crumbled, which set the stage for the managed reunification of Germany and the collapse of the SU.
Geopolitical Disruptions That Diverted Attention From the Climatic Change Post 1989
After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the international security environment underwent drastic changes in largely unpredictable ways. It diverted attention from non-traditional, long-term risks, such as climate change. Although a seemingly powerful wave of democratization did occur as an aftermath of the Cold War, the so-called promise of an ‘end of history’ rather gave way to a much more unstable and complex reality (Fukuyama, 1992). This also included a wave of rising ethno-nationalist violence which led to mass atrocities throughout Africa (BBC, 2013), and the European subcontinent (Yale University, 2017), as well as a rise in terrorism from non-state actors such as ISIS and al-Qaeda.
It also stalled the democratization in Russia and its revanchist actions within its neighborhood (Ryback, 2017) along with the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the North Korean rogue regime, the reassertion of authoritarian governance leading to China’s economic success and arctic growth, the extraordinary urbanization and population growth along with increased access to information through social media and the internet, a rise in the political fortunes of the populist nationalists in Hungary, Poland (Rohac,2018), Italy (Horowitz, 2018), Turkey (Pierini, 2018), Brazil (Encarnocion, 2018), the Philippines (Coats, 2018), and the United States (Walt, 2017), and popular uprisings within the Arab world (Lloyd, 2018). All these political disruptions and changing dynamics were either too challenging for the international community to respond to or caught them by surprise.
Although the failure of government actions to scale or keep pace with the security risks isn’t necessarily unique to climate change, the phenomena are particularly well-defined in this case because climate change is a risk that’s shared by all nations around the globe. Differences among states in terms of risk tolerance, especially between the poor and wealthy countries, also cause the progress to come to a standstill. This is why several governments have put off challenging policy decisions are instead relying on hopes of technological breakthroughs to prevent the catastrophes of the future led by climate change.
Interested in learning more? Head to Ted Hopf’s website to browse the extensive literature published and/or edited by the professor cum book author and researcher pertaining to the study of International Relations.