Strategic aspects of global warming


With the arrival of the Ferragostan heat wave, more intense every year, and while today most countries of the globe are struggling to emerge from the coronavirus emergency, together with public health concerns in the event of a second epidemic wave, attention has again focused on global warming. While most of the articles focus on its negative impacts on the environment and biodiversity, it should not be overlooked that global warming has also delicate geopolitical implications.

It is well known that global warming is defined as the increase in the average temperature of the atmosphere worldwide, but it is less known that warming and cooling of the globe have always existed. The Earth has, in fact, always been affected by fluctuating patterns of climate change and, even if the current period falls under the heading of "warming", in the future our planet will certainly be affected by new glaciations, followed by new warming. These are, therefore, climatic variations that the Earth has already seen countless times in the past, and which will occur many times in the future.

These variations have always occurred, however, in the span of thousands or millions of years, a time so long that the human being has only gone through a small part of it. Today, however, they are developing with an increasing speed and significantly greater than in the past, influenced and accelerated by human activities, in particular those that cause an increase in the emission of so-called greenhouse gases.

From a geopolitical point of view, we can say that the most evident long-term effect of climate change will concern the more vulnerable coastlines, which are already “retreating” today at a rate never seen before.

Some reliable estimates indicate that the oceans will rise by about 6-9 cm every 10 years. However, some experts believe that the pace could increase considerably in the future, even reaching 30 cm per decade. In this context, a rise of about 30 meters in the sea level would cause the flooding of most of the current flat areas, even moving the coast lines for kilometers or making the territories that today we consider internal and even entire states disappear. In this context, the Nile Delta, for example, would be completely submerged and states such as the Netherlands, Bangladesh, Florida or the Maldives would simply no longer exist. In Italy, the Po Valley could disappear, sinking into a shallow sea. Backward coastlines would also mean retreat of territorial waters and consequent ignition of disputes about the exploitation of marine resources contained in areas that have become international.

However, these effects will be felt in such a distant future for us that, venturing into geopolitical hypotheses now, would be like trespassing into science fiction. Only those who will be there will see. And it will certainly not be our generation or the next one.

Looking at periods that are much closer to our days and of our most direct interest, we can say that, from a geographical point of view, the appearance of the Earth will not change significantly in the next hundred years. However, the consequences of global warming over this time span will still be likely to affect the lives of many hundreds of millions of people.

After about a thousand years of winter ice, for example, the waters of the port of Ilulissat (Greenland) have stopped freezing for four years and will continue not to freeze for many years to come, while in summer the country is now invaded by mosquitoes. unknown until yesterday. The enormous retreat of the immense glacier (over 9 kilometers in the last 5 years) allows today to keep the port of the city open all year round, which has become a tourist destination.

The increasing warming of the oceans and the consequent retreat of frozen marine areas, in the near future, will then have another economically and strategically important effect, the opening of the north-west passage. It is, in fact, a maritime route that connects, in theBoreal Emisphere, L 'Atlantic Ocean all 'Pacific Ocean, passing inside the Glacial Artic Sea and through theCanadian arctic archipelago. To date it is still a route subject to the blockade of ice but, nevertheless, one is in progress territorial dispute between Canada e United States. The US, in fact, regards the Northwest Passage as international waters, while Canada believes they are to be treated as territorial waters Canadians. The dispute assumes particular importance, commercial but also military, if we consider that, compared to the current routes passing through the Panama Canal, the routes fromEurope all 'Far East through the passage they would save ships more than 2.000 nautical miles (about 4.000 km).

Today's warming causes, as we have seen, an increase in the temperature of the oceans and a decrease in the surface of the polar ice pack but also in the Antarctic ice sheet, and is responsible for the retreat and decrease in the thickness of mountain glaciers. As some mathematical models suggest, continuing with the current rate of reduction in sea temperature contrasts could weaken or even interrupt the Gulf Stream, which allows for a relatively mild climate in northern Europe. Ironically, the immediate consequence of this would be an immediate and significant cooling of the British Isles and Northern Europe. Similarly, other ocean currents could be affected, such as the one that from the Indian Ocean reaches the South Atlantic via the Horn of Africa, causing a similar variation in the mild South African climate and a change in the monsoon rain regime that keeps humid and various parts of Asia are fertile.

Although 70 percent of the globe is covered by water, in fact, fresh water represents a good whose availability is a prerequisite for the existence of life and its scarcity can cause contrasts of unimaginable proportions to explode. To understand the proportions, just remember that the total volume of water on the planet is about 1,41 billion cubic kilometers, but 97 percent of this is salt water. Basically, to make the matter even clearer, if the total availability of water on Earth were equal to 100 liters, immediately usable fresh water would amount to only 0,003 liters, basically half a teaspoon. Furthermore, desalination, a process by which salt water can be made usable for human consumption, still involves an expense and energy consumption.

It should be added that the fresh water available is not only used for human consumption but a certain percentage (82% in Asia, 40% in the USA, 30% in Europe) is used for agricultural production. In this context, China and India use up to 90% of their fresh water availability for agricultural and industrial use. To better understand the size of the phenomenon, I remember that, for agri-food use, it takes about 214 liters of water for one kg of tomatoes, 790 for bananas, 1.850 for pasta, 2.500 for rice, 15.000 for beef. and 18.900 for coffee. The industry, on the other hand, uses much larger quantities, ranging from 2.000 liters for a liter of gasoline, to 5.000 liters for a ton of cement, to about 150.000 liters for a ton of steel. To make a plastic bottle, in which we buy the water that we then drink, about four liters are needed, while to produce a latest generation telephone, almost 13.000 liters of water are needed.

This implies that industrial nations consume far more fresh water than agricultural nations. Furthermore, if industrial production is intuitively the cause of air and water pollution, it must be emphasized that even modern methods of intensive agricultural cultivation cause pollution of the soil and aquifers, due to the intensive use of pesticides and industrial fertilizers.

All of this drastically reduces the amount of fresh water available for domestic use, which amounts to only 8 percent of the total fresh water availability. A quantity that is used in variable measures according to the hygiene, living, cultural and climatic standards of each country.

It is therefore understood how the availability of fresh water and its use are factors that directly influence the social relations of a country, its economic development and its relations with other countries, and how they are capable of triggering fierce disputes, if the water reserves are not sufficient or do not fall within the territory of a single state. A problem so felt that it has led some scholars to declare that, in the near future, oil will be replaced by water as the main cause of armed conflict between states.

The most recent dispute over water arose in Africa, a continent already battered by countless violent conflicts, racial disputes and religious terrorism. Since 2011, the Ethiopian government has been building a giant dam on the Blue Nile. There Grand Renaissance Dam, once completed, it will operate the largest hydroelectric plant in Africa, guaranteeing the country's energy independence and additional income through the sale of the surplus. The water coming from the Ethiopian highlands along the course of the Blue Nile ensures, however, about 80 percent of the average flow rate of the Nile which, in the summer months, becomes almost all the water that flows into the river. The future filling of the reservoir, which will have a final capacity of 74 billion liters of water, will lead to a subtraction of water from the normal flow of the river, causing a significant decrease in usability by the African countries downstream of the dam, more precisely Sudan and Egypt, affecting over one hundred million inhabitants, all dependent more or less directly on the Nile. Cairo, in believing that filling carried out quickly could cause insufficient flow during the summer months and a consequent very serious water, economic and social emergency for the populations, strongly calls for filling to take place very slowly and that it should cover a period of no less eleven, preferably fifteen. Ethiopia, on the other hand, with the aim of starting hydroelectric production as soon as possible, is organizing that the filling of the basin takes place in a significantly shorter period, between four and seven years. The issue has important national security implications for Egypt and the intransigence of Addis Ababa risks dragging the entire region into a dispute with unpredictable outcomes, with possible muscular actions on the one hand and foreseeable counter-reactions on the other. Before becoming Secretary-General of the United Nations, the then Egyptian Foreign Minister Boutros Boutros-Ghali, stated in no uncertain terms that “… the only thing that could still bring Egypt to war would be the attempt of Ethiopia or of any other country to divert the course of the Nile… ”. All of this worries and interests us, because it takes place in a part of the world already afflicted by enormous political, economic and social problems, which has no need for further tension. A diatribe that risks triggering a water war in the region that would have inevitable political and economic repercussions also on the Mediterranean countries.

The problem of the availability of water resources is also strongly felt in the Middle East. Some demographic analyzes indicate that population growth in notoriously water-poor territories such as Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia amounts to 3-4% per year. This means that, over the next twenty years, the population of these states will double. This fact, combined with the demographic growth of countries such as Turkey, Lebanon, Kuwait or Israel, whose growth rate is about 1,5-2%, will lead to a growing demand for water, in the face of an expected decrease due to the drought induced by climate change, most likely placing these countries below the minimum availability of water per capita. If we take into account that the entire Middle Eastern area depends on the capacity of only six water basins (Tigris, Euphrates, Nile, Jordan, Oronte and Leonte), which are also shared between various countries, we understand how the problem of the division of resources water supply is strongly felt and represents an extremely complex aspect of relations between states.

In this context, the Jordan river basin is particularly delicate, whose water supply is essential for Jordan and Israel and which according to John K. Cooley, an American correspondent, was the real origin of the 1967 war, caused by the unsuccessful attempt to divert its upstream course towards completely Arab territories, with the aim of depriving Tel Aviv of a vital resource. In this context, the occupation of the Golan Heights allowed Israel to avert future similar attempts and also allowed it to access the otherwise inaccessible Yarmuk River, the main tributary of the Jordan.

But there is another area of ​​the world where the supply of fresh water has been a source of conflict in the past and where it could be in the future. In 1947 the Indus River represented the dividing line of the border between India and Pakistan. A year later the Indian province of Punjab tried to proclaim its sovereignty over the waters that passed through its territory, diverting the flow of two channels that supplied water to the Pakistani territory for its own use. The dispute that arose almost caused a war, but was fortunately resolved after 13 years of intense diplomatic meetings, with the signing of a Treaty for a fair supply of the two countries.

Access to the waters of the Mekong and Ganges basins have also already caused heated disputes that only by chance have not yet resulted in armed conflict between Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in the first case and between India and Bangladesh in the second. On the first waterway, from the Chinese springs to the immense Vietnamese delta, on which the life and activities of about 340 million people depend, a strategic game is still being played today for the spaces and water resources to be allocated to the energy, agriculture, trade, defense. A game that has not yet concluded with an agreement between the parties and that leaves numerous questions open about the possible future evolution, given that those water reserves could decrease overall.

China too is thirsty and in abundant need of water, both for its one and a half billion inhabitants and for its agricultural and industrial activities. The Yellow River basin and part of the Yangtze Kiang could not meet the national needs, also because the former was subject to heavy pollution (today it is so full of toxic waste that sometimes it struggles to reach the sea). China solved the problem in 1951 with its usual authoritarian approach, by occupying Tibet militarily and securing control of a huge water reservoir, with the sources of the Yellow River, the Yangtze Kiang and the Mekong. Since then, the Dalai Lama has waged a political battle against the occupation of that territory, supported with varying intensity by a large part of the international community, but the second global economy, which is preparing to become the first of its class, does not seem to have the intention to leave those mountains, having indeed started a colonization program of Tibet by ethnic Han Chinese. For Beijing it is not a question of human rights, but a question of water supply and geopolitical security, so it thinks that the struggle of the movement for the freedom of Tibet is only trying to jeopardize national security. Nonetheless, the pace of industrial growth in the country, and the consequent growing demand for water, suggests the possibility of new contrasts for finding additional sources.

As we have seen, the disputes related to the reduced availability of water are many, but they are not the only consequences of climate change. In fact, the effects of the decrease in arable land due to the effect of desertification due to growing drought will be added in an increasingly significant way. Already today, for example, the northern part of the Sahara desert is moving further and further north, covering the fertile areas of Morocco with sand. The loss of ever larger areas now used for agriculture and urban settlement will have obvious productive and social implications, significantly expanding the phenomenon of clandestine mass migrations to the north, already of dramatic relevance today, and putting further pressure on the social system of the countries of destination of migrants.

It should not be forgotten that these mass migrations will also be cleverly exploited by criminal groups and terrorists, who will seize these opportunities to develop their illegal activities (even the trafficking of illegal migrants) or to infiltrate the "target" countries of their attacks, causing further instability and social tensions.

Also according to the United Nations, the decrease in the availability of water resources and the reduction of arable land will increasingly cause conflict, both internally and between states.

While it is true that human beings cannot stop climate change any more than the temperature of the Sun can vary, they certainly have the possibility of influencing the speed with which these changes progress, adopting virtuous behaviors that allow our environment to cope with natural variations in temperature, slowing them down or keeping these fluctuations within the limits of sustainability of life.

Because one thing is certain, continuing on the path of indifference we will direct this planet towards situations whose evolution we do not know, and whose unpredictable outcomes could lead us to devastating social tensions and generalized violent confrontation, making us pay a very high price for our stupidity. . As dinosaurs teach, when there are great environmental cataclysms, those who pay the highest price are the largest animals, including humans, while microorganisms always find the way to survive.

Earth has tremendous resilience, and the statistics emerged during the lockdown worldwide for coronavirus are a striking example of this, but human greed is putting it to the test. The reckless obliteration of tropical rainforests, the methodicality with which we consume marine resources, the incessant and meticulous destruction of the world's habitats, the indiscriminate consumption of water and the pollution of the seas and freshwater aquifers only increase how fast the climate changes.

Earth's geological history tells us that global warming, melting polar ice, rising sea levels are nothing new. The Earth has experienced over 4,5 billion years of violent transformations before we came to add problems and alter the balance out of pure greed. We must be aware that we are moving towards a progressive worsening of the environmental situation and towards a growing imbalance in the distribution of resources, water in particular.

At the Paris conference (COP21), held in December 2015 with the participation of 198 countries, the principle was affirmed that environmental problems have implications that affect all economies and all societies. Today, faced with the phenomenon of increasing global warming and the increasingly serious consequences that derive from it for the ecosystem as a whole and for the peaceful coexistence of peoples, there is a need for more convinced international action, in which they participate all the governments of the world, each for their own share of responsibility. Faced with global problems such as climate change and the scarcity of resources, equally global responses are therefore necessary, as it is clear that a high degree of cohesion and political will, especially on the part of advanced countries, is also needed to mitigate related conflicts. the implications of climate change.

Fighting the effects of such rapid climate change is not just a scientific, technological or economic issue. It is also a geostrategic issue, an issue that could affect the security of states far more deeply than terrorism or the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction can.

In 2007, the Nobel Peace Prize was jointly awarded to Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - IPCC), a clear geopolitical message that has finally put environmental protection and its close correlations with global peace and security at the center of the international community's attention.

Whatever we do, therefore, will not be to "save the planet", but to save ourselves from the consequences of our reckless actions.

cv pil (res) Renato Scarfi

Photo: US Coast Guard / web / FAO