Climate Change: A ticking Geopolitical time bomb

Luka Powell is a final year student of International Relations at King’s College London, her research focuses on the Middle East, Security and Foreign Policy. Her article explores the intricate relationship between Climate Change and Geopolitics across a range of sectors.

The changing climate and the role played by humans in facilitating this change has been seen for the past fifty years[1], however, a recent report by the University of Oxford has generated international attention and seemingly, apt recognition, of the severity of the problem. As more reports and predictions regarding the future of the planet emerge, protests demanding action in order to reduce the carbon footprint of individuals, governments and industries surge. This week, there were protests across numerous bridges in London blocking travel and resulting in the arrests of 85 individuals.[2] Furthermore, supermarket giant Iceland posted their banned Christmas advertisement across social media, detailing the dangers of Palm oil collection.[3]

While climate change posits clear threats to the wellbeing of humans, animals and nature alike, it also poses a number of risks to security and geopolitics. Climate change will affect numerous areas, however, this article will focus on its impact on trade routes, conflict, energy and tourism. Ultimately, this piece argues that climate change is likely to become a threat multiplier, amplifying already existent threats around the world.

Trade routes

In September this year, Sherri Goodman, senior advisor for international security at The Centre for Climate & Security, told Bloomberg how climate change has become a global threat to geopolitics.[4] For instance, melting ice caps in the Arctic are opening up a new region and thus creating new trading routes. As a result of this, new dynamics have emerged. Notably, Russia’s northern sea route is becoming increasingly transitable creating a number of implications for future trade relations. Simultaneously, China now considers itself an Arctic power and unveiled a vision for a ‘Polar Silk Road’ at the beginning of 2018. [5]

New players become involved in the Arctic every day, seeking to make use of its materials and trade possibilities. Whilst the melting ice caps create opportunities such as the new trade routes, they also spawn many risks through the changing geopolitics of the region.


Goodman also highlights the correlation between climate and conflict, underlining the role played by prolonged drought and wheat crop shortage in the 2011 Arab Spring. Intense storms and global droughts are still very prevalent today, and thus the existent food and water security risks, which are often associated with conflict, are amplified.[6]

Goodman suggests that better technological predictability needs to be developed in order to adapt and operate in a ‘climate change world’ and that the US should ‘reclaim its climate leadership’ and to work with allies and partners to reform the energy system. However, Goodman fails to suggest ways in which individuals can slow down and reduce the effects of climate change.[7]


Climate change could also disrupt the world order through the decline of fossil fuels. Karina Barquet, a research associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute has forecasted the high risk of social and political upheaval that will occur as energy use moves towards renewables. As a result of this, new sources of wealth could be developed and ‘petro-states’ could lose access to the high rents fossil fuels have brought them’.[8] Furthermore, climate change could also alter energy demands. For example, it is likely that demand for heating in North and North-Western Europe demands will fall, while demand in southern Europe for cooling will rise [9] As a result of this, electricity supplies throughout the summer months are likely to come under increasing strain across the continent.[10]


Tourism and climate change have a cyclical relationship. The Independent reported earlier this year that tourism is responsible for nearly one-tenth of the world’s carbon emissions, due to areas such as transport, shopping and food.[11] High-income countries bare the greatest responsibility for this. However, as the climate continues to change, so will tourism. Europa has pointed to the changes to tourism for Europe, speculating that the appeal of Southern European destinations will improve in cooler seasons, but could see a significant decrease during the summer.[12] Conversely, the effect on Central European tourism could be markedly positive as projections suggest an overall increase to its suitability throughout the year.[13] Climate change is also resulting in a decrease of snow cover which will have negative implications for snow tourism and the winter sports industry in many regions.[14] Simultaneously, with rising sea levels popular tourist destinations such as the Maldives could disappear in decades to come.

As this article has attempted to exemplify, climate change poses a number of risks to geopolitics and international security. Sea levels are rising, ice caps are melting and summers are becoming increasingly hot. As a result of this, trade routes –  and thus geopolitical dynamics – are changing, energy demands are altering and already existent threats are intensified. Whilst it is important not to underestimate the very real opportunities for innovation, investment and development that a warming climate provides, the role of climate change as a ‘multiplier’ of pre-existing threats across a broad spectrum of geopolitical issues cannot be ignored. Only time will tell whether the international community has the capacity, or even the will to protect and mitigate against the repercussions of a warming global climate.


[1] Wiles, Richard. “It’s 50 Years since Climate Change Was First Seen. Now Time Is Running out | Richard Wiles.” The Guardian. March 15, 2018. Accessed November 18, 2018.

[2] Taylor, Matthew. “Thousands Gather to Block London Bridges in Climate Rebellion.” The Guardian. November 17, 2018. Accessed November 18, 2018.

[3] Taylor, Matthew. “Thousands Gather to Block London Bridges in Climate Rebellion.” The Guardian. November 17, 2018. Accessed November 18, 2018.

[4] Bloomberg.

[5] “China Unveils Vision for ‘Polar Silk Road’ across Arctic.” Reuters. January 26, 2018..

[6] Bloomberg.

[7] Ibid

[8] Karina Barquet “Climate Change, Transitions, and Geopolitics.” SEI. March 15, 2018.

[9] “Climate Action: Sectors Affected.” Europa. European Commission. February 16, 2017

[10] Ibid.

[11] Josh Gabbatiss Science Correspondent @josh_gabbatiss. “Nearly One Tenth of Global Carbon Emissions Come from Tourism.” The Independent. May 07, 2018.

[12] Climate Action: Sectors Affected.” Europa. European Commission. February 16, 2017

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

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