Rising Tides Will Sink Global Order

Global warming will produce national extinctions and international insurgencies—and change everything you think you know about foreign policy.

An American flag is attached to the boardwalk damaged by Superstorm Sandy, on Nov. 24, 2012 in Ortley Beach, New Jersey.  (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
An American flag is attached to the boardwalk damaged by Superstorm Sandy, on Nov. 24, 2012 in Ortley Beach, New Jersey. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

The meeting held in Katowice, Poland, last week to discuss the further implementation of the Paris climate agreement was hailed by the participants as a success. A complete breakdown was avoided; the appearance of multilateralism was preserved. But it was a triumph of process over substance. The alliance of the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Russia blocked adequate recognition of the apocalyptic findings of the latest report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and Brazil has withdrawn from hosting the next meeting. More important, no decisions were taken on emissions. The governments of Poland and the United States even used the meeting to reaffirm their commitment to coal.

In due course this blindness may be overcome. But time is of the essence. It is commonly said that climate change is a global risk that affects everyone. But that truism hides an essential difference. It is far riskier for some populations than for others. The current targets put the world on track for a 3.5-degree Celsius temperature rise; that is enough to doom the island nations in the Caribbean, Pacific, and elsewhere whose very existence is called into question by rising sea levels. Inhabitants of coastal areas around the world face mass displacement. In delta regions like Bangladesh that will involve tens of millions of people. But they at least have a hinterland to retreat to. For islanders, there is no retreat.

In addition to practical contingencies, this crisis has raised new and fundamental questions about international politics. What does sovereignty mean when global risks are so unequal? How will countries with a finite life expectancy conceive of politics? And what is the world’s responsibility when the first nations begin to disappear under water? The answers will likely add up to a revolution in global order.

This will become especially apparent for the United States. The conservative wing of American politics is the global leader in climate change denialism—indeed, it is the credo of the Trump administration. But, given the consequences for the international order that the United States has underwritten and the responsibilities that will soon be forced upon the country by its immediate neighborhood, this is an increasingly untenable position for the American government machinery to uphold.

The most vulnerable island states tend to be small. In the blunt economic calculus of climate change, as specified by one of this year’s economic Nobel laureates, William Nordhaus, the fate of the Maldives, Jamaica, or the Bahamas barely weighs in the balance. Their small scale also means that they are powerless to affect what happens. No renewable energy policy they might adopt will make any difference. It will be the consumption and production of fossil fuel by the great population centers of the West and Asia and the fossil fuel economies of the giant producers—the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia—that will decide their fate.

The big states have their own economic and political reasons for their reticence. The governments in Brazil and the United States that are boycotting climate change diplomacy are democratically elected. But the violence they are threatening to smaller states is radical.

One might shrug. The archipelago nation-states are fragile entities. The history of human settlement on many of them is not continuous. But the fact is that during the 20th century they were cast as nation-states. Sovereign equality may be a hypocritical fiction. But one of the core assumptions of nation-state sovereignty is permanence. The only legitimate way to dismantle a sovereign is for it to spawn others. The extinction of sovereignty as, for instance, in the partition of Poland in 1939 between Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union, is the definition of international crime. The Soviets at least incorporated the population of eastern Poland as citizens. There is little discussion today of compensating for the impending widespread loss of sovereignty.

This development will also have affect the basic structure of international relations. Sovereign permanence is a basic assumption of our present global order. Internationally, the assumption that nations have infinite time horizons is the foundation of all ideas of a stable and lasting international community, which structures all international cooperation. Domestically, in any given country, this assumption structures all policy discussions by distinguishing states from the individuals who are their citizens; in extremis, it’s the legitimacy of the state’s permanence that entitles governments to call on their citizens to make the ultimate sacrifice. In mundane terms, it is what gives states their ability to sustain enormous debts on an essentially permanent basis.

These basic unquestioned features of our political order are now in jeopardy. Rich countries worry about “dying out” due to demographic decline. But that can be fixed by migration. Climate change faces island nations with something even more elemental. They will cease to be viable as territorial states. They will literally disappear from the map. Relatively affluent island states like the Bahamas talk boldly about mitigation. But 80 percent of the Bahamas is one meter or less above sea level. What can mitigation possibly mean in that case? And what of Haiti, whose impoverished population lives crowded in the flood plain that borders deforested and infertile mountains?

The weakening of the basic assumption of sovereign permanence will inevitably have political and financial knock-on effects that have yet to be reckoned with. The world must decide how to treat sovereign states when their time horizon becomes limited. What kind of investment can be justified in a state whose life span is numbered in decades? When does lending money for reconstruction after the latest devastating hurricane no longer make sense? These are already questions for sovereign debt markets and ratings agencies. But they will also become basic political questions for the entire international community.

And if there is no reinvestment and reconstruction, what then? How will the political systems of post-colonial states react when it becomes evident that they have been doomed to extinction by decisions taken by more powerful and far larger actors in the rest of the world? One might speculate darkly that the existential crisis of the island nations might produce a radical response. It’s possible to imagine they would resort to some type of threat to force more urgent policy change in the rest of the world.

The problem is that the coercive pressure would need to be exerted now, when the consequences are not yet obvious and severe. By the time that they are, it will be too late. Then protest will be a matter of mourning, akin perhaps to the Native American ghost dance: a symbolic interpretation of mourning and loss rather than a means of changing actual politics.

If the pessimistic scenario unfolds, there may come a time when evacuation is the only option. But it’s not clear where to. The island nations are small states, which is why they are easily dismissed in the macroscopic calculus of global change. But we know how difficult it has proven for large states to accommodate comparatively tiny flows of refugees. Pinpricks can have remarkable political effects.

If the rich countries close their doors, if they seek to contain the fallout from the inundation within the maritime regions, the likely consequences are no less dire. In the Caribbean there is already a clear racialized hierarchy between the locals, both black and white, and the main groups of migrant workers—above all Haitians and Guatemalans. How much more stark—and how much less tolerable for the migrants, and the world watching on—will those lines become when entire nations are on the move?

A recent U.S. government report spelled out the serious impacts climate change will have across the United States and particularly in Hawaii. What they did not factor into their calculations were the regional effects of the crisis. In the crosshairs of extreme weather and sea level rise, the Caribbean will be among the regions most immediately affected. It has long been a zone of American predominance, a region of semicolonial incorporation, and a touristic playground. What threatens it today is not so much American power as American neglect.

Today the juxtaposition of the news from the U.N. climate change talks in Poland and the death of a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl in U.S. custody is still coincidental. A few decades from now it no longer will be.

Adam Tooze teaches history at Columbia University. His latest book is Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World. Twitter: @adam_tooze

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