The COVID-19 pandemic is rapidly reshaping global economic, security and diplomatic conditions. In only a few months, we found ourselves in a new normal because a virus transferred from an animal to a person and subsequently spread worldwide. This crisis originating from nature has killed half a million people, halted the global economy and intensified tensions between Washington and Beijing. This is the latest, but not the last, society-altering impact nature will have on geopolitics. If the United States does not take bold action now, the obituary of American global leadership will be penned in parallel with the one for the planet.
2020 was due to be the “super year” for nature, when governments were expected to announce new, bold goals and establish action plans to protect wildlife, ocean health and the climate. The super year was postponed, but the pandemic’s origin highlights the consequences of deprioritizing environmental issues such as conservation management and international wildlife crime. This is particularly true for the United States, which has experienced the most deaths and infections, a staggering number of lost jobs and trillions in increased national debt. This puts the United States at a critical crossroads, and we must move quickly to respond to the growing geopolitical threats stemming from poorly managed wildlife, rapidly declining ocean health and a warming climate.
Consider the accelerating decline of the world’s fish stocks due to rampant industrial overfishing in the last few decades. Today, 90 percent of global fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, which threatens food and job security of approximately 3 billion people relying on fish for food and livelihood. Competition over this resource already drives armed conflict worldwide — similar to how oil, gas, water, spices, sugar, opium and even elephant tusks have been among the root causes of conflict and terrorism financing. Researchers found between World War II and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a quarter of all militarized disputes were fought over fisheries, and data from the last four decades found conflict over illegal fishing practices is on the rise, especially in Asia.
There are also obvious links between climate change and geopolitics. The Arctic is warming faster than any other region due to global warming and is losing record amounts of sea ice, which is opening up new shipping lanes and opportunities to extract critical natural resources. Whoever controls this maritime domain will gain power. China is taking advantage of the situation by building a Polar Silk Road and declaring itself a “near Arctic stakeholder,” while Russia is monetizing the Northern Sea Route as a toll road across its long Arctic coastline from Asia to European markets.
Environmental challenges driving hunger, health and economic disasters are everywhere, impacting everyone, all the time. Current locust swarms in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia are the result of changing weather patterns and risk agricultural damage, which can lead to famine and starvation. In the last month, over 21,000 tons of oil leaked out from a collapsing oil tank in the Siberian city of Norilsk. The cause is believed to be thawing permafrost. And right here at home, the storm season is about to begin, and over the last 40 years, weather and climate disasters have caused about $1.75 trillion in damages, much of it paid for by the American taxpayer.
In the face of these challenges, the United States must immediately develop a strategy for confronting the urgent issues presented by changes in our natural systems by human activity.
First, the United States needs a new national narrative in which planetary health is a central element. This narrative has failed to emerge in our nation despite environmental challenges having been threat multipliers for years. We need to reconceive the relationship between environmental health and its impact on society at the highest political levels. Our strategy should also identify ways to sustainably leverage the economic benefits of nature, referred to as ecosystem services. A recent OECD report found that the ecosystem services delivered by biodiversity worldwide amount to $125-140 trillion a year.
Second, we need a holistic approach that aligns the full force of the American government. The combination of hard and soft power tools will be critical to harness the full capabilities of both the public and private sectors. The next National Security Strategy of the United States should outline America’s hybrid plan, with conservation, oceans, and climate change included as core elements of national security.
Third, because nature does not accept national boundaries, the geopolitics of nature offers the opportunity for the United States to reboot global cooperation. If the United States is to regain the trust of its friends and allies, we must recognize they have already made climate change a higher priority in their domestic and foreign policies. If we want to lead, we must first follow and join critical global environmental forums such as the Convention of Biological Diversity and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And we must rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. From there, the United States must show sustained leadership in these critical global forums. We must also make natural security a priority in our bilateral relations and non-environmental engagements, such as NATO and other global alliances.
Our national leadership is currently out of step with the American people, who are ready to organize our society and our global leadership around nature. A recent poll founds 64 percent of Americans say protecting the environment and dealing with climate change should be top priorities for the president and Congress.
Putting natural security up front comes with one final benefit to the United States: It offers the opportunity to reject the premise that U.S. global leadership is in decline. The American experiment needs a new organizing principle, a new creed Americans can rally around at home and around the world. The United States has been the indispensable – albeit imperfect – nation for mitigating the darkness of humankind. Now we are facing the geopolitics of nature – and America must lead again.
Sherri Goodman is the former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Environmental Security) and board director at the Atlantic Council, as well as a senior fellow at the Wilson Center Environmental Change & Security Program and the Center for Climate & Security. Johan Bergenas is senior director for public policy at Vulcan, where he manages environmental and technology issues.
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