A new vision for agriculture
momagri, movement for a world agricultural organization, is a think tank chaired by Christian Pèes.
It brings together, managers from the agricultural world and important people from external perspectives,
such as health, development, strategy and defense. Its objective is to promote regulation
of agricultural markets by creating new evaluation tools, such as economic models and indicators,
and by drawing up proposals for an agricultural and international food policy.
Point of view

“Climate Change not just an Environmental Issue”

Alexandre Taithe
Researcher for the Foundation for Strategic Research

French Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries Michel Barnier gladly repeats, “The climate question is the greatest challenge we all face…and farmers, in particular, are the most affected by global warming.” An article published in October 2007 by the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS) entitled “Climate Change and State Security: An Operational Link to be Built Locally and in the Medium Term”1 addresses this subject of global warming from an angle that until recently has received little media coverage—that of the effect the environment has on the security of individuals, States and the international system.

According to the author, the characteristics and consequences of climate change make it necessary to revise our traditional perceptions of power and security, in that they can be new factors of instability for States. If we fully extend this reasoning, climate change could “sow the seeds of a global challenge of liberalism (modes of production, consumption, evolution of political regimes toward more participatory democracy and governance).” Considering current events over the past few years, it is hard to argue with the soundness of this reasoning.

We therefore recommend reading this article,2 which seems to us especially pertinent in the current context of the Grenelle Environmental Conference and the Assises Agricultural Conferences. It also helps situate agriculture’s strategic role and its nourishing function in a world where population is exploding and agricultural production is greatly threatened by global warming. We thank Alexandre Taithe for having been kind enough to answer our questions.

1. How aware do you think political leaders are of the consequences of global warming on State security?

The effects of climate change are perceived as being distant and spread out both in time and space across the planet. Indeed, how can we grasp the reality of such a change on the strategic horizon of 30 years, or even 100 years, as does the IPCC? And how can we evaluate the social and economic acceptability of measures that require “sacrifices” for this generation in favor of a hypothetical gain for future generations?

It is partly through awareness of the immediate stakes of the growing shortage of water that some political leaders have understood that this “30-year” horizon forces us to reflect and change our behavior starting today, in particular in terms of strategy.

We can recognize Germany for having been one of the pioneers in this area, since it was they who, for the first time 15 years ago, included climate change in a defense white paper. France could soon do the same, also in a white paper to be released in March 2008.

Canada was another country that integrated climate change into its general security sooner than others, having realized that this issue could have negative consequences not just on its agricultural and therefore food production, but also on the “affirmation of its sovereignty in the Arctic”.

Going back to France, I think that things are changing rapidly. For example, in early 2007 the Ministry of Defense launched a study entitled "How will climate disturbances impact biodiversity and food agriculture dependency in zones of major strategic interest? What are the security issues?”

But there is still a lot to be done so that alongside efforts to fight climate change, politicians adapt to identify the consequences of these changes in terms of strategic security and then do something about it.

There is another broad but nonetheless fascinating subject for strategy experts that would be interesting to analyze, and that is the way in which certain third world countries will “use” climate change to “penetrate” some international decision-making spheres.

2. In your article, you say, "Climate change 'seriously compromises' agricultural production and access to food on the entire [African] continent." Could you give us a few points of reference?

I have to preface this by saying that even though the work done by the IPCC, recently awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside Al Gore, has been remarkable, standard forecast models cannot say exactly "where, when, what phenomenon and what size" and cannot in comprehensive studies take into account the ability of States to adapt.

That being said, the most recent IPCC report emphasizes that “Africa is by far the continent that is the most vulnerable to the phenomena of climate change.” By 2020, 50 percent of rain-based agriculture could disappear in several African States. And at that point, the agricultural yield in some countries could fall by 50 percent. It is estimated that between 75 and 250 million people will be exposed to water stress by 2020 and 350 to 600 million by 2050. (…) Climate change “seriously compromises” agricultural production and access to food on the entire continent.

The IPCC has produced a specific report on Egypt that shows that water stress brought on by climate change could cause national production of rice to fall by 11 percent and soy by 28 percent by 2050.

For specialized observers of strategic issues, China is undeniably a major subject of study. For one, Chinese security policy requires that 85 percent of grain consumed (including rice) must be produced within the country.

Yet, China loses around one percent of its cultivated land annually, losses that are today compensated for by increases in productivity. However, China will not be able to maintain this “policy” level of 85 percent after 2020 without sacrificing the export of lucrative commodities (mushrooms, garlic, pears, apples, etc.). It will have to resign itself to importing to make up for the difference and that, in its view, would expose it to a strategic dependence on Western exporters.

What will China do? As it is for oil imports, China is already diversifying its food supply sources by creating partnerships, in particular with Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina.

3. Finally, in concluding your article, you say that “more than environmental conflicts, we should be concerned that these new insecurities (real or perceived) could be used for traditional political ends.” What do you mean by that?

The environment is an issue embedded with preexisting tension among people of the same nationality and between States. Since civilian populations are much more sensitive to the quality of their immediate environment (water, air, etc.), it is not hard to mobilize them on issues relating to environmental degradation. The environment can even become the basis for a type of populism or nationalism. Conflicts between States can be attempts to veil a country’s insufficient environmental management. Kazakhstan points the finger at Chinese water withdrawals that supposedly endanger the sustainability of the Lake Balkhash ecosystem, even though the UNEP had underlined Kazakhstan’s hand in degrading the lake several years before the Chinese first tapped into it.

It is possible that environmental issues are at the heart of the creation of a “new ideological axis” and a type of “resentment” between the States who play the game of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and those who do not. The environment has also already been a military target—think of the ecological disaster created by the sabotage of Kuwaiti oil wells when the Iraqi army retreated in 1991. The destruction of tankers is also considered a real risk.

The environment can also be the pretext for interference in a State’s affairs, even to the point of justifying military intervention. Following humanitarian intervention, why not environmental intervention? This idea has already been discussed within the United Nations Security Council.

Even within a State, the environment can also be used and be the subject of a power struggle between the central power and decentralized powers. With regard to China again, one could wonder whether the environmental crisis is not a means for the central government to regain jurisdiction given to local authorities, whose incompetence has supposedly been revealed by these crises. So the central government presents itself as the only authority capable of managing the challenges that exceed the scope of the provinces (social problems, redistribution of wealth and environment protection, for example). This type of situation can lead to disguised conflicts and a “re-dealing” of the cards among the powers within a State itself.

Beyond even these “visible” conflicts, the environment can also be used to divert part of Official Development Assistance (ODA) for political ends. Since 2000, Japanese ODA in China has been earmarked for environmental projects. It is true that China, now the number one polluter in the world in sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide, contributes heavily to the massive pollution in Japan (acid rain, red tides, sand storms, etc.). Developing countries also worry that developed countries will prefer to grant ODA to projects that contribute to reducing greenhouse gases (which would benefit all States) rather than adaptation or local development projects. Thus, climate change can be a pretext for redirecting funding to the detriment of issues that are in fact essential to development, such as health and transportation.

Finally, and this is now well-known, environmental protection can, and rightly so, legitimize economic protectionist measures. CO2 labels will most likely soon appear on popular consumer items, encouraging buyers to choose products produced locally because their delivery generated less CO2...

This list, far from being exhaustive, shows that the subject of climate change is not just an environmental issue. Political leaders must become aware of this and integrate the strategic and security aspects of this issue into their policies.

WOAgri, which integrates the interactions between the environment, agriculture and food independence into its work, is happy that France and other countries are concerned with the consequences in terms of strategic power and security that climate change has on agricultural food dependence.

It is also high time for European authorities to integrate into their CAP reform work the precautionary principle that ensures that European agriculture can meet the food needs of its population, while having the ability to meet the needs of other continents. It is essential to keep in mind that future agricultural productivity will not compensate for the worldwide disappearance of arable farmland (due in part to climate change) and will not be sufficient for meeting the world’s predicted increased food needs.

To quote Alexandre Taithe’s conclusion, “this subject of climate change is not just an environmental issue (…) political leaders must integrate the strategic and security aspects of this issue into their policies” so that tomorrow agricultural production does not add to geopolitical tensions over the issue of energy.

1 Taith, Alexandre, Changement climatique et Sécurité des Etats : un lien opérationnel à construire localement et à moyen terme [“Climate Change and State Security: An Operational Link to be Built Locally and in the Medium Term”], Foundation for Strategic Research, October 3, 2007.
2 The entire article is available at this address : http://www.frstrategie.org

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Paris, 19 June 2019