Geopolitical Implications of Climate Change on Russia, China, and the U.S.

Seminar Paper, 2020

28 Pages, Grade: 6.0

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1. Introduction

2. Why only consider Russia, US & China?
2.1. General Assumptions
2.2 The Case of the EU
2.3 The Case of India

3. Scenarios for Climate Change
3.1 No Climate Policies
3.2 Current Climate Policies
3.3 Strong Climate Policies

4. Effects of Climate Change on Russia
4.1 Resources in the Arctic
4.2 Shipping Routes
4.3 Permafrost Melting

5. Effects of Climate Change on the United States
5.1 Rising Sea Levels
5.2 Immigration

6. Effects of Climate Change on China
6.1 Rising Sea Levels
6.2 New Shipping Lanes in the Arctic
6.3 Exports of Rare Earths

7. Other Effects of Climate Change
7.1 More Frequent and More Intense Natural Catastrophes
7.2 Pandemics
7.3 Terrorism
7.4 Spillover Effects

8. Conclusion

9. Literature


The effects of climate change are being researched thoroughly. Meanwhile, the consequences said effects have on the political situation are not being granted the necessary attention. This paper therefor considers the geopolitical implications of climate change on the Russian Federation, the United States, and China. Russia will profit from climate change, as the melting of Arctic ice allows for the extraction of hydrocarbon resources and makes the Northern Sea Route accessible. The thawing of permafrost allows for new Russian settlements in the north, while also posing a serious threat to existing structures built upon permafrost. In the United States, rising sea levels cause domestic migration and endanger military bases, therefore decreasing US power projection. More frequent droughts in Latin America will lead to increased immigration, which can spark polarisation and unrest. China profits from new shipping routes in the Arctic which enable better access to the European market. Resource extraction in Greenland allows China to maintain its monopoly on rare earth elements. Urbanisation led to the Chinese population and economy being vulnerable to a sea level rise. All these developments combined will accelerate the trends of the rise of the global influence of China and Russia as well as the trend of US decline. These developments can be reversed if unpredictable events happen, which including a shift in climate policies, climate prognoses turning out to be wrong, or the occurrence of events such as natural catastrophes and pandemics.

1. Introduction

Climate crisis. Fridays for Future. Greta Thunberg. Flight shaming. Unknown a few years ago, these words dominated the headlines worldwide, until the media attention was distracted to the corona virus. After a relaxation of the situation with the virus, it is expected that the media will regain its focus on climate change. Today, the discourse on climate change is dominated by the natural sciences and much research is done on the effects of climate change. With academics and journalists focusing on the effects of climate change, only insufficient work is done in researching and publishing work about the consequences of these effects of climate change on other sectors. One major example can be geopolitics. Whilst the effects of climate change are being meticulously researched, the consequences of said effects on the global geopolitical situation are not given enough attention, considering the fact that climate change will be a driving factor in geopolitical power shifts in the next decades.

Ice is melting, lands are drying, and permafrost is making place for fertile land; these are examples for effects of climate change which will catalyse geopolitical changes, to which this paper be subjected to. In a first step, it is necessary to develop three scenarios of the future development of climate change since every scenario comes with different geopolitical implications and their intensity. Then, the paper will be invested into elaborating on the geopolitical changes in Russia, the United States and China and research in what degree these three states will be affected by climate change. In a third step, the paper will summarise the findings and try to construct which changes climate change brings within the global geopolitical state.

2. Why only consider Russia, US & China?

2.1. General Assumptions

Human societies can be described as being governed by four sources of power. Those sources are of ideological, economic, military, and political nature.1 Military power can be considered as the most fundamental power. The reason thereof is that in case of a conflict, where political power (diplomacy) as well as ideological power (propaganda) failed to deliver the desired results, states will likely use their military power and therefore resort to the ultima ratio. The establishment of military power needs to be financed by economic power. Currently, three states of the pentarchy model maintain enough economic and military power, those are Russia, China, and the United States. Their reactions to climate change will have a significant effect on the global geopolitical situation and are hence Russia’s, China’s and the United States approach to climate change will be the most relevant to discuss.

Pentarchy models describe the ruling of five parties, as opposed to a hegemony which is governed by one main party. As the United States are slowly losing their hegemonial claim, a pentarchy seems more and more possible. Potential candidates for the future pentarchy are the United States, China, the European Union, Russia, and India.2 In traditional international relations theory, realism strikes the importance of military and economic power, while liberalism focuses on the importance of reciprocity and the establishment of international institutions. Realist theory was especially popular during the Cold War, with the bipolar world order of the United States and the Soviet Union being on the brink of nuclear war. However, with the downfall of the Soviet Union in 1991, realist theory as well as hard power lost some of its importance. At the same time, the international relations theory of liberalism with its focus on soft power gained relevance. However, nowadays hard power is still a crucial factor which determines the influence states can have on the decisions of others, by which they are affected. Geopolitics is naturally linked to the International Relations theory of realism, since it tries to explain the effects of geographic differences, and said differences often come with an advantage or disadvantage in military or economic power. As this paper elaborates on the geopolitical implications of climate change, it will focus on the consequences of climate change on economic and military power on a given state.

2.2 The Case of the EU

Regarding a possible future pentarchy, hard power is needed to complement soft power. The European Union, as of now, does not have a common military force. Whilst attempts to create a European Army have been made, they failed at the unwillingness of the EU member states to participate.3 It is furthermore questionable who would exercise authority over the common military force. According to the spirit of the EU, this would have to be done democratically and unanimously. However, in such a case the EU’s forces would be immobile, as they would constantly be blocked by the necessity of an unanimous decision of the European Union. Passing on the sovereignty over the common forces to the EU’s leading member states is unlikely as well since other member states would object to a European military force on which they can have no influence upon. A leadership of Germany is also sure to lead to a little probability of a European Army being set into place.

A second reason to object to an inclusion of the European Union into this analysis is the fact, that the EU is not a single entity which pursues clear goals. Rather, the EU member-states’ goals all differ from each other, which is obvious when considering the refugee crisis. Culture and history led the east to think differently than the west, which makes the mission of creating a common European identity impossible.

Since there is not enough consensus in the European Union on geopolitical manners, as well as the fact that the EU lacks a centralised and powerful military, the following analysis will exclude the European Union. Rather the focus will lie on the more powerful and therefore more relevant states corresponding to the US, Russia, and China.

2.3 The Case of India

Even though experiencing strong and steady growth since 19914, India has not yet become a rich country based on GDP/capita. Although India has a 55 times lower GDP per capita than the People’s Republic of China, the sheer size of India’s economy comes with considerable economic power. Additionally, India possesses one of the largest armies in the world.6 While this is true, quantity is no indicator for quality. Modernisation of the Indian military is stalling, while the government fails to create and implement a grand strategy.7 India’s strive for power will therefore soon be overshadowed by China, which pursues the grand strategy of establishing new markets for their products by investing heavily in infrastructure via the Belt and Road Initiative.8 India’s lack of ambition has led its officials prioritising domestic issues instead of foreign policy9. Moreover, domestic issues such as social and ethnic conflicts are torpedoing progress.10 In spite of India lacking the economic power and the funds for effective military power as well as having an inwards mindset, Indian ambitions on becoming a superpower will have to be postponed.11 As this paper’s extent is limited, it will focus on the three most promising countries of the pentarchy model, while excluding India and Europe. These two states are not examined due to Europe’s absence of centralised military power and India lacking economic power and its inward-focused foreign policy.

3. Scenarios for Climate Change

3.1 No Climate Policies

If no action against climate change is taken, the yearly amount of greenhouse gas emissions will quadruple by 2100. This will simultaneously lead to a stronger greenhouse effect. In this case, average global temperate is estimated to rise by 4.1-4.8°12 Celsius compared to pre-industrial times. This drastic increase in temperature will rise sea levels by approximatively 70cm13.

3.2 Current Climate Policies

It is now important to consider effects of climate change which are especially relevant for the geopolitical situation. If the now-existing climate policies remain the same for the next 80 years, temperatures in 2100 will be about 3°14 Celsius higher than they were before the industrial era. This comes with an estimated increase in sea levels of 50cm15. This increase of sea level can vary geographically, as local circumstances differ. For example, the higher volume of warm water leads to hotter areas generally experiencing a higher rise in sea level.16 This higher sea level will lead to low-lying cities being flooded. The population of China which will be affected by flooding will approximatively triple with no further climate action taken.17 The problem of flooding in China will become even more acute as citizens living in rural areas migrate to cities. This is especially problematic as further growth of Chinese cities, which mainly lay near the East coast, will lead to citizens being more vulnerable against flooding.18 cases of the US west coast and the Chinese east coast will further on be subject to elaboration. There are several other factors other than sea level which will be affected by climate change. The paper will now consider a temperature rise of 1.5° Celsius as given. If temperatures rise by 2° Celsius, the ratio of the population which will face at least one extreme heatwave already triples19 (28% vs 9%). Data for the scenario towards the world tends right now with a temperature increase of 3%; it can be expected that in this case the numbers would be significantly higher. With the current climate policies, the global average drought length will last five times longer. In Central America, the average drought length will increase by 14 months compared to the scenario where the 1.5° Celsius goal is reached. Similarly, droughts in South America will on an average last 8 months, compared to 1 month of drought with a temperature rise of 1° Celsius. This will create famines and significant migration flows, especially into the US.

In sum, current climate policies will lead to global average temperatures being 3° Celsius higher than they were in the pre-industrial age. This change in temperature comes with sea level rise of approximately 50cm, which will have disastrous effects on cities near the coastline. Natural catastrophes will be more frequent, with long-lasting droughts and floods as well as other consequences of climate change depicting push-factors for large-scale migration.

3.3 Strong Climate Policies

With decisive climate policies, worldwide temperatures are expected to rise by 1.5°20. To keep climate change in check, policy makers set the goal to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius. This goal was implemented in the Paris Agreement in the year of 2016. With this temperature increase comes a moderate sea level rise of approximate 40cm21. This scenario would limit the effects of climate change to a minimum. However, as collective action is failing and leaders such as Donald Trump are not willing to risk their chances of becoming re-elected by implementing stricter measures against climate change, the scenario mentioned aforehand is becoming more and more likely. Temperatures can therefore be expected to rise about 3° Celsius, while sea level rise by an approximate 50cm. These numbers, however, only depict estimated averages; local circumstances are the reason these numbers can vary significantly from place to place.

4. Effects of Climate Change on Russia

4.1 Resources in the Arctic

Climate change induces the melting of ice, be it in the Arctic, Antarctica or in Greenland.22 However, the Arctic will most likely be one of the areas affected the most.23 This leads to resources, which were previously hidden under a thick layer of ice, becoming accessible for exploitation. In 2008, the Arctic circle was expected to hold about 90 billion barrels of oil, 47 trillion cubic metres of natural gas, and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids.24 As a comparison, global crude oil demand in 2019 was 101 million25 barrels daily. All in all 22% of undiscovered hydrocarbon resources can be found in the Arctic.26

Today, the Arctic’s abundance of natural resources is not yet relevant. The reason therefor are the low oil prices, are the reason why the exploitation of resources in the Arctic is not yet feasible. The aspect of resources will gain relevance with the oil prices rising and the world looking for alternate sources of oil, rather than the Middle East.

4.2 Shipping Routes

Whilst the access to resources being only relevant in a long-term timeframe, the possibility of new sea lanes and trade routes is the driving force behind the crave for the arctic. In 2014, a cargo-vessel managed to travel along the Northwest passage in Canada without the aid of an icebreaker. Not only will cargo vessels in the future be able to pass today’s arctic ice without the escort of an icebreaker; the melting of the ice also allows ships to use a about 2027 days shorter and therefor cheaper route to deliver their goods.28 Especially the Northern Hemisphere will benefit from these emerging shortcuts through the Arctic, as the Arctic sea routes will facilitate trade between Europe and Asia by possibly posing an alternative to the standard route through the Suez canal.29 Nonetheless, there are doubts about the Arctic shipping routes depicting an alternative to the Suez canal in the future. One factor which would certainly benefit trade through the Arctic shipping routes are high canal fees. At Present, a cargo ship pays hundreds of thousands of USD for its right to use the Suez Canal.30

In order to benefit the most from the resources as well as the shipping routes, the Russian Federation under the leadership of Vladimir Putin has made several territorial claims, which it underlays with a considerable amount of military strength being deployed in Northern Russia as well as in the Arctic Sea. The strategy of establishing hard power near the Arctic as well as the United States’ inability to act, led to Russia being the most powerful actor in the Arctic region.31 Most important for Russia is the northern sea route, which is located along its northern coast. It is believed to be open for an “extended period” already in 2025, whilst the Northwest passage north of Canada is expected to open several years later.32 Additionally, the Northwest passage does not carry as much potential as the Northern Sea Route does. This is especially notable when comparing the Canadian negligence on constructing the necessary infrastructure for the Northwest passage with Russia’s determination to establish the Northern Sea Route.33

With Russia tightening its control over said route as well as over the strategic chokepoint of the Bering Strait, Russia will profit in two main ways. Firstly, Russian control over important chokepoints of global trade will lead to Russia having a higher leverage in diplomatic negotiations. This increased soft power will allow Russia to negotiate more favourable deals. Secondly, the Russian coastline in the north will profit financially by hosting carrier vessels which need to fill up their fuel storage or stop for other reasons. However, Russian ambitions in the Arctic are slowed down by shipping companies which object to using the Northern Sea Route due to concerns of environmental and economic nature.34 Overall, climate change will allow Russia to gain economic power due to resources and shipping routes becoming accessible.

4.3 Permafrost Melting

With the greenhouse effect generally leading to higher temperatures globally, permafrost is thawing. The melting of permafrost will lead to the release of vast amounts of greenhouse gases, which in turn will speed up climate change significantly. Russia however might be a major profiteer from this development. Not only will the thawing of permafrost enable Russia to extract previously blocked resources in its North; the melting of the permafrost will as well contribute to land becoming fertile, which allows for Russian settlements in the North. However, the thawing of permafrost is a double-edged sword. The decrease of permafrost will necessarily destabilise areas and entire cities such as Tiksi and Yakutzk, which were built upon it. Russian Federation will therefore have to consider actions on how to ensure the stability of its infrastructure in Siberia. If it fails to do so, that will have drastic consequences. Or how a study of the Swedish Defense Research Agency stated: “The benefits that the Russian Federation could reap from a changed climate in the Arctic may be endangered or even undone by the transportation difficulties that could ensue in permafrost areas”.35

5. Effects of Climate Change on the United States

5.1 Rising Sea Levels

In 2018, two US-American military bases were damaged by flooding respectively by a hurricane. These catastrophes had consequences on the US military capabilities and did an estimated 8.1 billion USD damage on US Army possessions. Currently, more than 30 US military bases are threatened by climate change. Major threats include flooding, flash flooding, excessive heat, and coastal erosion. However, a rise in the sea level will have the largest consequences on US military power. Today, 16 military bases on the US east coast are endangered by the increasing sea levels. Out of these 16 military bases, especially the Naval Station in Norfolk as well as the Naval Station in Mayport are crucial for the US army. The Norfolk Naval Station is the biggest largest naval base in the world and home to 636 aircraft carriers. The Maryland Naval Station is home to the US Navy’s third largest fleet.37 If these bases were to be damaged by climate change and a rise in sea levels, US power projection would be severely limited.

Moreover, a sea level rise of 91cm is expected to displace 4.2 million US-residents, while a sea level rise of 183cm will displace 13.1 million citizens by 2100.38 Even though these numbers of 91cm and 183cm are remarkably higher than the estimate of an average sea level rise of 50cm, they are possible. The reason therefor is, that besides the rising global temperatures are increasing the thermal expansion of water and accelerating the melting of the Arctic ice, which lead to a higher volume of the total sea water, other land-based factors are relevant too. For example, pumping up groundwater results in land going down.39 In simple terms, rises in sea level can vary significantly, as not only water is going up, but land is going down simultaneously. In the next 80 years, one can therefore anticipate about 1% of the US-American population having to flee due to their homes becoming inhospitable. This domestic migration will most likely cause social unrest.40 Additionally, rising sea levels will increase immigration into the US, which the next paragraph will be about.

5.2 Immigration

Besides the rise in sea level which endangers US power projection and will lead to domestic migration, climate change will particularly challenge the United States in the form of increased migration from the South, as Latin America is especially affected by climate change. The relatively poor living conditions of the people as well as the inability of Latin American states to fund measures against the effects of climate change will amplify the effects of climate change. Especially Mexico, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras will be heavily affected.41 These countries form the “Dry Corridor”, in which climate is extremely variable42. This high variability comes with increased vulnerability, as unexpected droughts can affect unprepared people and have disastrous effects.43 In Honduras, rainfall will be sparse whilst floods will become more frequent. A lower amount of rain will disrupt farming and cause droughts, which will create famines if they persist. According to a prognosis, El Salvador will lose 10-28%44 of its coastline. This will render fishermen without any source of income.

Climate change will therefore challenge Latin American citizens in a variety of ways. Firstly, a lack of rainfall will lead to famines. Secondly, the rise in sea levels will make living at today’s coast impossible. The shortened coast lines will disturb the economically important areas near the coast by hindering productive activities such as fishing. This will leave many people jobless. Further, the higher probability of natural catastrophes will lead to more floods, earthquakes, and storms. With a lack of food, security and economic perspectives, more and more people will be willing to migrate northwards. However, scholars also argue that i.e. droughts may actually decrease the number of migration, since droughts with their financial consequences can lead to people willing to migrate not being able to afford the trip.45 Nonetheless, climate change can be expected to lead to increased immigration into the US in the long term. The migrants will eventually reach the US-Mexican border in the form of climate refugees. The amount of emigration from the Dry Corridor is steadily increasing. In 2015, 6 times as many people than in 2010 emigrated from their home country. With climate change progressing further, this number is bound to rise.

For the United States, two possible developments can be anticipated. If the United States wants to keep immigration from the south at a low level, it will have to spend billions on border protection, which will decrease US economic power, as border protection is an “unproductive” activity in the economic sense. To exemplify the financial implications of border protection, one can consider the case of the US’ southern border. Trump’s border wall will costs 11 billion USD. What is even more important are the constant costs which occur in the form of wages for border police, as a significant amount of new border officer jobs would have to be created in order to keep immigration to the US from its southern border as low as it is today. Even with a significantly increased budget for border protection, the number of illegal immigrations into the US is destined to rise. This can have a remarkable effect on the economy. The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank proposes that as of now, illegal immigration costs the United States 55 billion USD annually.46 However, this number is disputed and critics suggest that the taxes (consumption taxes etc.) paid by illegal immigrants offset the costs which they create.47 It is yet not entirely clear if immigration into the US leads to an economic benefit or loss. It is especially difficult to reach a conclusive answer, as the result always depend on the factors which are regarded, and the choice of the factors at least in parts reflects the subjective opinion of the authors of a study. With the economic consequences not being a reliable indicator in order to assess the effects of increased immigration to the US, it is essential to consider other factors.

Besides the economic consequences, increased immigration can lead to the United States becoming even more polarised. This will especially be the case in the case of an economic downturn when US-Americans start seeing Latin American immigrants as competitors. This competition could contribute to further dividing the US-American population. Escalations between these two groups have the power to undermine domestic stability and the political power of the United States. We saw a similar situation of polarisation in May 2020, when the killing of the unarmed black man George Floyd by a police officer escalated the tensions between white and black citizens.48

6. Effects of Climate Change on China

6.1 Rising Sea Levels

China opening to trade generated considerable wealth near the coast. One perfect example is Shanghai; a city which was one of the main profiteers of international trade. This new wealth, however, did not reach the countryside, which in turn led to domestic migration towards the east and into cities.49 Urbanisation resulted in China becoming even more vulnerable against the impact climate change has on the sea level. Considering the fact that China’s economic centres lay on its east coast, climate change will have a substantial effect on the Chinese economy as well as the living quality of the Chinese people. Densely populated and low-lying cities such as Shanghai, Tianjin and Hebei will be especially affected.50

With a global temperature increase of 2° Celsius, 39%51 of Shanghai’s inhabitants will see their land submerging. The existing Chinese sea wall, which was built in recent decades52, will become more likely to fail withstanding storms, which will lead to the flooding of areas of thousands of square kilometres.53 Additionally, a rise in sea levels due to a 2° Celsius temperature increase will harm and will eventually displace 64 million Chinese people previously living at the coast. Regarding the economic loss, oceanic disasters in 2018 cost China 69054 million USD. This number is bound to increase with climate change.55 A study suggests that China together with India and Canada are part of the G20 member states who will suffer the highest macroeconomic losses due to the sea level rise. The economic impacts of said rise are expected to intensify from the second half of the 21st century on.56 By 2100, China may lose 12% of its GDP annually due to the rising sea level.57 In the long-term, China is therefore deemed to suffer substantial economic losses through the combination of the costs for the implementation of countermeasures such as the building of sea walls and the relocation of citizens and the costs generated by natural oceanic catastrophes, which will be especially significant from 2050 on. All these effects of climate change will weaken Chinese economic power. This combined with citizens being impacted by preventable catastrophes such as floods will eventually decrease Chinese political power through the sinking support for the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

6.2 New Shipping Lanes in the Arctic

China’s intentions in the Arctic are similar to the ones of Russia, which became clear when China declared itself to be a “near-arctic” state in 2018. Its main goal is to link the Arctic with the Belt and Road Initiative; China wants to establish a “Polar Silk Road”.58 In order for this to happen, Beijing is building nuclear icebreakers, which allow cargo vessels to proceed in ice territories.59 The use of the Northwest Passage would allow trading routes between China and Europe to be about 20 days faster and therefore less expensive. These lower transport costs would strengthen the trade links between China and Europe and would therefor raise the share of Chinese products in Europe. European consumers being more dependent on imports from China will further strengthen the influence and economic power of China. The most direct way through the Arctic would be the Transpolar Route. In comparison to the Northern Sea Route as well as the Northwest Passage, two main benefits of the Transpolar Route are its direct and quick path, and the fact it does not pass through territorial waters.60 The Transpolar Route is expected to open for extended periods by 203061 and would mainly benefit China as well as Russia. Not being an arctic state, China is in need of a partner, who China found to lay in Russia.62 Western sanctions on Russia after its annexation of Crimea led Russia to foster collaboration with China.63 While the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are benefitting from their cooperation, the United States is falling behind.

6.3 Exports of Rare Earths

The melting of ice in the Arctic Region is creating new opportunities, which Arctic states are using. Not only Russia, but all other Arctic states are involved in order to secure their interests in the region. The list includes Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. Additionally, China takes part in the Arctic Council as an observer state.64 Similarly to Russia, China is interested in widening its influence in the Arctic because of economic potential in the form of new shipping routes as well as resource extraction.

Unlike Russia, China’s focus does not lie on profiting from the vast amounts of gas and oil, which is expected to lie beneath the Arctic ice, its main goal is to gain access to rare earth elements. The pursue of the exploitation of these rare earth elements in Greenland yields China several benefits. Firstly, the Chinese project comes with financial profits and creates jobs for Chinese workers. Both will help the Chinese economy to sustain its growth and therefore prevent unemployment.

Secondly, by engaging resource extraction in Greenland, China is securing its monopolist position with rare earth minerals.65 This monopolist position comes with economic power due to rare earth minerals being considered critical to a country’s economic and national security. The fact that possessing a monopoly of such a crucial resource comes with economic power is illustrated by the president of China Xi Jinping thinking loudly about using his country’s monopolistic position in order to increase political leverage in trade negotiations with the US.66 Thirdly, economic cooperation with Greenland results in China gaining influence and access to a geostrategic region of high importance.67 Lastly, China’s ambitions in the Arctic have the power to accelerate the establishment of shipping routes through the Arctic.

7. Other Effects of Climate Change

7.1 More Frequent and More Intense Natural Catastrophes

As mentioned aforehand in the context of US and Chinese citizens being threatened by more frequent flooding, a higher intensity and frequency of natural catastrophes induced by higher temperatures will affect the entire world. Such catastrophes can have severe negative effects on a country’s economic power. An example for natural catastrophes having a substantial effect on an economy is the damage that was incurred by a tsunami in Fukushima. The costs for said catastrophe are estimated on about 30068 bn. USD. A decreasing economic power eventually results in less funds being available to sustain a powerful military. However, military power can also be affected directly as it was the case in 2018 with several US stealth fighter jets being damaged and destroyed by Hurricane Michael.69 As natural catastrophes will occur more frequently and more intensely, they depict an unpredictable consequence of climate change which can further enhance or weaken current trends such as the rise of the People’s Republic of China.

7.2 Pandemics

As average temperatures are rising, the risk of infectious diseases rises. Malaria, which spreads the fastest at 30-3370 degrees Celsius, is especially sensible on climate change. A rise in global temperatures of 2-3 degrees Celsius could lead to several hundred million more being susceptible to falling ill of malaria. Additionally, higher temperatures would prolong the duration of malaria seasons.71 In Africa and certainly in poor regions in Asia, more frequent droughts will lead to hunger, which makes people to resort to bush meat. A higher consumption of bush meat will lead to epidemics becoming more likely.72 If an epidemic evolves into a pandemic, this will affect all nations similarly. However, the magnitude of the disease as well as the state’s capabilities to fight the disease spreading further, can lead to the best prepared states gaining geopolitical influence. This can best be explained with an example. With the current coronavirus pandemic, some believe China managed to grow its influence on Europe. “China’s decision to send medical staff and equipment to Europe to fight the coronavirus was not only an act of solidarity, but a geopolitical exercise: […] it is a demonstration of China’s will to play the role of ascending hegemon and capitalise on the growing void left by the US.”73

7.3 Terrorism

As temperatures are rising and droughts are becoming more widespread, food security will suffer. Famines and water shortages will eventually lead to people becoming desperate and more susceptible for terrorism as this occupation might provide them with the food and water they lacked.74 The same situation now occurs with the coronavirus pandemic. In the territories which they dominate, Taliban forces are distributing masks and providing education on preventive measures in an unprecedented PR-stunt.75 If this campaign proves to be successful, the Taliban will be rewarded with the ability to recruit more young fighters. Climate change hereby acts as a threat-multiplier, leading to an amplification of current issues and conflicts.

7.4 Spillover Effects

Globalisation as well as international trade that comes within, adds another layer of complexity to the analysis of geopolitical effects of climate change. As today’s world is heavily interlinked in nearly all manners, including economically and militarily, the consequences of climate change mentioned aforehand can occur globally. For example, the consequences of a natural catastrophe in Vietnam can spill over to China in several ways. The catastrophe could firstly lead to an influx of migrants. Secondly, it may affect China economically by wreaking havoc on Vietnam’s economy, which depicts an important trading partner to China.76 With NATO, the United States became heavily interlinked militarily with Europe. If Europe were to be strongly affected by climate change, this weakening of Europe’s position in the current world order would have a negative impact on the United States too, as its influence in the European sphere would decrease.

8. Conclusion

All in all, it is difficult to develop a reliable prognosis on the effects which climate change will have on the geopolitical situation. This is due to several circumstances. Primarily, a change in climate policies can have an exponential effect on the effects of climate change. Secondly, the average changes which will occur in sea level and temperature can vary significantly, depending on local circumstances.

Current climate policies will lead to a sea level rise of about 50cm and a rise in average global temperatures of 3° Celsius. It is important to note that these numbers are only averages and can vary significantly. Additionally Changes in climate policies can have an exponential effect on the consequences of climate change, as i.e. the thawing of permafrost accelerates climate change significantly.

As the Arctic ice is melting, Russia will profit from gaining access to 22% of global Hydrocarbon resources and will start exploiting those when high oil and gas prices make the extraction feasible. Climate Change will make the Northern Sea Route accessible, which can pose an alternative to the Suez Canal. As the Arctic Circle is melting, Russia will mainly gain influence in the Arctic region as well as soft power, as the Northern Sea Route passages along Russia’s northern coast. Furthermore, international vessels using Russian ports and paying fees will benefit Russia financially. As the permafrost is melting, fertile land is emerging, which will allow for Russian settlements far north in Siberia. The thawing of permafrost, however, also has the potential to destroy infrastructure and entire cities which were built upon it; it has the potential to offset all the benefits climate change has for Russia.

The United States of America will be especially threatened by the rise in sea levels. This rise will endanger over 30 US-military bases and therefore limit US power projection. In addition, the increase in sea level will internally displace millions of inhabitants of Florida. Together with a higher number of immigrants from Latin America, who are fleeing the more frequent and longer-lasting droughts and catastrophes, these two developments have the potential to cause social unrest and polarisation.

Due to urbanisation leading to a major part of the Chinese population living in cities near the Chinese east coast, the People’s Republic of China is especially vulnerable to a rise in sea levels. Entire cities such as Shanghai may become submerged, leading to large-scale domestic migration and severe economic loss. By 2100, the rise in sea levels is expected to decrease Chinese GDP by about 12%, cutting off one eighth of its economic output. These developments will foster criticism of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. In the Arctic, China is establishing a “Polar Silk Road”, which will allow China to export goods to Europe quicker and more cost-effectively, therefore leading to Europe importing more goods from China and a necessarily higher influence of China on Europe. By exploiting rare earth elements in Greenland, China can sustain its monopoly on the essential resources while gaining access to Greenland with its high geostrategic importance.

As climate change is an international phenomenon, its effects will not be limited geographically. State’s all over the world can be affected by natural catastrophes, which will increase in both frequency and intensity. These can have disastrous effects on an economy, which can lead states to reduce military spending.

As temperatures are increasing, diseases such as Malaria are spread faster. Moreover, more frequent droughts will lead to famines. Hunger in turn will lead to people being more susceptible for terrorism, as terror networks recruit new victims with the offer of constant food supply.

Further, Spillover effects can lead to a country being affected by climate change indirectly. This can be in the form of increased numbers of refugees and migrants or reduced trade flows as the consequence of a climate change induced economic downturn in a partner country.

One can conclude that resource extraction will likely lead to Russia benefitting from climate change if the issues with the thawing permafrost are managed properly. China is also deemed to profit from climate change in the form of its Polar Silk Road, and rare earth extraction in Greenland, but will be seriously challenged to manage the rise in sea level and prevent the flooding of its megacities. The United States will be negatively impacted by climate change in the form of the flooding of civilian as well as military buildings as well domestic migration and refugee flows from the south. If both Russia and China take appropriate measures to mitigate the dangers of thawing permafrost respectively the flooding of cities and if no major natural catastrophes and pandemics affect them greatly, Russia and China will be bound to benefit from climate change. The rising temperatures have the power to accelerate the trend of the Rise of the People’s Republic of China as well as the Russian Federation whilst simultaneously accelerating US decline.

9. Literature


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1 (Mann 2012)

2 (Münkler 2019)

3 (Vogler 2020)

4 (The World Bank 2018a)

5 (The World Bank 2018b)

6 (Duffin 2020)

7 (Rehman 2012)

8 (Araya 2019)

9 (Puthan 2020)

10 (Royal 2018)

11 (Biswas 2012)

12 (Climate Action Tracker 2019)

13 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014, 11)

14 (Climate Action Tracker 2019)

15 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014, 11)

16 (Earth Observatory of Singapore n.d.)

17 (Carbon Brief 2018)

18 (Randall 2017)

19 (Carbon Brief 2018)

20 (Climate Action Tracker 2019)

21 (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change 2014, 11)

22 (Katz 2019)

23 (Haldén 2007)

24 (United States Geological Survey 2008)

25 (Sönnichsen 2020)

26 (Neftchi 2016a)

27 (Maçães 2019, 66)

28 (Neftchi 2016a)

29 (Haldén 2007)

30 (Graham 2016)

31 (Neftchi 2016b)

32 (Maçães 2019, 66)

33 (Bennett 2011)

34 (Stashwick 2019)

35 (Haldén 2007, 118)

36 (McLeary 2019)

37 (American Security Project n.d.)

38 (Dunham 2016)

39 (Zhoriv 2017)

40 (Milman 2018)

41 (Germanwatch 2020)

42 (ReliefWeb 2019)

43 (World Food Program USA 2019)

44 (Markham 2019)

45 (Haldén 2007, 123)

46 (Richwine 2013)

47 (Frazee 2018)

48 (BBC News 2020)

49 (Marshall 2019, 40)

50 (Burle 2020)

51 (Yiwei 2019)

52 (Meng 2014)

53 (Wang et al. 2019)

54 (Yiwei 2019)

55 (Slezak 2014)

56 (Schinko et al. 2020)

57 (Sever 2020)

58 (Wong 2018)

59 (Goldstein 2020)

60 (Volpe 2020)

61 (Maçães 2019, 66)

62 (Neftchi 2019)

63 (European Parliament Think Tank 2017)

64 (Arctic Council n.d.)

65 (Mancheri 2012, 451)

66 (Hsu 2019)

67 (Alonso-Trabanco 2019)

68 (Ridgwell 2011)

69 (Philipps 2018)

70 (Lunde, Bayoh, and Lindtjørn 2013)

71 (World Health Organization 2012)

72 (Renee 2014)

73 (European Council on Foreign Relations 2020)

74 (Yale Center for Environmental Communication 2019)

75 (Putz 2020)

76 (Observatory of Economic Complexity 2018)

28 of 28 pages


Geopolitical Implications of Climate Change on Russia, China, and the U.S.
University of Luzern
Strukturen der Weltordnung
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Geopolitik, Klimawandel, USA, China, Russland, Sicherheitspolitik, Aussenpolitik, Internationale Beziehungen, Klima
Quote paper
Nathanael Schabrun (Author), 2020, Geopolitical Implications of Climate Change on Russia, China, and the U.S., Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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