5 ways climate change will affect international relations

Seen traditionally as the study of relations between nation-states, environmental questions have not been in the center of international relations: However, since the 1990s and the emergence of international conventions on climate, biodiversity and nature environmentalism has slowly made its way to the top of international agenda. As worry over the future of the planet continues to grow, the field of international relations will undoubtedly have to study the consequences of a warming planet. Here are five keyways that climate change will affect international relations: 
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 Climate refugees

According to think tank Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) up to 1,2 billion people could be displaced by 2050 due to water stress, food insecurity, droughts, floods, cyclones, rising temperatures and sea levels. As shown by the 2015 refugee crisis, a sudden wave of people moving can cause political tensions and question the unity of the international community.

What makes the question of climate refugees even more difficult, is that international law does not include climate change induced inhabitability in the definition of a refugee: according to the Geneva Convention (1951) a refugee is “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to their country of origin owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion“.

The status of climate refugees will most likely become increasingly pressing during the following years, both from political and legal perspectives. 


Food insecurity

As Russia’s invasion in Ukraine has already shown, global food chains are extremely vulnerable. Food insecurity, however, is not a new phenomenon: According to IPCC, around 821 million people are currently undernourished.

As extreme weather conditions, such as droughts, floods and rising sea levels cause crop failures, food prices will continue to surge. To add insult to injury, while global food production is declining, the world population is growing. By 2050 the human population is estimated to reach 9.6 billion.

According to FAO (Food and Alimentation Organization of the United Nations) estimations food production needs to increase by 60% in order to support growing populations. Food insecurity will lead to political insecurity, which will have unpredictable consequences all around the globe. 


Regional Conflicts

Like stated before, international relations were not originally concerned by environmental questions: However, in the 90s a new theoretical approach to international relations, “the green theory” developed. According to this theory, environment is one of the main drivers of conflict between nation-states. Today this theoretical framework is more and more relevant, as climate change is already fueling regional conflicts. To give a concrete example, according to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Initiative Index, of the 25 countries deemed most vulnerable to climate change, 14 are involved in some type of conflict. 

It’s hard to estimate whether certain crises are directly caused by climate change, but generally scientists agree that it might indirectly increase the risk of conflict by exacerbating existing social, economic, and environmental factors.

By limiting people to share diminishing vital resources, conflicts are bound to arise. We are likely to see climate induced conflicts in traditionally climate vulnerable regions, such as Africa or the Middle East. 


Question of reparations

It’s a known fact that climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally. In fact, according to a study published in Science Advances, climate models predict increasing temperature variety in poor countries, amplifying the inequalities associated with changing climate. 
Similarly, the poorest countries have contributed the least to climate change, making the set up extremely unfair.

Consequently, the question of climate reparations has been brought to the table: should the most polluting countries pay reparations to countries whose whole existence is compromised due to changing climate? The question is most pressing in the case of certain island states, like the Maldives that are most likely to be wiped away my rising sea levels.

The question of reparations was already addressed briefly in COP26 held in Glasgow last year, but it will be the main topic of the next climate conference, COP27 held in Egypt under the title of “Loss and Damages”. However, climate reparations are a sore topic both politically and from the point of international law, as they open a precedent for other types of reparations, such as those for colonialism. 


Growing disparities between the Global North and South

Alleviating poverty has been on the international agenda for a long time. However, as demonstrated by the World Income Inequality Report, when it comes to wealth, the world is still vastly inequal. [7] The poorest half of the global population owns around 2% of total wealth, whereas the richest 10% owns around 76%.

The same report highlights that climate policies such as carbon taxes have often disproportionately impacted low- and middle-income groups, while leaving the consumption habits of wealthiest groups unchanged. Moreover, as the global South is more affected by climate change, these regions need to invest more in climate adaptation while similarly dealing with the disruptions climate change is already causing.

Unless there is an unprecedented redistribution of wealth, climate crisis is threatening to wipe away decades worth of efforts for global equality.  


As this article demonstrates, the consequences of global warming for the international order are multidimensional and unpredictable. International relations must adapt to this changing environment through both research and action. Being a planetary level problem, without the international community dressing climate change will be extremely difficult, if not nearly impossible.


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