On the morning of July 29, in Faculty of Sciences of the University of Lisbon we discussed the geopolitics of global change and asked what geopolitics and the environment have in common, and how the balances of power and the dynamics of the international system relate to climate change and ecology.

The origins of climate change have to do with three big and very recent accelerations:

One, has been the quick population growth that followed the industrial and green revolutions and that led to an exponential rise in demography from 1 thousand million in the beginning of the 19th century to 8 thousand million to be probably reached in the next couple of years.

Two, the correlative increase in consumption, which has been more than proportional to population growth as middle classes expand in rich and now also in emerging and developing economies, putting enormous pressures on resources such as arable land and water.

Three, the kind of products which are being consumed, especially fossil fuels – coal, oil and gas – which were formed hundreds of millions of years ago and are now being depleted at increasing rates.

Therefore, the exhaustion of resources and the consequences of the overall emissions of CO2 have already make us surpass the traditional cleavage between believers and disbelievers of the significative role of human behaviours in global warming. Now, the question is more about those who believe that what is happening is a gradual warming (type 1) and those that see the advent of abrupt climate changes already happening (type 2). The partial melting of Greenland and the huge loss of ice in the Arctic is a very much used example by those that argue that we are already living in a type 2 climatic event.

Geopolitics is very much affected by these changes. The availability and distribution of water, the advent of heatwaves and their consequences on humans and vegetation, the acceleration in the rise of sea levels, the creation of new sea routes induced by the melting of glaciers, the exploitation of resources in the Arctic and the Antarctic are some examples of the impact of climate change in geopolitics. Decrease in the demographic rate of growth (that is happening since the 1970s) and technological advancements are offering and may offer some solutions for some of the problems, but climate change is now the more acute global change.

Globalisation in its several facets will proceed and may continue to be subject to controversy and political quarrels. However, the capacity of our species to confront major threats imply the necessity of a larger and stronger cooperation amongst major powers to tackle with some of the big issues. And whether this need of cooperation is or is not met by the will of major powers represents one of the biggest interrogations.

The current economic trend of increasing inequalities adds to the problems caused by climate change. Inequality increase carries major challenges, because of needs to change consumption patterns at the same time that emerging and developing countries are producing and will probably continue to add to the amount of new urban dwellers and middle classes that, naturally, aspire to increase their levels of life (and consumption).

Green economy is the best answer to this equation. As a matter of fact, fossil fuels will have to be substituted by renewables and ways of producing energy without continuing to heat the planet. Cooperation in large scale to face huge famine and migration in poorer regions, such as the Sahel, needs to be dealt with more decisively and it can only be dealt by international coalitions. Social movements and youngsters are increasingly becoming major agents to mitigate and ultimately help to solve climate threats for present and future generations as well.

After nationalism and bilateralism that dominated the environment conducive to two world wars in the 20th Century, the advent of multilateralism allowed the construction of the European project after the second world war. Unfortunately, a big change in security realities and perceptions occurred mostly after the war in Iraq in the beginning of the current century, pushing again to huge changes towards bilateralism and balance of power relations. However, the approval of the Paris Agreement and of the SDG agenda is an example against this current trend and it gives the opportunity for social movements and younger generations to gather around global goals and to push for a change in patterns of consumption and towards a greater consideration for the preservation of life conditions in our planet. Besides, private sector is increasingly joining the movement for energy transition and for stopping environment degradation, incorporating in their strategies and behaviour a pro-friendly code towards better practices for saving resources and finding new technological, economic solutions.

The more vital of the Global Changes seems to be, therefore, the pursuit of a better relationship between our species and the ecosystem. This is a change that sometimes collides with geopolitical interests, as this is the field of rivalry and cooperation amongst state actors, namely global and regional powers. However, geopolitics is also impacted by long term global changes, as they transform the landscape where states and major players act.

The more crucial geostrategic commodity is oil (and gas). Transition from carbon fossils towards renewals and other non-pollutant forms of energy production will impact in regions that depend heavily on the exploitation of this resource. Geopolitical and security issues turn even bigger because most of the oil and gas are the Middle East region and in parts of the Southern Caucus, which are populated by Muslims. This reminds us of the need to balance expectations and intentions with realities in the field and to be cautious not to induce unwanted and bad consequences.

The quest for decarbonisation has also to cope with the fact that we are now leaving in a carbon era (following the stone, bronze and iron eras) and that carbon is an increasing element of industrial outputs. Therefore, the question should not be how to substitute carbon products but how to avoid the greenhouse effect of carbon production release of an increasing number of particles of CO2 to heat the atmosphere.

Technological solutions imply the cooperation of major powers in some big ventures, such as the exploitation of outer space resources needed for nuclear fusion (helium 3 in the moon, to give an example), or such as the geoengineering to green deserts taking advantage of huge underground aquifers in the Sahel, for example.

A debate amongst speakers and with the audience followed presentation. Geoengineering to green deserts was discussed against unsucceeded experiences based in the plantation of the vegetal species (Acacia) that seems to be able to resist in those harsh environments but without producing results – meaning greening of deserts. Another argument offered against geoengineering was one of adaptation to natural environmental conditions instead of trying to transform huge landscapes with uncertain results.

Changing consumption patterns was also discussed, as countries with larger populations are only now emerging and human nature and politics will most probably drive people to support economic growth (and resource exploitation) to augment levels of consumption. This is a very complex issue, that needs social awareness and technological solutions to increase a necessary transition from burning fossil fuels to using renewables and discovering other ways of producing energy without burning coal and releasing it to the atmosphere. However, an idea very much shared was the need not to live in denial of the consequences of climate degradation and the increase in CO2 particles and act to change this pathway.

In the discussion one reason given to the general acceptance that SDG are receiving by private sector was the combination of stricter state regulations (including prohibitions and subsidies) and of consumers’ choices and preferences. In any case, this acceptance was regarded as a very encouraging signal, because energy transition needs a broad national and international alliance among states, private sector and consumers.

Another issue of debate was the possibility to disregard growth as a priority and focus on degrowth and distribution instead. Whatever the need to confront rising inequalities – not only because they are unfair, but also because they are geopolitical threats -, degrowth presents a major constraint, because it is seen as a source of unemployment (arguments against this idea are quickly disregarded) and, therefore, as a political liability. Support for technology and innovation, also as a result of enlarging open sources and freeing patents has been given as an example of ways to transform production – magnetic fields as a technology to drive high speed trains was presented as a good example of freeing of patents.

This Lisbon Talk is organised by the Lisbon Club and the Portuguese Ecological Society, with the support of the IMVF and the Lisbon Municipality, in the framework of the 15Th European Ecological Federation Congress, on Embedding Ecology in Sustainable Development Goals.  The participants already attending the EEF Congress are automatically registered in this Lisbon Talk.