Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs
Climate Solutions Lab

Climate Change, Grand Strategy, and International Order

July 29, 2021

Jeff Colgan recently authored, "Climate Change, Grand Strategy, and International Order" a piece in which he identifies three different ways that various analysts of strategy and order think about climate change. 

Powerful states compete and cooperate to shape the rules and institutions of international order. How will the growing effects of climate change affect that behavior? To date, most analysts of security and economic competition have only fitfully or partially incorporated the most up-to-date understandings of climate change into their analysis. Colgan identifies three different ways that various analysts of strategy and order think about climate change. The first, “threat multiplier,” is most familiar to the U.S. Defense Department, and focuses on how climate change creates increased probability of civil wars, forced migration, political violence, and infrastructure damage. The second, “issue tradeoffs,” imagines climate change as an issue area, and one that creates instrumental tradeoffs with other military and economic priorities, such as when the Obama administration in 2014 reportedly delayed a Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea in exchange for Chinese support for the Paris Agreement. The third, “altered landscape,” sees climate change not as an issue area at all, but as a pervasive background condition that is intrinsically connected to most other areas of interstate competition and cooperation. In this view, actors have climate-related incentives and opportunities in each conventional issue area, like carbon tariffs in international trade or development finance for overseas energy projects. Each of these three ways of conceiving the climate-and-order nexus is fruitful and imperfect, but the third is the least understood and deserves the most attention.