Centering Climate Change in the China-US Competition

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Centering Climate Change in the China-US Competition

Climate change in the Indo-Pacific will have a very real impact on the outcome of any potential great power conflict within the region.

Centering Climate Change in the China-US Competition

A THAAD interceptor is launched from the Reagan Test Site, Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, during Flight Test THAAD-23, Aug. 30, 2019. As sea levels rise, such facilities on low-lying islands might become unusable.

Credit: U.S. Missile Defense Agency

The world is at a strategic inflection point between devil-may-care industrialization and sustainable survivability. The same era that led humanity to previously unimaginable heights and technological advancements beyond our forebears’ wildest imaginings have come at a cost: post-industrial age climate change. 

Nowhere in the world is that cost more existential than in the Indo-Pacific. The island countries of the region are at the mercy of rising sea levels and increasingly violent storms, creating a tangible threat to their very survival – a sentiment echoed by Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh

Often overlooked in the study of climate change is its impact on the strategic capabilities of the United States and China. With impacts ranging from threatening the basic existence of partner and allied nations to putting into question the ability to land aircraft, base troops, and provision warships, climate change in the Indo-Pacific has a very real impact on the outcome of any potential great power conflict within the region. Recognizing that fact could potentially provide small nations with a great deal of leverage as they barter for their future. Between the two major powers currently vying for dominance in the region, the power that places the most emphasis on long-term climate resilience for itself and its partners will have the best recipe for long-term strategic success. 

Of course, climate resiliency is not the sole component of a potential great power conflict victory strategy, but it plays a potentially larger role than most may suspect, both in war winning and war causing. While the immediate human impact of sea level rise to potentially millions of Pacific Island residents is staggering, the secondary effects on the great powers are a strategic liability. 

According to a Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) study published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Communications in 2021, an estimated population of 267 million people live at a mean elevation of 2 meters or less above sea level. The same study projected a population increase in this vulnerable elevation range to 410 million people by 2100. Meanwhile, the Climate Change 2023 Synthesis Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change expressed only moderate hope in limiting global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees by 2100, which the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration equates with up to 6.6 feet (2 meters) of potential sea level rise.  

Will the world be ready to resettle nearly half a billion people whose homes have been submerged? Where will they go? Neither the United States nor China currently has a very good reputation for accepting migrants. 

Granted, not all 410 million people will live in Oceania, and some of the displaced will undoubtedly travel farther inland in their own home countries. People in places like coastal China may have success finding a home farther from an encroaching ocean, but what about smaller nations? 

Mean sea level rise totals also fail to account for extraordinary tides, which could seasonally inundate additional people. With millions of people looking for homes, potentially away from their countries of origin, the risk for conflict will increase. 

Aside from these second-order effects, the loss of geography will play a direct role in military planning. According to an interactive map by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), 2 meters of sea level rise would dramatically change some key strategic locations. For example, Waikiki Beach would no longer be a desirable vacation destination, Honolulu International Airport would be a very precarious landing spot, the key U.S. Naval Base at Pearl Harbor would be limited, and U.S. Naval Base San Diego’s current ship berths would be fully underwater. Farther afield, Faa’a International Airport in Tahiti sits at 2 meters of elevation. As a country Micronesia’s average elevation is 2.1 meters, and Kiribati’s is 1.8 meters

In the military these places are referred to as “key terrain,” and the loss of key terrain of this magnitude would be very challenging. Shipping, both commercial and military, would require longer journeys between provisioning stations. Military jet aircraft would need to stay airborne longer because some strategic airfields would become unusable, requiring additional dangerous midair refueling in the event of a war. Forward-stationed troops may have to be more concentrated on smaller islands or potentially remain embarked on ships, exposing them to hostile fire where a single missile could cause the loss of entire units. This doesn’t even touch on the risk of an increasingly navigable Arctic, a location where the United States currently has no facilities for naval stationing. 

Additionally, a changing climate will place further stress on global food supply chains, which in turn could further increase regional tensions. In 2021, for instance, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke of food security in terms of national security

Rising sea levels and increasing ocean temperatures are already having an impact on fish populations. Continued direct human acceleration of fish and marine mammal habitat loss could be catastrophic to a world in which 3.1 billion people obtain the majority of their protein from the ocean. The gross volume of fish needed will only expand over the next 30-80 years, and China has already restricted the amount of land allowed to build aquaculture facilities, further pushing demand to the ocean. 

The Chinese commercial fishing fleet is operating in a locust-like fashion – depleting stocks in their own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) before allegedly decreasing squid stocks by up to 70 percent in North Korean waters and then targeting endangered totoaba fish and squid as far away as Latin America. The Philippines recently accused Chinese fishermen of destroying reef systems within their EEZ, degrading a fragile ecosystem already endangered by bleaching and temperature-related die-offs in the region. 

An alarming study by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reports that in the 45 years leading up to 2019 the “percentage of fishery stocks not within biologically sustainable levels rose from 10 percent to 35.4 percent.” The world is already seeing a rise in tension in the Pacific as a result, and one of the most dangerous global scenarios in human history could easily start with an uncontrolled escalation between the fishermen. 

The United States must act now to safeguard and protect its partners and allies in the Pacific. This is not an entirely altruistic mission but is a vital necessity for the United States’ own security interest. The U.S. is waking up to the needs of the region with proposed legislation such as the BLUE Pacific Act and a pledge by President Joe Biden to work on additional funding, but climate change remains a sensitive political topic in the United States. 

However, even if you disagree about the cause, there is enough evidence to suggest that something is happening. If there is not enough political capital to advance green initiatives, perhaps there can be enough to invest in impact mitigation. If scientific estimates are correct, we have a lifetime – one single average human lifetime – to potentially save vital partners in the Pacific. 

Perhaps we can start now by building a base layer on low-lying islands, using pulverized and sanitized construction debris from other natural disasters. By building this base layer up to 4 meters and allowing nature to colonize it with plants and grasses over the next 75 years, when the time of displacement comes, Pacific Islanders may have a beautiful place to go as sea levels rise  – a place within their own country, with native flora and fauna. 

Will it be expensive? Sure. Will it work? Maybe. The Chinese have already demonstrated partial feasibility through their island-building in the South China Sea. Regardless, there don’t seem to be a lot of other ideas. 

Climate resilient infrastructure and fisheries are fundamental to survival in the Pacific, and it may be too late or too politically impractical in the United States to curb sea level rise. However, the great power that steps up and invests in the survivability of the islands and peoples of the Pacific is the power that invests most effectively in its own strategic global positioning.