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Living on the edge: climate tipping points reshaping geopolitics

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The image shows a plane, a North American P-51 Mustang, fighting a wildfire in Varnavas, Greece. There is a lot of smoke and water coming out of the plane.
North American P-51 Mustang fighting a wildfire in Varnavas, Greece. Photo by Filippos Sdralias on Unsplash.

The new era of extreme climate risk, along with a better understanding of climate tipping points, is likely to reshape geopolitics. Neither governments nor international institutions are currently prepared for a dramatic change in the urgency of managing climate risk or the wider consequences that could result. While some countries and institutions are integrating climate risk assessments into their planning, none are seriously considering the risk of breaching tipping points. 

This E3G report identifies five potential drivers that are likely to be impacted by the risk of climate tipping points: technology, finance, food, energy, and migration.

  1. Technology could be used as a response to deal with tipping point risk – but for example, geoengineering is untested and has a risk of unintended consequences that could be unevenly distributed geographically, and currently lack appropriate governance mechanisms.
  2. Climate finance today is mostly for mitigation, and not accessible to the most vulnerable countries. Negotiations over finance for climate adaptation and loss and damage are already contentious and will become more urgent as the risks increase.
  3. Food security can be threatened by rising temperatures and cascading risks from tipping points. If countries become more concerned about this, food export bans could be a response, contributing to political and social instability.
  4. The energy transition will change the balance of power between energy producers and consumers, including a growing demand for rare-earth elements or bioenergy. Actions to avoid tipping points can speed up the transition but can leave some fossil exporters unprepared, and increase clean technologies actors’ influence.
  5. Migration can be a response to the worsening of climate impacts. As the risk of breaching tipping points increases, internal and cross-border movement of people will be exacerbated, which can cause geopolitical tensions.  

Recommendations

The report offers several recommendations to help avoid future geopolitical tensions that could arise from national responses to the risk of tipping points. 

Data and risk assessment

  • The IPCC should produce a Special Report on tipping points and their possible cross-sectoral impacts by the end of 2024. 
  • Create a Climate Risk Observatory under the UN to facilitate exchange, address the transboundary nature of climate risk, and contribute to having early warning systems in place by 2027.  

Decision making and finance

  • Governments should fully integrate climate change risk management into economic and security planning and decision making. This should include the full range of potential temperature scenarios, including threat assessments of tipping points, as well as the widespread use of strategic foresight.  
  • International financial institutions need to integrate climate extreme risk as a financial risk. This would help mainstream risk management in the long term in both the private and public sectors and contribute to global resilience.  
  • Developed countries should scale up their international adaptation finance commitments and should provide finance for loss and damage through either new or existing mechanisms. Innovative sources of private finance should be agreed upon.  
  • Developed countries should also increase humanitarian assistance provided for people forcibly displaced by climate events.  

Dialogue and cooperation

  • An international taskforce on geoengineering should be created. This could potentially be housed in the UN but should be composed of representatives from governments, civil society, and the private sector.  
  • Countries should develop more formal and informal dialogues on extreme risk between the major emitters and most vulnerable countries. This should be done in classical climate fora (for example have extreme risk as a recurrent topic in UNFCCC discussions) but should not be limited to them. 
  • Multilateral engagement is needed on climate-related migration to ensure that legal protections are assured for climate migrants. This could build on existing government-led efforts like the Migrants in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) Initiative.
  • The G7 should establish a platform for working with middle-income countries and major energy exporters on net zero transition plans. The platform should include a working group on social protection.

Read the full report on the geopolitics of climate tipping points here.

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