When the term ‘geopolitics’ was coined at the beginning of the 20th century, it was meant to capture the struggle or competition between states for effective control over territory. The notion of an external environment was part of the concept, but geography or territory was seen as passive objects of state action and jealousy. Later, other sources of state power started to be regarded as more central than having physical control over a large territory: population, industrial prowess, economy, knowledge, and culture. This peaked in the last decade of the past century, during which the free flow of money and ideas were meant to serve as geopolitical conduits taking over the task of maintaining stability. Geopolitics suddenly meant something like ‘international relations.’ The prefix ‘geo’ disappeared from the view.
The COVID-19 pandemic signaled a change. In the past three decades, no international upheaval had a deeper impact. All policies were quickly measured and evaluated according to their ability to stop the spread of infection, and several dramatic changes to the way we live were imposed with little or no democratic deliberation as if the final arbiter to which one must appeal had been transferred from the people or the general will to nature or the natural environment, of which the virus stood as representative. Even the most radical political movement could never have dreamt of what the pandemic brought about: a fundamental and uncontested change to collective life. And yet, state after state gladly submitted to the unannounced guest, not only as a brute force but as the arbiter of their actions and decisions, the judge to whom one appealed when determining failure and success.
Of course, the ongoing public debate about climate change pointed to the same conclusion, but with a critical difference: climate change seemed to show that human activity was the problem, or that technology was the problem. The COVID-19 pandemic turns this intuition on its head. Far from believing that our natural environment needs to be liberated from human interference, we are now much more likely to think that it needs to be colonized anew. Nature is once again the problem. The present moment feels like a beginning, almost as if humanity is once again entering the Neolithic.
I speculate that when history books are written around 2050, the COVID-19 pandemic will most likely be seen as the beginning point of a technological acceleration moving in two directions, both signifying radical emancipation from nature: digitization and the metaverse, on the one hand, biotechnology on the other.
The debate on climate change itself changed as a result. We can already witness how the notion of technological restraint is slowly giving way to the call for technological acceleration. If global frameworks aiming at reducing carbon emissions continue to falter, the only option left will be to embrace radical technological solutions such as spraying aerosols into the atmosphere or fertilizing the oceans with iron to grow carbon-capturing algae. Many of these solutions will carry significant risks, but they will have to be measured against the existential risk of climate change. At this point, there are no easy solutions. Some might even see in these new kinds of planetary engineering a form of beauty, “the beauty of an earth system newly cared for, newly loved.”1
The planet may look just as before but there is now a system behind it. It is possible to conceive that as the consequences of climate change become increasingly more visible, superpowers such as the United States or China will be pushed to deploy their technological and financial might in the pursuit of radical technological solutions. Most likely, they will see this as an opportunity to further entrench their power as administrators of the global systems these technologies will put in place. It is also conceivable that they will try to reach some general agreement on how to proceed. Gideon Rachman has noted how, as the deficiencies of the current multilateral process become ever harder to deny, the demand is likely to grow for another approach: geoengineering. That means efforts to alter or transform the climate and the earth system through revolutionary, large-scale technologies. “The leading advocates of geoengineering all stress that their schemes are no substitute for efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They also frankly admit that there are big risks involved in geoengineering –such as air pollution or unanticipated effects on the climate. But the bigger risk may be to continue to rely on the global climate talks.”2 He thinks that the best geopolitical solution to geoengineering would involve joint action by the U.S. and China.
If the climate crisis will inaugurate a new economicand technological model, the last thing we should expect is that the transition will be a peaceful one
The author Oliver Morton speculates that it might not be the superpowers to move first.3 He imagines that a group of medium-sized countries respected for their efforts to cut emissions could at some point, faced with the lack of progress addressing the risks of climate change, embrace more radical solutions. They would act in concert. With a few flights a day from their dedicated fleet of aircraft, they deliver tens of thousands of tons of aerosols to the stratosphere. Sprayed out comfortably above the tropical and subtropical tropopause in both hemispheres, this forms a protective veil. The goal would be to slow global warming and other climate disasters.4
Even if we refrain from science fiction scenarios, the transition to new energy sources already announces the simultaneous transition to a new technological order. It would be absurd to think such a transition will not change the global system of power. If the climate crisis will inaugurate a new economic and technological model, the last thing we should expect is that the transition will be a peaceful one. What history teaches us is that moments of transition are understood by state actors as a threat and an opportunity, rare moments when new orders may be created, and new states may ascend to the commanding heights. It was by leading the fossil fuel revolution that England became the ruler of a global empire, and the United States took advantage of a similar opportunity by leading the technological transformations of the Second Industrial Revolution. A new energy revolution will have similar consequences.
As for the hydrogen economy, it will be far more dependent on platinum from southern Africa than the oil industry ever was on the Gulf deposits
The German sociologist Heinrich Popitz noted that when we modify for our benefit what is naturally given, we exercise power over nature but this power over nature is also power over other men. As a rule, the artifacts we produce do not only act back on the producer by serving him more or less well. They also act upon other men: the road smooths the way for many, the wall obstructs it; farmed land supplies food to many, the overexploited earth condemns many to starvation, and so on. I would suggest this is the deepest form of political power when we so ordain the natural environment that other human beings find our determinations as something both natural and ineluctable. “Those who plan and design a new settlement determine the conditions of existence, the areas of freedom, or the constraints encountered by many men. They build worlds for others.”5 By modifying the world of objects, we lay down “data” or “facts” to which other people are exposed. We exercise a kind of materialized power, a power of constituting data, where the effects that the powerful can have on those subject to their power are mediated by the world.
As we enter the age of climate change, new artificial worlds will have to be built. The exercise of world-building takes us right back to geopolitics in its original meaning. The prefix is back. Think about it as a clash between two versions of the world. Or, more graphically, imagine that you are looking at a simulated landscape in which two computer programmers are fighting to redesign what you see on the monitor. The pixels keep changing from moment to moment. One second, the landscape looks like a mountain scene; then the mountains grows smaller and smaller until the landscape become a grassy plain. There is some back and forth until one of the programmers gives up and the other vision wins. Geopolitics, in the new meaning of the concept, is the struggle not to control territory but to create territory. As we enter the age of climate change, the meaning of terraforming becomes increasingly vivid and even literal.
The Struggle for Mastery in the Age of Climate
There is a lot of attention in the public debate to the increased efficiency of solar panels or wind turbines, but these technologies have their industrial chains. Copper, nickel, cobalt, chromium, and other critical minerals will be required in much larger quantities for decarbonization. The most important rich metal deposits tend to be in politically and socially unstable places. As John Dizard notes, “for Europeans, the energy transformations will almost certainly require a much larger industrial and social spending commitment to Africa.”6 As for the hydrogen economy, it will be far more dependent on platinum from southern Africa than the oil industry ever was on the Gulf deposits. In September 2020, the European Commission warned member states that shortages of elements used to make batteries and renewable energy equipment threatened the European Union’s climate goals, while exposing the bloc to supply squeezes by China, which dominates the processing of strontium and lithium before they go into magnets and batteries for electric vehicles. For lithium, almost all the supply from Australia is processed in China. The whole discussion takes us back a century to when national power was measured in territorial deposits of raw materials.7
There is something I would call a ‘technological order’ which is deeper and more fundamental than political and economic orders, albeit less visible and often taken for the way nature presents itself. The last time we witnessed a change in the technological order was with the industrial revolutions of the modern age. The climate crisis signals a similar change, the moment when our fundamental way of relating to the natural environment is rethought and, as a result, new political and economic arrangements become both possible and necessary. There will be fights for new resources, with demand for the materials in solar panels tripling or more over the next few decades, and the need for battery ingredients like cobalt, lithium, and other rare earth growing so quickly that countries will be forced to scramble for control over specific geographies.
In late April 2022, a Russian ship set off from Crimea smuggling stolen Ukrainian grain and was turned away from at least two ports in Egypt before docking in the Syrian port of Latakia. Ukrainian officials estimate that millions of tons of Ukrainian grain have been stolen by Russia since the beginning of the war. The Ukraine war is also the herald for a time when food security emerges as a geopolitical priority. Securing access to water and grain will be among the main objectives of states competing against each other for natural resources. In a recent article, Xi Jinping noted that the “Chinese people’s rice bowls should be firmly in their hands at all times, and our rice bowls should mainly contain Chinese grains.”8
The logic of adaptation follows the pattern we saw during the pandemic, with countries investing in testing and hospital facilities, and trusting their own policy decisions more than any global approach. In an emergency, the temptation is to focus on measures whose benefits do not extend to other actors. Shocking as it may sound, some countries may even expect to benefit from the chaos. If only some cities have the material resources and political organization to limit the impact of climate change, companies and skilled labor might flow there.
At four degrees of warming, corn yields in the United States are expected to drop by almost half. China, Argentina, or Brazil could lose at least a fifth of their productivity. Contrary to popular expectations, it is not easy to move croplands poleward a few hundred miles. “Yields in places like remote areas of Canada and Russia, even if they warmed by a few degrees, would be limited by the quality of the soil there, since it takes many centuries for the planet to produce optimally fertile dirt.”9 This should be enough to make us rethink the notion that countries such as Russia will come out of the shock as winners –the idea that thawing permafrost will be replaced by verdant croplands is laughable– but the geopolitical point is not lost. We know not at present if four degrees is a plausible scenario for the end of the century, but great powers such as China or the United States should take the possibility seriously. Suddenly, access to croplands becomes a matter of national security, and control of strategic territory may once again become an index of national power.
Perhaps Siberia will be transformed into farmed land after all, but that will have to take place with heavy investment, which naturally can come only from China. And it is not just croplands, of course: many critical segments in global supply chains, from semiconductors to rare earth, are concentrated in regions highly vulnerable to climate risk. At best, major powers will want to develop global networks of economic and political influence allowing them to guarantee access to vital supplies even in the most adverse scenarios. China is doing this through its “dual circulation” strategy and the quickly expanding Belt and Road initiative.
Market mechanisms are decidedly insufficient in a world where a critical port may suddenly be flooded, or a vital supplier of agricultural imports engulfed by fires.
Major powers will want to develop global networks of economic and political influence allowing them to guarantee access to vital supplies even in the most adverse scenarios
A lot is at stake. As each economic bloc increasingly focuses on specific technologies, it must make sure that those technologies become dominant, providing something of a global standard. The European Union has actively bet on hydrogen. Wood Mackenzie, a respected energy consultancy, now has a scenario where oil prices could fall to $10 per barrel by 2050 if the world accelerates the transition to clean energy.10 The year 2025 could become an inflection point for the critical automobile industry, the moment when electric and combustion vehicles are projected to cost the same. Countries in East Asia are racing to develop the battery technology of the future, and China is developing integrated supply chains for electric cars in Indonesia. European companies are still world leaders in wind turbines and Germany is striving for global leadership in hydrogen technology, while China threatens to quickly catch up even in these areas.
More recently, the European Union has developed a plan to phase out Europe’s dependency on Russian energy imports. Diversification is also important for the Member States currently dependent on Russia for nuclear fuel for their reactors. This requires working within the EU and with international partners to secure alternative sources of uranium and boost the conversion, enrichment, and fuel fabrication capacities available in Europe. Energy security is forcing the EU to develop a global network of economic relationships and economic power. You could say the Ukraine crisis has awakened Europe from its geopolitical slumber, but also that the globe is being redesigned as a result. Simultaneously, climate goals now acquire an evident geopolitical dimension: a massive speed-up and scale-up in renewable energy in power generation, industry, buildings, and transport will accelerate the phasing out of Russian fossil fuels. Renewable hydrogen will be key to replacing natural gas, coal, and oil in hard-to-decarbonize industries and transport. Notably, and to facilitate the import of up to 10 million tons of renewable hydrogen, the Commission will support the development of three major hydrogen import corridors via the Mediterranean, the North Sea area, and, as soon as conditions allow Ukraine. As a recent European Commission document puts it, “there is a double urgency to reduce Europe’s energy dependence: the climate crisis, severely compounded by Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, and EU’s dependence on fossil fuels, which Russia uses as an economic and political weapon.”11
Energy security is forcing the EU to develop a global network of economic relationships and economic power
Conclusion: Towards a Politics of the Artificial
In his book The Imperative of Responsibility, Hans Jonas describes the profound transformation that modern technology has brought about in our relationship with nature. The Greeks, he says, were quite capable of eulogizing humanity’s powers to transform the natural environment, but those powers remained within strict limits.12 Our inroads into nature were essentially superficial. There was harmony in the end because human activity left the encompassing nature fundamentally unchanged. At most, it scratched the surface.
All this changed in modern times, when human activity became, first, a much more relentless and limitless exploitation of natural resources and then, a course of conquest tending, invariably, to the wholesale replacement of nature by a human-built world. Jonas takes a pessimistic and even despairing interpretation of these developments. Human beings cannot survive as a species if nature does not survive, so the ethical imperative today is to make sure that the conditions for human life are preserved. The Imperative of Responsibility is a book about the collapse of the natural world and the imperative to find a new balance. It is very much a book about the climate crisis.
There is, however, another side to the contrast so vividly captured by Jonas. There is a geopolitical question, one staring us in the face. In this age of human-built worlds, to whom falls the task of the building?
It was not so long ago that the natural world remained outside our control, serving as an arbiter between geopolitical powers. The Cold War was a conflict rooted in humankind’s mastery over the atom, but even then a transformed nature was still able to provide the ground rules, keeping the conflict contained within certain limits.
Faced with the realities of what nuclear war would mean, the United States and the Soviet Union both appealed to the impartial judgment of history. Both asked the same basic questions –“Do we have the right beliefs and institutions to grow stronger over time, extending our control over the material forces of historical development?”– and both shared the same basic conviction that a higher authority, whether divine or dialectic, would ultimately decide.
The situation is fundamentally different in a fully human-built world, because there is no recourse to an external authority. Computing, financial, and monetary power set the rules in advance and confer ever more political power on a select few. For everyone else, the new environment is inescapable and thus seemingly natural.
1. Oliver Morton, The Planet Remade, (Princeton University Press: 2016), p. 372.
2. “The UN Climate Process Is Designed to Fail,”The Financial Times, (November 15, 2022), retrieved from https://www.ft.com/content/ae6a8e8f-94db-4f06-a377-343a84e9be4d.
3. Morton, The Planet Remade.
4. Morton, The Planet Remade.
5. Heinrich Popitz, Phenomena of Power, (Columbia University Press, 2017), p. 172.
6. “Decarbonisation Goals Require Huge Commitment to Critical Metals,” The Financial Times,
(December 24, 2020).
7. “Study on the EU’s List of Critical Raw Materials,” European Commission, (2020), retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/docsroom/documents/42883/attachments/1/translations/en/renditions/native.
8. Gasthoori Manickam, “My Account on China: China’s Quest to Secure Its ‘Rice Bowl,’” CGNT, (July 26, 2022), retrieved from https://news.cgtn.com/news/2022-07-26/My-account-on-China-Chinas-quest-to-secure-its-rice-bowl--1bXGBcHvvRS/index.html.
9. David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life after Warming, (Crown, 2019), p. 51.
10. Vicky McKeever, “Oil Could Plummet to $10 By 2050 If Paris Climate Goals Are Achieved, Energy Consultancy Says,” CNBC, retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/15/oil-could-plummet-to-10-by-2050-if-paris-climate-goals-are-achieved.html.
11. “REPowerEU Plan,” European Commission, (2022), retrieved from https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_22_3131.
12. Hans Jonas, The Imperative of Responsibility, (University of Chicago Press, 1984).