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The Geopolitics of Environmental Challenges

The Geopolitics of Environmental Challenges

No sane person would deny that there is an inherent need to tackle global environmental challenges such as climate change and pollution. Over the past 30 years, the world has seen huge social improvements and technological progress. It has seen unprecedented economic growth that has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. In this era of momentous changes around the world, environmental challenges are the most daunting.

By: Giulio Boccaletti

Much of the world seems to be on edge. The West’s relationship with Russia, the future of NATO, the Syrian civil war and refugees, rising right-wing populism, the impact of automation, and the UK’s impending departure from the European Union: all these topics – and more – have roiled public debate worldwide. But one issue that is the most significant of all is being ignored or pushed aside: the environment.

That was the case at this year’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland. Beyond a mention of the Paris Climate Agreement by Chinese President Xi Jinping, topics like climate change and sustainable development didn’t even make it to the main stage. Instead, they were relegated to side meetings that rarely seemed to intersect with current political and economic events.

Allowing environmental issues to fall by the wayside at this time of geopolitical and social instability is a mistake, and not just because this happens to be a critical moment in the fight to manage climate change. Environmental degradation and natural-resource insecurity are undermining our ability to tackle some of the biggest global issues we face.

Environmental insecurity is a major, though often underestimated, contributor to global instability. The UN High Commission on Refugees reports that natural disasters have displaced more than 26 million people per year since 2008 – almost a third of the total number of forcibly displaced people in this time period.

Even the current refugee crisis has an environmental element. In the years leading up to the war, Syria experienced its most extreme drought in the recorded history. That drought, together with unsustainable agricultural practices and poor resource management, contributed to the internal displacement of 1.5 million Syrians and catalyzed unrest ahead of the 2011 uprising.

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