Let’s Talk about This Climate Change

By Christian Scheinpflug / Chile Today

Too many international relations (IR) scholars – including those graduating from and working at elite institutions – criminally neglect climate change. This is because theory remains poorly developed after the purges during the dictatorship that sought to expunge theories that critically looked at the socio-economic order, and the failure of the classical dependistas. Another reason for this neglect lies in the self-image of elite universities. They see themselves as serving state and capital, which they equate with society. Nature neither sponsors lectures nor offers stable jobs, so social science cannot bother.

But neglecting ecology eliminates the most globalized realm from the equation; it hinders contextualizing and hence understanding human existence. The sub-field of Geopolitics comes closest to considering ecology. Scholars of Geopolitics study how space, specifically soil, shapes a state’s interests and foreign policy. Brutally simple, had Chile grown on the Atlantic instead of the Pacific coast, it’s foreign policy would differ vastly; it would not boost a Pacific Alliance and stake different claims in Antarctica.

´Theory in Chile remains poorly developed after the purges during the dictatorship´

Yet, Geopolitics reverts toward the service of state power since its key unit of interest remains the state. Though this isn’t necessarily bad, the defining challenge of this century, climate change, will impose conditions on states and societies they would not have to deal with otherwise. Therefore, the origins of that power should elicit interest, especially since it human capacity to handle accelerated climate change determines if twenty-second century generations live relatively stable lives or forage through the debris of capitalist civilization.

Climate change already affects every living being on Earth. Chile’s role in this catastrophe is not so obvious but visible. The country prides itself as a free-trader, heavily importing and exporting goods. This masks Chile’s responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions. Although overall the country emits less greenhouse gas than the biggest polluters, trade requires extensive, fossil fuel-burning transport – and greenhouse gas emissions in other countries. Chile’s economic configuration contributes to high emissions, but these aren’t directly attributable to the country’s balance sheet. How convenient.

Fortunately, Chile’s leaders recognize the need for action and promote renewables. In an industrialized country like Germany, with a powerful car industry, such innovation is almost impossible. But future growth will derive energy from clean sources, and getting a head-start in reconfiguring the economy will pay off. While green initiatives in Germany are branded leftist bollocks, a right-wing administration in Chile embarks on an ambitious and commendable plan to have 100% of energy needs coming from renewables by 2040. Considered that the renewables drive began under the previous government, leaders across the board seem to understand the need and opportunities renewables offer the country vis-à-vis old, industrialized economies. Chile needn’t be shy about its ambitions and its already numerous achievements.

´Chile needn’t be shy about its ambitions and its already numerous achievements´

But no matter what a small country does, climate change will proceed toward at least 2°C of warming, but more likely a vastly more destructive 4°C. With it, the average sea level will also rise because of “the added water from melting ice sheets and glaciers and the expansion of seawater as it warms,” NASA explains. This means that given its long coast, Chile will lose territory – and The Hague can’t do anything about it.

Sea-level rise doesn’t just take land away, which is bad enough, but the sea salt also devastates soil that’s not submerged. This will destroy many coastal communities and local economies. As anybody who visited one of the country’s glitzy re-developed beaches could see, substantial real-estate value exists close to the sea. With sea-level rise, and rising and increasingly toxic water, entire apartment complexes will become worthless, because uninhabitable. And thousands of them are still being built.

Deteriorating coastal living conditions and jobs that require work in increasingly unbearable heat, like in agriculture, will trigger internal migration to cities that are less prone to flooding and offer better chances for jobs in air-conditioned offices. While this migration might be manageable, immigration from even more vulnerable countries will become a formidable challenge.

´Climate change will bring unimaginable change without regard for borders´

So far, Chile like almost any other country, has implemented a legal fix for immigration. Applications are processed according to economic need (i.e., capacity) or political interest. With the economy developing away from prime material toward value-added and digital products, and less space to erect high rises, less labor will be in demand. But accelerated climate change will also change the reason for immigration. Immigrants will not come so much to make a living or because the country is so beautiful, but because they try to survive. Rejection at the gates will send them to their deaths, or equally disturbing, into a void. The beginning of such developments can already be seen at the US-Mexico border. This brutality will have severe implications for liberal values and democracy, and a simple law, like today, can’t fixed that.

The century of climate change will bring unimaginable change without regard for borders. Therefore, IR scholars can’t contend themselves with wedding Economics and state power to conceive a consumerist society; they must do what they claim their profession is about: Explore unfamiliar, even alien territory.

Christian is a columnist at Chile Today. He’s also director at the Chilean Association of International Specialists (ACHEI) and co-editor of E-IR’s book on International Relations Theory. You can follow him on Twitter: @ChrScheinpflug

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