Geopolitics and Hurricane Ida, and The Week in Review
Geopolitics is an unoriginal word. Boiled down to its essence, geopolitics is an approach to understanding relations between states that emphasizes the interaction between geography and power. (When I started Perch Perspectives, I desperately sought to find a synonym for “geopolitics” that wasn’t just “geography” and “politics” smushed together, to no avail.)
Geopolitics is also an oxymoron. Politics is constantly changing. Politicians come and go, and national sentiments can change in the blink of an eye. Geography, by contrast, is about as eternal as anything gets for mere mortals. It is about the things that don’t change, however much political leaders might want them to.
Of course, geography is constantly changing – when dinosaurs roamed the earth, they roamed a single supercontinent called “Pangea.” But such changes usually don’t happen in the span of a single human lifetime. The Himalayas will still divide China from India 100 years from now. The U.S. will still be isolated from its enemies by two massive oceans 100 years from now. These facts eliminate the “impossible,” allowing whatever remains, however improbable, to reveal some measure of truth.
Geography’s relative stability is what supplies the fixed variables that make geopolitics work. The interplay of ephemeral and permanent forces, of constraints and imperatives, is what gives geopolitics its competitive edge. By offsetting the unpredictable and transitory aspect of politics with the geographic constraints incumbent on leaders, no matter their ideological bent, geopolitics becomes a useful tool for identifying the issues and policies that will transcend the partisanship of the moment.
This makes climate change a monumentally difficult issue for geopolitics to metabolize. The symptoms of climate change manifest as changes in geography itself. Rising sea levels are making cities around the world uninhabitable. (Indonesia, for example, announced plans in 2019 to move its capital from Jakarta, population ~10.5 million, because the city is literally sinking.) Desertification, rising temperatures, and water scarcity are rendering large swathes of the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa uninhabitable (and turning Canada and Russia into potential agricultural juggernauts).
A bit closer to home, warmer waters in the Gulf of Mexico are supercharging more frequent tropical storms into massive hurricanes in the blink of an eye, leaving billions of dollars of destruction and hundreds of deaths in their wake.
Just this past week, Hurricane Ida wiped out the entire power grid of New Orleans + surrounding areas and shuttered 94 percent of offshore oil and natural gas production in the Gulf of Mexico. (It also forced me to flee to the hinterlands of Mississippi, as three days without power was about all the Louisiana late-summer heat I could handle. We are all doing fine, and thanks so much to all those who asked and expressed concern.)
Schools are closed indefinitely, and locals are being told to prepare for weeks without power. The “silver lining” (if it can be called that) is that the billions of government investment in the New Orleans levee system prevented Katrina-style flooding in the city. (Will billions now be spent to revamp and reimagine the power grid?) And though the levees acquitted themselves well this time, the system is going to become obsolete in a matter of years due to the worsening nature of the threat.
The U.S. has been fighting a war against the geography of the Mississippi River for centuries. For generations, the U.S. has harnessed the power of the Mississippi to make it the connective tissue of the nation. From a geopolitical perspective, the Mississippi River is more responsible for the rise of the U.S. as a global power than life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness combined. (For a primer on this, set aside some time to read John McPhee’s incredible writing on the subject.)
Even without climate change as an ally, the Mississippi was likely going to win the battle in the long run. With climate change as an ally, the geography of the U.S. is assured to transform in a matter of decades. I won’t even try to sketch how here – I’m not a climate scientist, and besides, I’m told most people don’t read emails much longer than 1500 words – but as someone who utilizes geopolitics for a living, what I can say without a doubt is that as the geography of the U.S. changes, so too will the nation and that this is true on some level for almost every country in the world.
Of course, Hurricane Ida didn’t stop there. Climate change is a national issue, not a regional one. After wreaking havoc along the Gulf Coast, the storm turned northeastward, dropping torrential rains on Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Flooding due to Hurricane Ida has claimed almost 50 lives and transformed the New York City subway system into a scene from the Titanic.
Even before Ida, wildfires, droughts, and general water scarcity were the major climate change stories of the year in the U.S. Though these stories have been briefly displaced from the headlines, they remain pressing concerns and are reshaping the geography of the Western half of the country.
All of this may sound dire and depressing, but I’ve never been one to throw my hands up in despair and declare the world is ending before getting back to watching Netflix. Every risk is an opportunity, and none of us are powerless, even in the face of such enormities.
Indeed, one of the reasons I started Perch Perspectives was because I thought climate change was changing the rules of the game. Furthermore, there were no geopolitical companies keeping up with the times. No one was thinking about climate change from a geopolitical perspective and seeking to help companies, investors, and individuals navigate its political consequences. Rather than recognizing climate change for the existential challenge it is, it was still business as usual.
Though I am a firm believer in the power of human agency, I also cannot and will not downplay the seriousness of climate change, especially for geopolitics. At this point, business as usual is little more than a euphemism for burying one’s head in the sand.
What we thought was a fixed variable is no longer fixed. Geopolitical risk isn’t simply about the vagaries of power anymore – it is now also about the vicissitudes of the thing we have always taken for granted. The importance of geography is no less salient for being unpredictable. The nations and companies that will succeed in the future will be those that heeded the wake-up call before it is too late.
Week in Review
Chile published a measure in its Official Gazette on Aug. 23, which, according to Argentina, expands Chile’s continental shelf at the very tip of the continent near Cape Horn and thus violates a 1984 treaty. For more on this and stories like it, please check out LatamPolitik.
The UN’s Food Price Index surged 3.1 percent in August, reversing two months of consecutive decline, and reflecting prices 33 percent above the same time last year. Vegetable oils, cereals, and sugar drove the increase. Argentina expanded a ban on meat exports until October 31.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga withdrew from Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party elections set for September 29th. Meanwhile, Japan’s Defense Ministry is seeking a 2.6 percent increase in defense spending and announced it will deploy surface-to-ship missile batteries on Okinawa by the end of 2023.
According to a bombshell report by News24, South Africa’s State Security Agency believes African National Congress MP Xiaomei Harvard is sharing classified information with the Chinese Communist Party.
The Banco Central de Chile (BCC) surprised observers by doubling interest rates 75 basis points to 1.5 percent, the highest single jump since August 2001.
Taiwan announced a new defense agency designed to better prepare Taiwanese reservists to defend the island’s territory in case of war.
Luz Maria de la Mora, undersecretary for foreign trade at Mexico’s Economy Ministry, gave an interview to China’s state-owned Xinhua and said that Mexico was seeking to strengthen its presence in China through exports and investment.
Poland declared a state of emergency on its border with Belarus in response to a surge of migrants and Alexander Lukashenko encouraging migrants to cross into Polish territory.
U.S. President Joe Biden hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House and said the U.S. remained “firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty in the face of Russian aggression.”
Rebel fighters in the restive eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo attacked a civilian convoy being guarded by DRC soldiers, kidnapping at least 20 for use as hostages.