Cleo Paskal, Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2010), pp. 288.

Reviewed by: Miriam Aczel (Imperial College London)

In Global Warring, Cleo Paskal describes “the ups and downs of the environment, as well as the waxing and waning of some major countries and empires” in order to assess how climate change intersects with geopolitical change (p. 18). While there is no dearth of books dedicated to addressing global climate change, Paskal’s work is unique in that it considers both the physical changes that we are likely to face as well as the resulting “geopolitical, economic, and security consequences” (p. 21). The book takes a conservative approach to modelling climate science, as she says, “eschewing the ‘Storm Surge that Will Eat Manhattan’ scenarios” (p. 9). While there is uncertainty in climate change predictions, Paskal suggests that it is now accepted by the international community that this global change is altering precipitation patterns and causing sea level rise, increased storm surge, glacial melts, and other impacts.

Paskal shows that every country is dependent on and impacted by the changing climate because our infrastructure is built to fit a specific set of climate parameters that are assumed to be constant. However, as the book demonstrates, these parameters are increasingly variable and unpredictable. Thus, it is “not surprising that changes to the environment and climate can result in crop failure, flooding, drought, and damaged infrastructure, which in turn can trigger economic, political, social, and security changes” (p. 10). Paskal discusses Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans to illustrate how poor regulations, planning, and emergency response can aggravate crises and limit the range of possible solutions. One cannot, however, say that the tragedy was caused by climate change alone.

Hurricane Katrina August 28 2005. photo credit: Wikimedia Commons: Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team, NASA/GSFC

The four main sections of the book describe a set of likely effects of climate change and the broader implications of these effects: “rising sea levels; rising storm surges; melting glaciers; and changing precipitation patterns” (18). In Part one (‘The USS Sieve: how environmental change is drilling holes in the ship of state’), Paskal analyses the surprising exposure of the US and the UK, among other countries, to projected impacts of the climate change, such as storm surges and rising sea levels. She discusses New York’s vulnerability to increasingly powerful storms; effects on drinking water; and other issues. Paskal’s warnings about the global effects of environmental change are now more relevant than ever. The analysis presented in the Global Warring, which was written in 2010, has proven to be highly accurate, as the US East Coast’s experience of super hurricane Sandy in 2012 bore out many of the book’s predictions.

Part two (‘The new geopolitical icebergs: or, how the north was lost’) examines how changes to the climate could potentially alter transportation routes and disrupt geopolitical strategies and economic models. With the melting of Arctic sea ice, the Northwest Passage may become one of the most sought-after trade routes. Western attention is currently focused on resource extraction: oil, gas, and fish. But as new northern transportation passages open, the focus will likely shift from resource development to competition over shipping routes. An opening of the Passage has the potential to compromise security among countries fighting for its control. Pascal says that currently the U.S. is concerned primarily with the commercial value of Arctic’s resources and is not paying enough attention to the security issues, thus “causing problems with longtime loyal allies” (p. 110).

The book’s third part (‘Precipitating change in Asia and beyond: how China, India, and the West are trying to make friends in interesting times’) looks at the alterations of precipitation patterns and at how such changes could potentially result in “internal disruptions and affect geopolitical relationships” for countries such as India and China (20). Paskal examines the long history of development of civilization on the Asian continent. She notes that “the temperamental land…takes as well as gives” (p. 130). Paskal uses an example of positive and negative human impact on the Fertile Crescent, where the Sumerians controlled floods for irrigation. The Sumerians changed the landscape and climate with overpopulation and poor farming methods that in turn led to problems such as “inflation, over-taxation, unemployment, famine, revolts, war, anarchy, and disease” (p. 131). Paskal says that evidence is emerging on global patterns of irregular precipitation, which leads to wildfires, crop failures, ice storms, and floods. Environmental degradation has dramatic physical, social, and political impacts. Paskal cites the examples of China and India as growing powerhouses, but makes the case that their success depends on their effective management of resources and environmental change. She concludes the chapter by saying that we face a new time of rapid change and scarce resources. These factors compel nations “to build strong, multifaceted networks that supply them with needed resources and geopolitical backing” (p. 186).

In the final section of the book (‘The turbulent Pacific: how rising sea levels could wash away whole countries and swamp the global ship of state’), Paskal looks at how the rising sea levels could impact resource access. She also examines China’s ability to project power, particularly in the Pacific, which is “a geostrategic buffer zone between Asia and the United States” (p. 20). Paskal explains that, notwithstanding the ecological and human impacts of the rising sea levels, there will be two different types of Pacific islands: those that “sink and become potential shipping hazards” and those that “stay above water and become potential geostrategic commercial and military bases” (p. 234). International politics will likely play a larger role in determining what parts of the ocean belong to which nation. Finally, the author advises that there is a possibility that “in a chaotic future of environmental change, where laws are unclear and power is in flux,” countries that seek stability, influence, access to important resources, and control of shipping routes will need to begin planning for such drastic changes (p. 235).

Paskal concludes by assessing different national adaptation programs to determine which of these are the most likely to remain robust during periods of national and international flux. She recommends that to “understand real weaknesses, one has to break down the challenge into more manageable components…to formulate what must be done to enhance stability in a crisis” (p. 239). Using this assessment approach, Paskal proposes a three-stage framework for mitigation of social, political, and security impacts of a crisis. The framework is based on the following stages: “Reinforce (prepare before the crisis); Rescue (manage systems and services during a crisis); and Recover (develop long-term strategy for recovery) (p. 239). Each mitigation stage “operates at four levels: government, society (including non-profits), the private sector, and the media” (p. 239). In a clearly presented table, Paskal enumerates specific recommendations at each stage for these four levels (p. 241).

Paskal further recommends that “geopolitically we [nations] will all need more, and varied, friends” (p. 247).  She explains that “prepar[ations] for environmental change will take political will, good basic engineering, public education, long-term planning, and sustained funding,” (p. 249). This book presents a strong case for why these preparations are necessary and provides clear recommendations for how to better develop our response to the crisis.

Paskal’s book demonstrates that climate change will have a huge impact, not just physical and climactic, but also economic, geopolitical, and security related. She succeeds in presenting a strong and well-researched case about the impacts that will affect everyone around the globe. Paskal also provides a projection of what may occur in the future so that we may have a better chance to plan for it, rather than be left “huddling under a broken umbrella when the monsoon comes” (p. 21).