It was a bit of a you-got-your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate-no!-you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment.
As a journalist, I had been covering how China was increasingly making friend and influencing nations around the world. As a result, I was on a tiny, beautiful island in the South Pacific where China was becoming one of the main aid, trade, and geopolitical partners.
Newly arrived Chinese immigrants dominated the local retail sector, the Chinese military was offering training, and Chinese political attachés were giving advice on policy, ensuring, for example, that the local government knew how to vote at Copenhagen and knew not to recognize Taiwan. The local government, for its part, was happy for a partner that provided ready cash and seemed not to be as overtly patronizing as the West.
The thing is, trying to be efficient (journalist's travel budgets aren't what they used to be), I was also covering the effects of environmental change on the vulnerable islands of the Pacific. The President of the Republic of Kiribati, for one, has been very eloquent about how his country might need to be completely evacuated as sea level rise, erosion, and salt water infiltration in to fresh water systems make his country uninhabitable.
So, there I was. Standing on an island so slender that, looking to my left I could see the rough grey waves of the Pacific, and looking to my right I could see the calm blue of the lagoon.
To China, and others, this was piece on a geopolitical chessboard. To the people here, it was a sinking ship.
The two topics - geopolitics and the environment - came crashing together, peanut butter and chocolate like, and created a whole new set of questions. If Kiribati needs to be evacuated and is submerged, does it cease to exist as a country? Does it lose its seat in the U.N.? Do its territorial waters become international waters?
I looked into the law. This sort of thing is normally governed by the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (the Convention). Unfortunately, the Convention, like many, many other pieces of legislation, doesn't take environmental change into account.
So, for example, according to the Convention, a country's maritime exclusive economic zone (the offshore area in which a country has exclusive rights to resources), is measured from the coastline or off-shore islands. That assumes the coastline will never change and islands won't submerge - something that is already happening.
Without the law as a guide, it seemed likely that the answers to my questions would come through politics - and in particular country-to-country solutions that bypassed the failed international legal system.
So, for example, if a country, say New Zealand, takes in the refugees, the Kiwis could make a case for administering the maritime zone where the country used to be on behalf of the former I-Kiribati. This could be a very lucrative, and geopolitically touchy, proposition.
Countries like Kiribati may not have much land, but their maritime zones are vast and include waters rich in fisheries and potentially rich seabed resources. Kiribati alone claims a maritime zone the size of India, as well as having rights to things like its own taxation system, currency, and even satellite launch slots.
The revenue from all those could turn the refugees from being seen as an economic liability on the host nation to being a benefit.
And what if not New Zealand, but China took in the refugees and built up one of the sinking islands to act as a base in the region (as it has done with some locations in the South China Sea)?
It is not as far fetched as it sounds. China was forced to close a base in nearby Kiribati when that country decided to side with Taiwan in exchange for a tidy payout. Having a base in the Pacific, like the U.S. has Guam, would dovetail well with China's 'outreach' plans.
And why does it have to be a nation that administered the sovereignty of these sort-of-countries? What if a corporation pays a lump sum resettlement fee to the refugees in exchange for taking over administration of sovereignty? Months later I was talking to a CEO of a major corporation. When I described the situation to him, his eyes went misty and he said: "I've always said one day we would own our own country."
Imagine the corporate benefits of being able to write what laws you like, without the inconvenience of a national government getting in the way (and no snide comments about current U.S. regulatory policy).
After my trip to the Pacific, I spent years looking at the intersection between geopolitics, economics and environmental change - the three critical moving targets of the 21st century - for my book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map. I didn't have to look hard. Examples are everywhere.
The Western U.S. is facing critical water shortages potentially affecting development prospects. The infrastructure on the Gulf Coast is being undermined, throwing into question the viability of just-in-time delivery models. The thawing Arctic is leading to a potential major security vulnerability along North America's northern perimeter. Global energy infrastructure is becoming increasing unstable, compromising security of supply.
In fact, it is now nearly impossible to make any reliable medium-to-long term geopolitical or economic projections without taking environmental change in to account.
We simply can't ignore it any longer. The chocolate has truly hit the peanut butter.
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