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Sun. July 14, 2024
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IA-Forum Interview: Cleo Paskal
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IA-Forum: How do you see climate change potentially impacting the global energy infrastructure? Cleo Paskal: When we build anything - energy infrastructure, cities, defensive fortifications - we look at what’s already there and then build onto what’s already there. That assumes that what’s already there will always be there and will never change. With environmental change, what were constants, becomes variables. So what we have built to fit on something doesn’t necessarily fit right anymore. This can be seen very clearly in energy infrastructure. One of the most obvious examples is hydro installation. When a hydro dam is built, you look at precipitation levels or river flow, glacial melts, patterns of things for the last fifty or a hundred years, and you design according to that. The last fifty or a hundred years tells us nothing about the next five, 10 years. So as precipitation patterns change, an installation can’t produce the way it was design to produce, and it might also become compromised by sudden heavy rainfalls creating erosion, undermining site stability, creating siltation, those sorts of issues. This is seen already in places like India where in 2008 hydro generation was down over 8% and down 12% in 2009. These aren’t just localized issues though. Because of the interconnected nature of the global energy system, if a country, say India, can’t get domestic hydro, it will have to buy oil, gas, coal, often in the international marketplace. That can have effects on global energy supply and price. IA-Forum: What about nuclear energy? Cleo Paskal: Nuclear is an interesting situation because nuclear plants exist on a site for a very long time, minimum 100 years from design to decommissioning because even after the reactor is closed, it must cool for a very long period before it can actually be disassembled. That is well within the timeframe of quite substantial changes in the physical environment. A nuclear power plant needs a lot of water for cooling so it’s either built along the coast, which means it’s subject to changing sea levels, storm surges, storm activity, and changing coastal geomorphology - which means that as the currents change, the sand can become more unstable and undermine the site. Or the plant is built on a river and river systems have their own challenges. In some cases because of rising air temperatures, river levels are going down because of evaporation. At the same time, the temperature of the water is increasing. So, when the water goes into the plant it’s already warmer yet in order to avoid damaging the river, the water can’t be discharge back into the river system above a certain temperature limit. So if it goes in at 15 degrees and can be discharged at maximum 24 degrees, there is 14 degrees of heat absorption available. But if, because of rising temperatures, it’s going in at 23 degrees, there is very little absorption capacity. That’s already causing problems. In France in the summer of 2003, 17 plants were either shut down or powered off. It cost France Electric 300 million Euros to buy needed power from neighboring countries. This was thought to be a one off situation but it happened again in 2006 and again in 2009. So what had been considered extreme events are now starting to be recurrent events and are raising questions about the entire design of that infrastructure. IA-Forum: How will projected climate change patterns impact off-shore oil installations and supplies? Cleo Paskal:: Some forecasts around climate change say that there will not necessarily be more storms, but when storms happen they can be more violent. That is because if the oceans are warmer, they can transfer more energy into the storm systems. There might not be more hurricanes in the Gulf, but when they occur, they’re may be stronger. In the summer of 2005, Rita and Katrina had a very serious impact. There were over 400 pipelines damaged, over 100 platforms destroyed. It was extremely costly. Because there’s a broadening awareness of those issues now, the insurance industry is getting involved in preventively shutting down platforms when storms are on the way, which creates the effect of disrupting the supply even if there isn’t necessarily damage. The North Sea is also starting to get unusual storm activities. One North Sea energy expert was telling me that they had seen their third ‘one in 100 year’ event that summer. It’s very difficult to include and plan for these new variables. For Arctic infrastructure or cold weather infrastructure, there’s a lot of focus on the benefits of the opening up of the Arctic Sea and less focus on what happens on shore, where there is the issue of a thawing permafrost that can undermine stability of installations. A pipeline, for example, is only as good as its weakest point. So if there is a 5,000 kilometer pipeline going from Russia to feed Europe, if any part of it passes over an area where the permafrost is thawing to the point of destabilizing that pipeline, the whole delivery system is lost. And if it’s thawed to the point of destabilizing the pipeline, the ground is probably very soggy and very difficult to get equipment in and out in order to try to reestablish that supply. That’s an issue that they’re going to be facing in Russia, Canada, Alaska, and in some other high altitude locations. IA-Forum: Another major area of impact you’ve discussed are legal ramifications of climate change… Cleo Paskal: Yes. In the same way our physical infrastructure is becoming disconnected from the environment, our legal infrastructure’s becoming disconnected from the environment that it’s designed to govern. The obvious example is, if there is a sea level rise, and a country like Maldives needs to be completely evacuated, does it legally cease to exist as a country? Does it lose its seat in the U.N.? Do its waters become international waters? Those are some issues. IA-Forum: Are there any current hotspots where security/climate change legal issues are occurring? Cleo Paskal: Well, the South China Sea is a big one, because there are five or six countries contesting sovereignty over tiny little rocky outcroppings. This is an area that’s already seen low level conflict with China attacking Vietnamese installations. The stakes are very high with some aggressive players on the field, and currently they have been using the U.N. Convention of the Law of the Sea as a kind of rules of the game. But if major countries are anchoring claims on little rocks that disappear beneath the waves, then the law is no longer a help, it’s a hindrance. So, in particular around the South China Sea, I think there might be some issues coming up unfortunately. IA-Forum: Moving onto the topic of another seaway, what are the legal and security issues surrounding the Northwest Passage? Cleo Paskal: The Passage is a bit of a litmus test for national governments about how they see world affairs at the moment. Essentially Canada considers it internal waters, which would legally give it the right to search, sieze, and inspect any vessel going through. The U.S. is saying this is an international strait which means freedom of the seas, a kind of passage for anybody through the region. Now this is actually a bit of a change in the U.S. position. During the Cold War in ’88, there was an agreement signed between the U.S. and Canada where the U.S. said they would ask permission every time they went through and Canada would give permission every time they asked. So without acknowledging Canada’s claim over it overtly, it was sort of gentleman’s agreement for de facto Canadian control over the Passage. When the Cold War ended, the U.S. shifted to this freedom of the seas position. I think that was basically a commercial decision because a lot of the U.S. commercial ships aren’t flagged in the U.S., they’re flagged in Liberia or Panama or the Bahamas. So they wouldn’t be covered by that sort of an agreement. While the ‘88 agreement makes sense from a strategic perspective, from a U.S. corporate perspective, it’s a hindrance. Currently, the primacy of freedom of the seas is supported by the U.S. government, but I think on a faulty premise. The U.S. freedom of seas premise basically assumes freedom of seas under U.S. control. I think particularly in the Arctic there’s a big question about whether the U.S. can control that space, and if they can’t control that space, I would propose that it would be better to have an ally who has the legal capacity to control that space at least in order to create a more secure environment. IA-Forum: What about Russia’s interests in the Passage? Cleo Paskal: Russia has been quite upfront about wanting to build trade routes into North America through Canada. Again, if your assessment is strictly economic and you’re seeing that every country is benign and just wants to do business, then it makes sense. If you start looking at it from a more strategic perspective, then it needs to perhaps be evaluated in a different context. IA-Forum: China also appears to be a player now… Cleo Paskal: China is looking at the Arctic from both a strategic and a commercial perspective. It wants access to resources in the north, but it also would like open access to this highway between Asia and Europe, this unfettered, unmonitored highway. Right now if a ship moves from China to Europe, it has to go either through the Panama or Suez Canal. It’s constrained and easily monitored. If they’re going through the Northwest Passage and it’s an open passage, there’s nobody to stop it. This leads to more than a question of environment security. Who knows what shape those ships are going to be in, what’s on those ships, and who’s on those ships. So China is very supportive of the U.S. position of freedom of the seas when it comes to the Arctic, and is actively pursuing Arctic policies in terms of being equipped for these new times coming. IA-Forum: From a security aspect, how well do you think China is positioned for potential effects of climate change? Cleo Paskal: Assuming a status quo, which is not going to happen, but given the current parameters, they have positioned themselves very well. They are making the same mistake many others are making in assuming the status quo will remain unchanged. That’s the vulnerability. But given the current system, they’ve played it extremely well, much better than pretty much anybody else. IA-Forum: Do you see any correlation between their political and economic systems that facilitate that better than in other nations in the West? Cleo Paskal: There’s a real integration between the international priorities of the Chinese Communist party and the ways in which Chinese corporations have engaged with the outside world. Essentially if you’re looking at a major Chinese company making a major foreign investment, it will have been cleared at some level through the Communist party. That gives it different levers to play. If an American company is looking to invest, basically their priority is what’s good for the company. So if it loses the company money, it’s not a good investment. If you’re dealing with the nationalist capitalism model, such as China has, it may not be good for the company, but it might be good for the Party. There may be different funding streams coming into play so that you might lose money on that deal, but you’re advancing a larger strategic interest and as a result, the economics become very different. The funding will come from a different stream. The loss may be made up internally so they’re leveraging the market system and basically buying strategic assets. IA-Forum: And China also leverages this with regional agreements? Cleo Paskal: They do that as well. When China goes into a country like Sudan or Zimbabwe, many of the deals are package deals, and it’s at a government to government level. They might go into a place like Zimbabwe and say, we’ll give you diplomatic cover, we’ll give you weaponry, we’ll give you training, we’ll give you some infrastructure. You’ll give us natural resources and farmlands. Now that’s very difficult for an American company to do obviously. First of all it can’t pledge diplomatic cover but it also can’t pledge that whole suite of services. That sort of country-to-country package deal is very tempting for certain sorts of leaders around the world. IA-Forum: In the conclusion of the book, you present a wonderful matrix tracing groups – government, public society, private society, and media – against reinforcement, rescue, and recovery actions to measure vulnerabilities. Cleo Paskal: The interesting thing for me in applying the matrix to place like the U.S. is you see very big regional differences. So a place like New Orleans fails on all counts, but that may not be the case in other locations. It’s a useful tool for identifying local strengths that can be built on and deficiencies that need shoring up. It’s also useful if you’re doing vulnerability assessments of any sort. It can just as well be applied to military strength. It shows there are real vulnerabilities in some of the places we had considered very secure, and that’s troublesome. IA-Forum: Any other final thoughts? Cleo Paskal: We’re entering a period of new variables, of new instabilities, and we need to start including the geophysical into the geopolitical and geo-economic assessments. And not even geopolitical and geo-economic alone, even local based assessments. We can do it, and there’s a lot of low hanging fruit. We can get a lot done very quickly, but if we don’t, then things may careen out of control very, very fast and that’s disconcerting, and unnecessary. Cleo Paskal is an associate Fellow at Chatham House and a consultant for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Global Energy and Environment Strategic Ecosystem. Her book Global Warring: How Environmental, Economic, and Political Crises Will Redraw the World Map . is available through Palgrave Macmillan.

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