Is climate resilience possible in a world of borders?

We govern deforestation, agriculture, and biodiversity within our own borders. But unchecked sovereignty may be a mistake.

Is climate resilience possible in a world of borders?
Adoption of Paris Climate Agreement (UNclimatechange)

In January 2008, global rice prices shot to record highs. Shipping costs, a multi-year Australian drought, and erratic weather in Asia choked yields. In producer countries, the fear of dwindling stockpiles prompted the governments of India, Vietnam, Brazil, Egypt, and elsewhere to halt exports, safeguarding their own supplies but propelling prices up to four times higher than normal.

This meant trouble for countries reliant on foreign rice. Senegal, for example, has depended on grain imports since the 1800s when its French colonizers steered Senegal’s agriculture toward cash crops like peanuts, and instead imported rice from France’s Asian colonies. In 2008, the impact of these past decisions was civil instability: people protested against political leaders as many could not afford rice.  

For most outside observers, this was bad enough, yet when the scarcity ended we quickly forgot about the crisis. But to Ariadna Anisimov, a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Development Policy at the University of Antwerp, this example is a quintessential case of “transboundary climate risk” that the world is ill equipped to handle in the future. For her, the link between climate change and societal instability couldn’t be clearer.

Photo by Sandy Ravaloniaina on Unsplash

What makes the cautionary rice tale prototypical is its demonstration of not just the tangled web of climate and livelihoods around the world, but also the global consequences of domestic policies. Export bans shielded the producer at the expense of the market. For an importing country like Senegal to become self-sufficient in rice, they’d need major agricultural changes. But climate change was already affecting farmer’s yields through more variable rain and more salt in groundwater; and irrigating with river water remained both a touchy subject with neighboring countries and flooding risk.

“Rivers have been shifted, and turned, and irrigated to make barrages and hydropower,” Anisimov told me. “There's always competing interests between the upstream and the downstream communities, and they have a lot of cascading effects, especially because rivers cross borders.”

Climate change's drivers and hazards don't obey borders, yet the laws and regulations meant to control them are confined within national boundaries. So how do we reckon with the fact that necessary climate action may be incompatible with how our entire world is organized?