I’m an English man in New York

As far as months go, January’s are usually quite dull. Most people are tied down financially and by the excesses of the previous month. However, January 2017 has seen frenzied action on the political treadmill. Two unlikely armchair heroes have taken the world by storm. Both are strongmen.

Our first, unlikely armchair hero, is 70, and loves to grab women, and presumably life, by the pussy. It’s President Donald Trump, who was sworn into office on a bleak Friday morning (January 20th). His mantra is “America First!”. Is hell bent on tariff and non-tariff barriers and wants to return America to its pre-WW1 isolationism. He is 21st-century nativism.

Our second armchair hero is China’s Xi Jinping. In several firsts for the rising dragon, Xi not only attended Davos as the first Chinese Premier, he also championed free trade and liberalism.

And it is against this backdrop which makes January 2017 seem almost like Joseph’s Technicolour Dreamcoat. However, as with all January’s, there is also the annual almost religious round of “risks to watch”. On this blog, I’ve already referred to New York outfit Eurasia Group’s assessment for 2017. Recently, Citi’s Tina Fordham also gave her assessment to Business Insider. So in an ironic twist of fate, I found myself sat in the basement theatre of Chatham House on January 30th, a stalwart champion of the liberal economic order, listening to Lord Mark Malloch-Brown deliver Crisis Group’s “10 Conflicts to Watch in 2017”. This event differed from the previous litanies. In contrast to the commercial world, Lord Malloch-Brown emphasised that Crisis Group does not deliver market-based geopolitical risk; merely conflict risk.

The map is the key

Crisis Group sees 2017 as even more pessimistic than 2016, with more of a need to mediate all manner of cold and hot wars in an effort to ameliorate what they see as “the rise of the Caesars” (Duterte, Xi Jinping, Trump, Putin, Erdogan, etc). With Europe becoming a reluctant soft-power projector, the future of NATO hanging in the balance, and China an unlikely guardian of the ruling liberal economic order, here are Crisis Group’s 10 crises to continue watching in 2017:

  1. Syria and Irag
  2. Turkey
  3. Yemen
  4. Greater Sahel and Lake Chad Basin
  5. The Democratic Republic of Congo
  6. South Sudan
  7. Afghanistan
  8. Myanmar
  9. Ukraine
  10. Mexico

When viewed on a map, these conflict areas reveal an interesting trend. A rough, back of the hand calculation suggests 60% of Crisis Group’s 10 conflicts of 2017 are located within the Tropics of Cancer (not the lewd novel by Henry Miller) and Capricorn. So why exactly are so many countries within this narrow latitude at loggerheads?

To the untrained eye, apart from these countries being at conflict – or at risk of further conflict – they are slap bang beneath the raging torrent of winds that is the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ). Located between the Tropics. Therefore, it comes as little surprise as to why these countries are in constant conflict. Drawing inspiration from a controversial school of environmental geography, it is because of climatic determinism. Championed by Ellesworth Huntingdon and more recently by Jared Diamond and his “Guns, Germs and Steel”, the constant state of conflict in conjunction with the general malaise in development can be explained using this philosophical argument. However, delving deeper into the recent geologic record reveals that the determinists might be onto something.

The 4,200 BP (before present) climatic event saw massive upheavals of empires of old all across the northern tropics and into the Fertile Crescent. Scientists continue to study this period because of the interplay between complex civilisations and the slight change in the location of the ITCZ, and hence, northern and southern hemisphere storm tracks. The 4.2 kyr event is quite obvious when inspecting palaeo (ancient data) records from around the world, and its end results were devastating. Akkadian civilisation, which rose to prominence exceptionally quickly, collapsed within 100 years. The point is, perhaps climate is the principle arbiter which is leading to so much social, and consequently, institutional instability. Simply put, this region is so sensitive to minute changes in the mean of climate that it incubates many social conflicts. And that’s without taking into account the legacy of the “dash for Africa!”, from imperial 19th-century Europe.

It’s not raining cats and dogs everywhere

But hey, hold on, what about the outliers? Turkey, Afghanistan, Ukraine, Iraq and Syria. These volatile, and in Turkey’s case, confused places, represent the other 40%. But referring back to our list, and de-facto hypothesis, what’s the underlying cause of conflict here? These countries, on the whole, are found in the subtropics (the midlatitudes). They are also highly sensitive to climate due in part to their degraded environment (except Ukraine) but interestingly are located next to major arteries of the global energy supply chain. These countries’ conflicts represent kinks in the global supply of last century’s must-have commodity: Hydrocarbons. There is much written about this supply chain war on the internet, some of which I am only becoming familiar with, but for those who wish to have (conspiracy) theories penned and published, read Parag Khanna’s Connectography to quench your thirst.

Is the end nigh?

So how will 2017 play out? No political risk outfit or pundit would have expected Brexit, the Turkish Coup, a Russo-Turkish Syrian peace or a Trump presidency. So as with all forecasts, it’s a tough one. However, the January sales pitches of risk and crisis wonks has been fascinating to follow. One thing is guaranteed, there will be fireworks on the lawn outside the White House. With President Trump as a rank outsider maybe the end is coming sooner than he anticipates. Yet, sat in the basement theatre of Chatham House looking at the map of conflicts and thinking about the role of climate change how it acts as a risk multiplier, which increases the likelihood of further conflict, it was serendipitous. And whilst environmental wars might be scoffed at (there is evidence, on the contrary, that Syria’s civil war is partly attributable to climate change), their water war siblings certainly have, these conflicts are certainly likely contenders. And so with capricious delight, it’s little wonder that these regions are in turmoil.

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