25 Feb 2022
Transnational organised crime is ready to exploit the complex challenges presented by climate change
By John Coyne
Discussions of climate change consistently paint a picture of this phenomenon resulting in a lose-lose outcome for everyone. Unfortunately, one category of non-state actors will make a figurative and literal ‘killing’ from climate change: transnational serious and organised crime groups. If law enforcement nationally and globally doesn’t adapt, it will face some significant challenges.
Transnational crime groups operate across and within every nation-state, yet they require specific conditions to thrive. Inequality and vulnerability provide catalysts for the groups. Then ill-conceived regulation and legislation help create illicit markets and profits. Climate change will add stimuli to all those conditions in the coming decades.
Of course, most of those in the law enforcement game have a far more granular understanding that fragile states offer organised crime groups safe spaces from which to operate. It is the space that generates opportunities for predicate offences from human trafficking to synthetic drug production. These fragile states and ungoverned areas also offer opportunities to launder and spend the proceeds of crime.
Climate change will progressively exacerbate state weaknesses and failures and their associated spillover effects in already vulnerable developing states. That trend will expand traditional opportunities for transnational criminal actors as governments and markets fail. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg for law enforcement.
For more than a decade, organised crime has continued diversifying its enterprises. We already see drug cartels seeking to control avocado and lime markets in Mexico. Global efforts to regulate logging have made illegal logging across Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia a lucrative, and often deadly, trade. The illicit tobacco market offers criminals the world over the opportunity for substantial profits. Counterfeit pharmaceuticals, especially anti-malarial, result in hundreds of thousands of deaths annually.
Climate changes will see both markets and governments in fragile states increasingly unable to provide people with the goods and services they need. This will result in unmet needs.
Efforts to combat climate change will likely result in governments working together to further regulate and legislate the production and certification of goods, including food protein, water, timber, and pharmaceuticals. Inevitably this will increase prices and, in doing so, will place a premium price on fully certified environmentally friendly products.
It appears inevitable that under these conditions organised crime will be quick to find new opportunities to exploit legislative vulnerabilities in these markets. These groups will likely make use of variations of three specific methodologies:
- The diversion of products from legitimate supply chains.
- Smuggling to avoid the payment of duties and taxes.
- The manufacture or substitution of products with counterfeits.
In many cases, organised crime groups will seek to sell products at a price lower than that which legal markets can sustain. This model has already been seen within the illicit tobacco and counterfeit pharmaceutical markets. Inevitably this will see a complex intertwining of legitimate and illegal markets.
In a climate-changed world where markets and governments fail to provide goods and services, an increasing number of communities may no longer see organised crime as bad guys but saviours. During the early stages of Covid-19 in 2020, crime groups from Italy to Japan used the pandemic to demonstrate their credentials as saviours and alternatives to the government. In central and south America, organised crime groups have politicised these events to expose the weaknesses of government to the people.
Law enforcement can expect to face far more complex challenges across a range of new crimes. It seems clear that climate change will bring about substantial challenges to law enforcement, and now is the time to start preparing for these potentialities in terms of capacity.