Climate Change May Lead to Global Conflict

Global warming has not only environmental and economic effects, but national security and war-and-peace implications as well, report says.Climate change is a simultaneously vague and specific thing. It’s vague because people figure it will affect them one of these days — everybody’s affected by the weather. It’s specific because once in a while something happens — Hurricane Katrina, a heat wave, a flood — that brings the message home (even though scientists repeatedly issue caveats that specific weather events can’t be attributed to global climate change; there are simply too many factors involved).

The impacts of climate change will very likely be far-reaching and unexpected. A recent report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Center for a New America Security entitled The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications Of Global Climate Change paints a pretty chilling picture about what some of those unexpected changes might be.

The expected level of climate change — that is, the minimum scenario outlined in the recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) — is an average global temperature increase of about 1.3 degrees Celsius by 2040. The report says that this is “the least we ought to prepare for.”

The hard-headed authors of the The Age of Consequences say that minimum includes:

National security implications include: heightened internal and cross-border tensions caused by large-scale migrations; conflict sparked by resource scarcity, particularly in the weak and failing states of Africa; increased disease proliferation, which will have economic consequences; and some geopolitical reordering as nations adjust to shifts in resources and prevalence of disease. Across the board, the ways in which societies react to climate change will refract through underlying social, political, and economic factors.

One of the likely effects of climate change is increased drought in some portions of the world. The American Southwest, for instance, is expected to be hit with more severe droughts. Globally, drought is the second largest killer from natural disasters, behind epidemics.

Historically, water shortage generally has not led to increased conflict. But even without major climate change, water shortages now threaten conflict in much of the Middle East and North Africa.

Scholars, however …

“have identified as few as seven cases of acute, water-related transboundary conflicts — with exchanges of fire occurring in only four of them, including two between Israel and Syria … One report claimed that the last time parties fought a military conflict expressly over water could be when the Mesopotamian cities of Lagash and Umma battled each other 4,500 years ago.

“Noting that governments have signed thousands of international agreements regarding water issues, Sandra Postel and Aaron Wolf wrote that, in the case of water, `the history of cooperation, creativity and ingenuity is infinitely more rich than that of acute conflict.'”

But one response people have to a drought is simply to walk away from it, creating streams of refugees. In light of the current debate on immigration, and the susceptibility of areas of Mexico to increased drought, this issue could ring loudly in American political discourse.

Historically, says the report,

“Social conflict on some scale was routine during and after disasters. Societies with little in the way of safety net — say Ethiopia in the 1970s and 1980s — easily succumbed to banditry, ethnic and religious violence, and even outright civil war under the stress of acute drought. Resistance and civility can quickly perish when confronted with imperious necessity.”

Another common political reaction to natural shocks takes the form of scapegoating minorities:

“The Black Death in Europe intensifed persecution of Jews, who were accused of poisoning wells and causing the pestilence. This played some role in encouraging Jewish migration to Eastern Europe in the 14th century. After the great 1923 Kanto earthquake in Japan, which killed some 130,000 to 150,000 people, vigilante mobs together with army and police units attacked Tokyo’s Korean community, then about 30,000 strong, and killed perhaps 6,000. Many Japanese believed rumors that
Koreans had set fires and poisoned water supplies in the earthquake’s aftermath.

Few of these potential future conflicts will be attributed directly to climate change — much like it’s hard to say that Hurricane Katrina was the result of climate change. But the authors warn that climate change, even in its least damaging persona …

“… will aggravate existing international crises and problems. Although a shared sense of threat can in some cases promote national innovatation and reform as well as induce cooperation among governments, the scenario authors found that climate change is likely to worsen existing tensions, especially over natural resources, and possibly lead to conflict. Indeed, this magnifying of existing problems by climate change is already taking place, from desertification in Darfur, to water shortages in the Middle East, to disruptions of monsoons in South Asia and attendant struggles over land and water use. These and other effects are likely to increase and intensify in the years ahead.

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Dan Whipple

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