Climate change - a threat to world security

New York, USA (GLOBE-Net) – Far from being solely an environmental issue, climate change will have such wide ranging impacts that it should be considered a vital matter of global security, warn recent documents released by a panel of retired U.S. military leaders and by the Government of the United Kingdom. These documents warn that conditions caused by warming temperatures could exacerbate or create wars in many areas of the world, thereby posing an unprecedented challenge to national security.

National Security and the Threat of Climate Change’ was released this week by the CNA Corporation, a U.S. federally funded research and development center serving the Department of the Navy and other defence agencies. Backed by a board of eleven retired three and four-star admirals and generals, the report examines how climate change is a “threat multiplier in already fragile regions, exacerbating conditions that lead to failed states - the breeding grounds for extremism and terrorism”.

The view of climate change as a threat to international peace and security is echoed in a discussion paper released by the British government (PDF), which will bring the issues of energy, security, and climate change to the UN Security Council for the first time. Climate change will lead to a variety of threats, including border disputes, refugees, energy scarcity, and shortages of water and other resources, warns the paper.

The United Kingdom paper also agrees with CNA’s assessment of climate change as factor that will aggravate existing causes for dispute. “The cumulative impacts of climate change could exacerbate these drivers of conflict, and particularly increase the risk to those states already susceptible to conflict,” it warns.

The violence in Darfur, Sudan, is linked to drought conditions that are an early sign of things to come, said John Ashton, the UK Special Representative for Climate Change, on the eve of the Security Council discussion. While the causes of the conflict are complex, there is no doubt that the situation has been worsened by a lack of rain which has caused widespread food shortages, he noted.

“The implications of climate change for our security are more fundamental and more comprehensive than any single conflict,” warned British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett.

Resources, Scarcity, and Conflict

Increased risk of conflict has been one of the largely ignored impacts of expected future climate change. The widespread impacts of now unavoidable global warming must be dealt with alongside efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Rising sea levels, droughts, pest infestations, increased diseases, severe weather events and the resulting shortages in food, energy, and inhabitable lands will no doubt cause massive upheaval in many areas of the world. Particularly vulnerable are those countries which already suffer from poverty or instability, and lack the necessary resources and infrastructure to overcome these devastating impacts.

Thomas Homer-Dixon, University of Toronto author and Director of the Trudeau Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, has synthesized work from a wide range of international research projects to develop a detailed model of the sources of environmental scarcity. He shows that these scarcities can lead to deepened poverty, large-scale migrations, social cleavages, and weakened institutions.

Dixon’s conclusion that environmental impacts similar to those expected from climate change will cause conflict is well noted among policy experts and academics. If the projections of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are anywhere close to correct, the first such clashes may emerge within the decade.

The impacts are not restricted to the developing world. The Center for Naval Analyses report notes that the rate of immigration from Mexico to the U.S. is likely to rise because the water situation in Mexico is already marginal and could worsen with less rainfall and more droughts.

The report also notes that technologies to deal with some of the problems that likely will arise or be exacerbated by climate change may not be ready in time. Concern over increases in CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere has prompted calls to develop technologies to capture and sequester CO2 from coal generation. The report notes that this technology is not available today on a commercial scale, and the lead time for its development is measured in tens of years, not months.

Canada and other countries must therefore be prepared to not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to climate change at home, but to deal with the political, social, and military issues created by a warming globe. Continued economic prosperity will hinge on maintaining or raising the quality of life for hundreds of millions around the globe that will be hardest hit by climate change.

Overcoming this adversity will require political leadership supported by public will, but an equally important contribution will come from the environmental business community. Providing clean water, adequate food, safe shelter and opportunities for advancement to those in need is both an opportunity and a challenge for the private sector.

Climate change and the collective responses to it will reshape the global geo-politics of energy supply and demand. It will also affect how cities are built and managed, alter historical patterns of access to water and agricultural resources, and possibly diminish the ecological resources we harvest from the world’s lands and oceans.

As noted by Dr. John Wiebe, President and CEO of the GLOBE Foundation, “The environmental, economic and cultural dimensions of these changes are every bit as real as the national security assessments released this week, and should serve as a wake up call to business and governments everywhere.”

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