Predicted National Security Consequences of Climate Change

The range of scholars' predictions of the consequences of climate change and severe environmental degradation has remained largely consistent over the past thirty to forty years. In addition to the diverse speculation over how serious the effects of climate change will be, such predictions cover a broad spectrum of mild to extreme human reaction to the repercussions of global warming, such as sea level rise and altered agricultural productivity.

In his pivotal 1977 paper, "Redefining National Security," Lester Brown wrote that "excessive human claims" on the environment threatened nearly all aspects of life: fishing and crop yields, forest regeneration, economic stability, and energy production and use.36 Ian Rowlands, of the London School of Economics, intoned in Washington Quarterly in 1991 that "no country will be immune from the security challenges posed by global environmental change." Moreover, he described it as a unique issue in that the threat was not external: the behavior of the United States and other nations constituted a threat to themselves, and security would not be dependent upon the actions of any single player.37 In the same publication, the environmental consultant A. J. Fairclough wrote that natural resources would become increasingly scarce in the future, aggravating existing tensions and creating new threats of economic stagnation and refugee flows. He summarized: "These threats to environmental security must be seen as threats to the well-being and quality of life of our populations that are every bit as serious as military threats. We need to react accordingly."38 The High-Level Panel on Threats, Challenges, and Change appointed by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan warned in 2004 of a vicious cycle of poverty, disease, environmental degradation, and civil violence.39

Scholars and policymakers have long spotlighted migration, both within and between nations, as an early and pervasive consequence of climate change. In April 1974 the president's National Security Council compiled a National Security Study memo for President Richard Nixon, unique in its consideration of population pressures as a potential threat to national security. This study was quite prescient, as many of the population trends it described came to the fore in the Clinton years and remain of concern in today's debates on global warming. "Population factors appear to have had operative roles in some past politically disturbing legal or illegal mass migrations, border incidents, and wars," the study stated. "If current increased population pressures continue they may have greater potential for future disruption in foreign relations."40

One of the most noted theorists of environment-conflict studies, Thomas Homer-Dixon, wrote that change to the environment will impact populations by "decreased economic productivity and disrupted institutions will jointly contribute to relative-deprivation conflicts ... positive feedbacks may operate: relative-deprivation conflicts may cause further economic decline and institutional dislocation."41 Joseph Romm echoed this concern in 1993, writing that many nations' being confronted with scarce resources "may lead to conflict or ecosystem collapse, resulting in environmental refugees. Such traumas could threaten U.S. national security if these conflicts were to occur in areas of importance to the United States, or if refugees were to flee in large numbers to this country."42 And the German climatologist Hermann Ott wrote in 2001, "Water and food shortages, rising sea levels and generally changing patterns of precipitation will lead to mass migrations and a considerable increase in low- and high-intensity warfare in many parts of the southern world."43

A group of scholars who used statistical and quantitative methods to track population growth, agricultural production, global climate changes, and war found the heaviest correlations among these factors in arid regions. Basing their assessments on the overlap of changing climate patterns and conflict, they wrote that "the greater threat from global warming comes from uncertainty of the ecosystem change," for that uncertainty will cause social and economic turmoil and other secondary effects wherever quick adjustment cannot be made. "A change of one key component under global warming would likely cause disastrous results in human societies dependent on the existing human ecosystem." These scholars posed key questions: "Is the changed ecosystem sufficiently adaptable or are the adaptation choices affordable for all of us?"44

One-third of the world's population lives within 60 kilometers (about 37 miles) of a coastline, so potential refugee crises are of critical concern if the widespread sea level rises predicted by scientific models of global warming occur. The sheer numbers of potentially displaced people are staggering. One recent World Bank report included calculations that over the course of the twenty-first century, sea level rise due to climate change could displace hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.45 Christian Aid and other nongovernmental organizations have estimated that climate change could deprive as many as 1 billion people of their homes between now and 2050.46 A two-day conference in Oslo in the summer of 2005, the International Workshop on Human Security and Climate Change, was dedicated to evaluating how climate change will drive human migration, as scholars around the world are struggling to determine how to best cope with such trends.

Among the long litany of devastating predicted effects, one focus of increasing concern is the disproportionate harm to the world's poorest people. "In low-income countries unable to offset crop shortfalls with imports, a production drop can translate directly into a rise in death rates," Lester Brown wrote in 1977.47 Norway's Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland warned at the 1988 Toronto climate change conference, "Climatic change will affect us all profoundly, regardless of where we live. And, as always, the poorest countries will be the ones most severely affected."48 Jessica Tuchman Mathews also made the point that although some areas might benefit from better agricultural conditions, all regions will be susceptible to highly variable and unpredictable changes. Further, adapting to climate change "will be extremely expensive. Developing countries with their small reserves of capital, shortages of scientists and engineers, and weak central governments will be the least able to adapt, and the gap between the developed and developing worlds will almost certainly widen."49

Many of the predicted consequences of global warming and environmental change are already occurring. Thomas Homer-Dixon's 1991 list of expected consequences stands out:

Environmental change may contribute to conflicts as diverse as war, terrorism, or diplomatic and trade disputes. Furthermore, it may have different causal roles: in some cases, it may be a proximate and powerful cause; in others, it may only be a minor and distant player in a tangled story that involves many political, economic, and physical factors. . . . Warmer temperatures could lead to contention over new ice-free sea-lanes in the Arctic or more accessible resources in the Antarctic.50

Sixteen years later, in August 2007, a Russian adventurer descended 4,300 meters (about 15,000 feet) under the thinning ice of the North Pole to plant a titanium flag and claim some 1.2 million square kilometers (468,000 square miles) of the Arctic for Russia. Not to be outdone, the prime minister of Canada stated his intention to boost his nation's military presence in the Arctic, with the stakes raised by the recent discovery that the heretofore iced-in Northwest Passage has become navigable for the first time in recorded history. Elsewhere on the globe, the spreading desertification in the Darfur region has compounded the tensions between nomadic herders and agrarian farmers, providing the environmental backdrop for genocide.

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