October 13, 2007
Experts: Climate Change Threatens Peace
What does global warming have to do with global peace? The globe may find out sooner than we think, experts say.
"Climate change is and will be a significant threat to our national security and in a larger sense to life on Earth as we know it to be," retired Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, former U.S. Army chief of staff, told a congressional panel last month.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee agrees. In awarding the prize Friday to climate campaigner Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored network of scientists, the Norwegian committee said the stresses of a changing global environment may heighten the "danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states."
Those like Sullivan who study the issues point particularly to the impact of drought and altered climate patterns on food and water supplies, leading to shortages that could spur huge, destabilizing migrations of people internationally.
In a report in May, scientists advising the German government noted specific scenarios that could upend the lives of millions, driving them across borders to overwhelm other lands.
"The dieback of the Amazon rain forest or the loss of the Asian monsoon could have incalculable consequences for the societies concerned," said the German Advisory Council on Global Change.
In some cases, potential backlashes from warming weren't foreseen even a few years ago. One example: The stunningly swift shrinking of Arctic Ocean ice in recent summers has drawn attention to looming international disputes over rights to the newly open seas.
The unpredictability of when, where and how some of the changes will occur has frustrated Pentagon planners and others trying to prepare.
A 2003 report commissioned by the Pentagon warned that abrupt climate change "could potentially destabilize the geopolitical environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints."
But that study's scenario for abrupt change hinged in part on fears that the Atlantic's Gulf Stream current might slow, chilling northern Europe and eastern North America and curtailing food harvests. Now, however, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it's "very unlikely" the current will slow abruptly.
Unpredictability was dispelled elsewhere in the panel's reports this year. It found, for example, that warmer and drier conditions are already shortening the growing season in Africa's Sahel, a conflict-ridden region long burdened by food and water shortages.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the German scientists cited other potential "hotspots," including:
- Egypt's vital, low-lying Nile Delta, where the livelihoods of millions may be at risk from rising sea levels and salinization of agricultural areas.
- The Asian subcontinent, where the retreat of Himalayan glaciers will dry up downstream water supplies, and rising seas and stronger cyclones will threaten tens of millions on the Bay of Bengal coast.
- The poor nations of Central America, where more intense hurricanes could severely damage economies, destabilize political systems and send streams of uprooted people toward the U.S. border.
At the same time, the German scientists said, the climate challenge is an opportunity to unite the international community. In that spirit, Britain last April organized the first U.N. Security Council meeting to consider climate change as a threat to international peace.
Global efforts have faltered, however, in trying to cut back emissions of carbon dioxide and other global-warming gases - in part because the Bush administration opposes such internationally mandated reductions. That in itself may help sharpen world tensions, the German report said.
If, amid recriminations and finger-pointing, governments fail to unite on global warming, "climate change will draw ever-deeper lines of division and conflict in international relations," it said.
Leaders are growing nervous. At the U.S. Army War College last March, military and scientific specialists quietly convened in a colloquium on "Global Climate Change: National Security Implications." Among the topics discussed: the possible need for a new National Security Act to "oblige intergovernmental cooperation" on climate by future U.S. administrations.