Thinking the Unthinkable (Global Warming Edition), Part 2

Thanks to David Carmeron, leader of the UK’s Conservative Party, here is a much more vivid description the consequences of global warming than our post earlier today, which focused on the financial community’s seeming indifference to this issue. His article, “A warmer world is ripe for conflict and danger,” in the Financial Times, discusses the national security implications:

Picture Japan, suffering from flooding along its coastal cities and contamination of its fresh water supply, eyeing Russia’s Sakhalin Island oil and gas reserves as an energy source . . . Envision Pakistan, India and China – all armed with nuclear weapons – skirmishing at their borders over refugees, access to shared river and arable land.

This might look like the minutes from a meeting of Hollywood executives. In fact, it is from a Pentagon memo on the possible consequences of global warming. Climate change is not just an environmental question, it could have a massive impact on international security.

People in the developing world will likely suffer most, as climate change will make the resources they depend on more scarce: fresh water, cropland, forests and fisheries. This will have grave humanitarian consequences. Oxfam predicts 30m more people could be at risk of famine as a result of global warming. With more famine we should expect more disease.

The demand for essential resources could exacerbate tensions within countries. We are already seeing this: a contributing factor to the conflict in Darfur has been a change in rainfall that pitted nomadic herders against settled farmers. Such conflicts over resources within countries could easily turn into conflicts between countries – either directly through clashes between governments over a resource such as a shared river or indirectly through the pressure of refugees crossing borders.

Make no mistake: climate change is not just changing the planet, it is changing human lives. Creeping environmental deterioration already displaces 10m people a year. This could rise to 50m by 2010. Movements like this will have a huge impact on worldwide immigration patterns.

Climate change will have a profound effect on developed and emerging economies alike. China’s economy is dependent on Himalayan glaciers to feed its southern rivers. But rising temperatures are now causing these glaciers to melt at an alarming rate.

In America, Hurricane Katrina turned New Orleans from a stable, wealthy and vibrant city into a wasteland in the space of a few days. In the UK, the Thames barrier, designed to be raised once every six years, is now being raised six times a year. Just one big flood would cost £30bn, or 2 per cent of UK gross domestic product.

What this would mean for our standards of living and the strength of society is alarming. So what can we do? There is a consensus about climate change as an environmental phenomenon, which I share, that says we need to take action to prevent it, rather than just mitigate its effects. But, at the same time, politicians have a duty to prepare for its consequences in terms of domestic and international security….

Showing leadership domestically also builds the trust necessary to get diplomatic agreement abroad – underpinned by a new global emissions authority. Sceptics who argue that the likes of China and the US would never agree misunderstand how energy security is already influencing their policies.

China, a resource-poor country, recently set a goal of doubling the use of alternative sources of energy. President George W. Bush last year promised a 22 per cent rise in US government clean energy funding to help end what he called the country’s “addiction to oil”.

Preparing for the consequences of climate change means we must re-evaluate our policies. We need a sharper focus on preventing and addressing climate change in the developing world. We must also examine potential areas of conflict caused by climate changes in planning defence policies.

As early as 1971, Richard Falk argued that environmental change was a security issue and outlined his “first law of ecological politics”: the faster the rate of change, the less time to adapt, the more dangerous the impact will be. The planet has already waited 36 years; it cannot afford to wait much longer.

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