Bad Climate for Geopolitical Stability

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“Sir Ian Andrews, second permanent
under-secretary at the UK’s Ministry of Defence,
says: ‘Climate change is potentially the greatest
challenge to security that we face, in terms of
the impact that it could have globally.'”

“Anthony Zinni, a former commander of US forces
in the Middle East, warned: ‘We will pay for this
one way or another. We will pay to reduce
greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to
take an economic hit of some kind. Or, we will
pay the price later in military terms. And that
will involve human lives. There will be a human
toll.'”
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Financial Times
September 15 2008

At boiling point
By Fiona Harvey

Widespread food shortages in the developing world
resulting from changing weather patterns; disease
outbreaks; mass migration as people abandon farms
because of failing crops; populations fleeing
coastal areas because of sea level rises. Each of
these is a potential byproduct of climate change.

Whether they will all come to pass, and the
extent of the likely damage to the climate, are
matters of scientific and political debate. But
even if only a few of these predictions come
true, the world can expect to see much greater
political and economic instability in already
hard-hit regions.

Sir Ian Andrews, second permanent under-secretary
at the UK’s Ministry of Defence, says: “Climate
change is potentially the greatest challenge to
security that we face, in terms of the impact
that it could have globally.”

The MoD’s concern, which is echoed by governments
from the US to Australia, is that the negative
impacts of climate change will be worst in
developing countries, which are badly placed to
cope with the additional strains that extremes of
weather will place on their infrastructure. These
strains will in turn exacerbate the existing
problems of economic instability, tensions
between peoples, support for terrorism and
anti-western feeling in unstable countries.

The UK government frequently points to Darfur as
an example of how climate change can escalate
tensions: in this view, drought, spreading
desertification and disagreements over rights to
water and fertile land were key factors in
sparking the conflict. All of these climatic
problems can be expected to worsen under global
warming.

So in the past two years, as the potential
effects of climate change have become clearer,
the debate over it has been reframed: instead of
being seen as purely an environmental issue,
climate change is being presented as a military
problem.

Kofi Annan, then secretary-general of the United
Nations, was one of the first to make the case in
2006, saying: “Climate change is not just an
environmental issue, as too many people still
believe. It is an all-encompassing threat.”

He added: “Climate change must take its place
alongside those threats – conflict, poverty, the
proliferation of deadly weapons – that have
traditionally monopolised first-order political
attention.”

In early 2007, the UK government announced it
would bring global warming before the UN Security
Council for the first time. The motive behind the
debate was to open a new front in tackling
climate change. If the defence establishment
could be persuaded that climate change
intensified the terrorist threat and fostered
dangerous instability in strategic regions, then
they would become a powerful ally in fighting
global warming.

Support for this point of view came from an
unexpected source. The US government under George
W. Bush has hardly been characterised by its
enthusiasm for dealing with climate change. But
an influential group of 11 retired US generals,
convened by the US government-financed Centre for
Naval Analyses, produced a landmark report last
April, just days ahead of the Security Council
debate, that called for the federal government to
consider climate change as a threat to the US’s
national security, warning that the problem could
breed terrorism and dangerous conflicts.

The report described climate change as “a threat
multiplier for instability in some of the most
volatile regions of the world”. It predicted that
climate change would “seriously exacerbate
already marginal living standards in many Asian,
African and Middle Eastern nations, causing
widespread political instability and the
likelihood of failed states”.

One of the authors of the report, Anthony Zinni,
a former commander of US forces in the Middle
East, warned: “We will pay for this one way or
another. We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas
emissions today, and we’ll have to take an
economic hit of some kind. Or, we will pay the
price later in military terms. And that will
involve human lives. There will be a human toll.”

A subsequent report published last November by
the US defence think-tank the Centre for
Strategic and International Studies strongly
echoed these conclusions. The report found many
threats to stability from climate change,
including some involving nuclear states such as
India. The authors noted: “In Bangladesh, one of
the most densely populated countries in the
world, the risk of coastal flooding is growing
and could leave some 30m people searching for
higher ground in a nation already plagued by
political violence and a growing trend toward
Islamist extremism. Neighbouring India is already
building a wall along its border with Bangladesh.”

Reframing the global warming debate into a matter
of national security will be essential to
progress on an international climate change
agreement, adds Sir Ian: “Climate change will
create pressures on parts of the planet that will
be least able to cope … We have been working to
raise understanding of that among the wider
community.”

© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd 2008.

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