Could global warming cause war?

A new report warns that conflicts over water and food could intensify as the climate changes.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

For years, the debate over global warming has focused on the three big "E's": environment, energy, and economic impact. This week it officially entered the realm of national security threats and avoiding wars as well.

A platoon of retired US generals and admirals warned that global warming "presents significant national security challenges to the United States." The United Nations Security Council held its first ever debate on the impact of climate change on conflicts. And in Congress, a bipartisan bill would require a National Intelligence Estimate by all federal intelligence agencies to assess the security threats posed by global climate change.

Many experts view climate change as a "threat multiplier" that intensifies instability around the world by worsening water shortages, food insecurity, disease, and flooding that lead to forced migration. That's the thrust of a 35-page report (PDF) by 11 admirals and generals this week issued by the Alexandria, Va.-based national security think tank The CNA Corporation. The study, titled National Security and the Threat of Climate Change, predicts:

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"Projected climate change will seriously exacerbate already marginal living standards in many Asian, African, and Middle Eastern nations, causing widespread political instability and the likelihood of failed states.... The chaos that results can be an incubator of civil strife, genocide, and the growth of terrorism.

"The U.S. may be drawn more frequently into these situations, either alone or with allies, to help provide stability before conditions worsen and are exploited by extremists. The U.S. may also be called upon to undertake stability and reconstruction efforts once a conflict has begun, to avert further disaster and reconstitute a stable environment."

"We will pay for this one way or another," retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, former commander of American forces in the Middle East and one of the report's authors, told the Los Angeles Times. "We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today … or we'll pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives."

As quoted in the Associated Press, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, who presided over the UN meeting in New York April 17, posed the question "What makes wars start?" The answer:

"Fights over water. Changing patterns of rainfall. Fights over food production, land use. There are few greater potential threats to our economies ... but also to peace and security itself."

This is the concern behind a recently introduced bipartisan bill by Sens. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois and Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska. It would require all US intelligence agencies – the CIA, the NSA, the Pentagon, and the FBI – to conduct a comprehensive review of potential security threats related to climate change around the world.

"Many of the most severe effects of global warming are expected in regions where fragile governments are least capable of responding to them," Senator Durbin said in a story from the Inter Press Service news agency in Rome. "Failing to recognize and plan for the geopolitical consequences of global warming would be a serious mistake."

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the newly formed House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, is proposing companion legislation that would fund climate change plans by the Department of Defense. On his website, Mr. Markey called for action based on the retired senior officers' report, saying:

"Global warming's impacts on natural resources and climate systems may create the fiercest battle our world has ever seen. If we don't cut pollution and head off severe global warming at the pass, we could see extreme geopolitical strain over decreased clean water, environmental refugees, and other impacts."

In a speech April 16 to BritishAmerican Business Inc., a trans-Atlantic business organization, British Foreign Secretary Beckett "praised the growing actions of US business executives and state politicians in addressing climate change, including California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who along with British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced plans last year to work toward a possible joint emissions-trading market," reported the Associated Press.

Ms. Beckett also told the business executives that clean technology is going to create a "massive" market opportunities:

"Those who move into that market first – first to design, first to patent, first to sell, first to invest, first to build a brand – have an unparalleled chance to make money."

The Bush administration has taken a less stark view of the security implications of greenhouse-gas emissions than many scientists and military officers.

But in a broader context, the administration has agreed that environmental issues could present national and international security challenges. In its 2006 National Security Strategy (PDF), the administration acknowledged that environmental destruction, including that caused by human activity, "may overwhelm the capacity of local authorities to respond, and may even overtax national militaries, requiring a larger international response."

"These challenges are not traditional national security concerns, such as the conflict of arms or ideologies. But if left unaddressed they can threaten national security."

These concerns are likely to keep growing and continue to be on the agendas at international meetings.

A strongly worded draft communiqué for June's G8 summit in Heiligendamm, Germany, warns that "tackling climate change is an imperative, not a choice," reported the British newspaper The Independent on Sunday. The draft says:

"Global warming caused largely by human activities is accelerating [and it] will seriously damage our common natural environment and severely weaken [the] global economy, with implications for international security."

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