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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 / April 19, 2007

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.

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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:

"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.