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Global warming may heat up conflicts, too

Surviving in a warmer world, Part 6: The worst effects of climate change may destabilize regions that were already shaky. The prime example: Bangladesh.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 2007

Dhubri, India

To this day, nearly a quarter-century after he left, Loknath Das is afraid to return to the village where he was born.

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The reason he gives is one heard throughout this corner of India, where Himalayan peaks give way to fertile flood plains: Immigrants from Bangladesh are taking over.

It is a visceral fear in India's Northeast, where people say they feel under siege – their culture, politics, and security threatened by a tide of Bangladeshis who are here illegally. "On the surface there is peace," says Mr. Das, who says he was forced out of his village through intimidation and murders by immigrants. "But this migration is a tragedy for us."

For now, there is relative calm. But security analysts worry that unrest could flare up again because of a new threat: global warming. As negotiators gather in Bali, Indonesia, this week to begin work on an agreement to fight climate change worldwide, concern is mounting that altered weather patterns will stoke conflict in various parts of the globe.

And this area of South Asia sits atop most experts' watch lists.

Bangladesh is not only one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change, it is also chronically unstable. It is in the midst of a political crisis and showing signs of nascent Islamist fundamentalism. The effects of global warming could amplify the forces of instability, experts say.

That remains an extreme view. The clearest threat, most agree, is a mass migration that sparks renewed conflict in the Indian Northeast – an independent­-minded area of mountains and jungles fiercely proud of its distinct heritage and already fretted by a dozen insurgencies.

"It is the No. 1 conflict zone for climate change," says Peter Schwartz, chairman of the Monitor Group, a research firm in San Francisco that recently released a study on the security risks presented by climate change.

That field of study is relatively new, but analysts are beginning to lay the map of forecasted climate change over the map of political weakness to see where changes in weather could lead to volatility. No one argues that climate change alone will lead to war. But analysts suggest that it could be a pivotal factor that tips vulnerable regions toward conflicts.

"Climate change is a threat multiplier," says Geoff Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Institute in Washington. "It's not that it creates a whole new set of problems, it's that it will make things that are already a problem worse."

For that reason, few expect climate change to throw Europe or North America into chaos. Both have the political stability and economic resources to cope. Areas that lack these advantages – such as sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and South Asia – are most at risk, experts say.

History suggests that climate can help breed political instability. One recent study charted climate changes, wars, and several other variables back to the 1400s. It found that significantly cooler periods were characterized by large-scale crop loss, starvation, and conflict.

Stronger storms predicted

"There was certainly a discernible effect," says Peter Brecke, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta and coauthor of the study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Earth today is warming, not cooling. But "the model is such that if you apply it with warmer climate, you should see similar effects," Professor Brecke says.

The scenario for Bangladesh requires little imagination:

•It is a frequent target of severe weath­­er. During the worst floods, one-third of the country can be submerged. Last month's cyclone Sidr was an example of the kind of storms many scientists say will become more frequent in the future. Aid groups say the death toll in Bangladesh from Sidr could reach 10,000.

•Most of Bangladesh is flat and coast­­al, meaning that a sea-level rise of only three feet could consume 10 percent of the country, experts say.

•Bangladesh is the delta for several major river systems. They are fed by runoff from the Himalayan Mountains and provide the country with its fresh water. As Himalayan glaciers warm and melt, the rivers are expected to flood more in the short term. Later, as the glaciers disappear, they will become drier, which could lead to fresh water shortages.