Where climate change meets national security

EU report adds urgency to old warnings, NATO to take up discussion next.

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    A peacekeeper with the United Nations-African Union Mission in Darfur stands guard. Decades of drought helped trigger Darfur's violence as rival groups fought over scarce water and arable land.
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Last year, a group of retired American military officers warned that, left unchecked, climate change could lead to international instability.

The problems could include refugees driven by drought, loss of food supplies, and rising sea levels: They might include violent conflicts, these generals and admirals said. The warning was an early sign from senior military leaders that climate change could have a serious national-security dimension.

In a report to be presented at a summit of the 27-nation European Union in Brussels on Thursday, two top EU officials will add urgency. The essence of their report: "Climate change is a threat multiplier which exacerbates existing trends, tensions, and instability," says a story in Britain's The Guardian newspaper. It continues:

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"The main message is that the immediate and devastating effects of global warming will be felt far away from Europe, with the poor suffering disproportionately in south Asia, the Middle East, central Asia, Africa, and Latin America, but that Europe will ultimately bear the consequences. This could be in the form of mass migration, destabilisation … radicalisation of politics and populations, north-south conflict because of the perceived injustice of the causes and effects of global warming, famines caused by arable land loss, wars over water, energy, and other natural resources."

Water supplies in the Middle East could be a major issue if temperatures were to continue increasing. The Financial Times quotes the EU paper:

"Existing tensions over access to water are almost certain to intensify in the region, leading to further political instability with detrimental implications for Europe's energy security and other interests. Water supply in Israel might fall by 60 per cent over this century...."

It's not just poorer countries that could generate conflict, say the report's authors, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

Nations are already vying for energy resources at the poles, Reuters reports:

" 'The resulting new strategic interests are illustrated by the recent planting of the Russian flag under the North Pole,' [the authors said]. A Russian scientific expedition planted a flag on the ocean floor last summer, staking a symbolic claim to the resource-rich region…. It suggested the [EU] develop a specific Arctic policy 'based on the evolving geo-strategy of the Arctic region, taking into account ... access to resources and the opening of new trade routes,' [the report said]. Rules of international law such as the Law of the Sea might have to be strengthened to cope with new challenges, it said."

The EU report is echoed by think tank studies.

Writing in the Winter 2007-'08 issue of The Wilson Quarterly, John Podesta and Peter Ogden of the Center for American Progress in Washington write that "these crises are all the more dangerous because they are interwoven and self-perpetuating: Water shortages can lead to food shortages, which can lead to conflict over remaining resources, which can drive human migration, which can create new food shortages in new regions."

While most wealthy nations will not experience internal migration due to global warming, Messrs. Podesta and Ogden continue, "… the United States will experience border stress due to the se­vere effects of climate change in parts of Mexico and the Caribbean."

They add:

"Northern Mexico will be subject to severe water shortages, which will drive immigration into the United States in spite of the increasingly treacherous border terrain. Likewise, the damage caused by storms and rising sea levels in the coastal areas of the Caribbean islands, where 60 percent of the … population lives, will increase the flow of immigrants from the region and generate politi­cal tension."

A group of experts, including former Central Intelligence Agency director R. James Woolsey, concluded in a paper for The Center for a New American Security that "we are already living in an age of consequences when it comes to climate change and its impact on national security, both broadly and narrowly defined." Rising sea levels and the disappearance of low-lying coastal lands "could conceivably lead to massive migrations – potentially involving hundreds of millions of people," the authors write.

They continue:

"…[T]he number of people forced to move in the coming decades could dwarf previous historical migrations…. The possibility of such a significant portion of humanity on the move, forced to relocate, poses an enormous challenge even if played out over the course of decades."

A summit of NATO leaders in Bucharest, Hungary, next month will discuss the problem for the first time, The Guardian reported.

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