Six places in the world where climate change could cause political turmoil

From Nepal to Nigeria, Indonesia to the Arctic Circle, a warmer world poses different problems.

Nepal: Unforeseen flash point

When it came to climate change fueling conflict, "Nepal was not on people's watch list," says Marc Levy, a political scientist at Columbia University. But several experts now say the country's Maoist insurgency has received a substantial boost from global warming.

During the past decade, a change in precipitation patterns and the shrinking of glaciers – events linked to climate change – have put added stress on Nepal's impoverished western hill districts. "There is a lack of irrigation," says Bishnu Upreti of the National Centre for Competence Research in Kathmandu, Nepal. As snowmelt and glacial runoff have been interrupted, he says, "it has caused a lot of tension."

Maoists have used this to their advantage. These areas "were expecting help from the government, but the government was not able to handle the difficulties," Mr. Upreti says. Maoists stoked these frustrations to turn people against the government.

Many highland Nepalis have left, overcrowding lowland districts along the border with India. Twenty years ago, 18 percent of the population lived in these districts, which make up one-fifth of Nepal's area. Today, nearly half of all Nepalis live there.

Says Geoff Dabelko, director of the Woodrow Wilson Institute's Environmental Change and Security Program in Washington: "It's becoming harder for people in the highlands to earn a living."

Indonesia: Unintended effects

The motive is good: To reduce its carbon footprint, the European Union wants 5.75 percent of its nations' vehicles to run on biofuel by 2010. The result in Indonesia, however, has been an unprecedented acceleration of deforestation to create plantations for palm oil – one type of biofuel – to serve Europe.

The impact is twofold. First, the pace of deforestation has made Indonesia the third-biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, behind only the United States and China, in part because of fires lit by some Indonesians to clear land. As a result, an area that covers 0.1 percent of Earth's landmass accounts for 4 percent of global emissions, according to Greenpeace.

Second, Indonesia's indigenous people rely on the forests for their livelihood. As the deforestation accelerates in already volatile regions like Papua and West Kalimantan, tensions are also mounting.

"In the near future there is the possibility of conflict between the community and the companies," says Bustar Maitar of Greenpeace, who has lived among villagers on the island of Sumatra. "The community will want to defend their land."

Conflicts could be an unintended effect of a biofuel program, agrees Geoffrey Dabelko, director of the Environmental Change and Security Project in Washington.

Lagos, Nigeria: Megacity on the brink

Sea-level rise presents a threat to coastal cities worldwide, but the threat is thought to be particularly acute for cities such as Lagos, Nigeria – already stressed to its limits by a population of 17 million and at the center of an unstable region.

Not only might sea-level rise directly affect Lagos, but migration patterns suggest that villagers displaced by the effects of global warming will head to the city seeking jobs. The scenario also suggests that Lagos could be forced to deal with a tide both of water and of refugees from elsewhere along the Gulf of Guinea, along Africa's Atlantic coast.

"Even in a time of relative stability, there is very little civil governance, and very little ability to serve huge numbers of people with basics like electricity, clean water, healthcare, or education," writes US Air Force Gen. Charles Wald (ret.) in "National Security and the Threat of Climate Change," a report by CNA Corp., a research firm in Alexandria, Va. "If you add rising coastal waters and more extreme weather events … it makes the possibility of conflict very real."

Criminals and antigovernment groups already have a substantial presence in the city. The instability created by the effects of climate change could provide them with the ability to work more vigorously, adds Peter Ogden of the Center for American Progress and a coauthor of the study "The Security Implications of Climate Change."

United States: A new global ‘National Guard’?

Hurricane Katrina raised concerns that the US National Guard could be overstretched by its dual roles as both war fighters and as first responders during disasters. Climate change could provide the same test for all of America's armed forces.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has extolled the military's role in helping those affected by the South Asian tsunami of 2005. With climate forecasters suggesting that major weather disasters will likely increase, the United States military is being forced to consider whether it has the resources to continue to play a major role in providing disaster relief.

But it also exposes America to new risks. "What if a terrorist attack had killed servicemen in Indonesia?" asks Peter Ogden, senior policy analyst for national security and international policy at the Center for American Progress, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "To what extent are we prepared for that?"

Moreover, there is the question of whether US forces could attend to both disaster relief and war-fighting.

"If the frequency of natural disasters increases with climate change, future military and political leaders may face hard choices about where and when to engage," says a study by CNA Corp., a research group in Alexandria, Va.

Arctic: Melting ice and the race for oil

In August, a Russian submarine planted a Russian flag on the seabed beneath the North Pole. Perhaps it would have been more appropriate for the Russians to have waved a green flag, because the act symbolically started the race to claim the oil beneath Arctic ice.

As Arctic ice floes melt, suboceanic oil fields never before accessible will become reachable. Countries including Russia, Canada, Norway, and the United States are seeking to extend their authority as far as possible in the seafloor. "We assumed that most of the sovereignty debates had been settled," says Geoffrey Dabelko, who studies climate change and security. "This changes the sovereignty question in a fundamental way."

It could pit traditional allies – such as the US and Canada – against each other. And if large portions of the Arctic become navigable for large portions of the year, a list of other possible threats emerges.

"The US Navy is concerned about the retreat and thinning of the ice canopy and its implications for naval operations. A 2001 Navy study concluded that an ice-free Arctic will require an 'increased scope of naval operations,' " notes a climate change report by CNA Corp., a nonprofit group in Alexandria, Va.

East Africa: Desertification beyond Darfur

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon has famously and controversially linked the conflict in Darfur to global warming. Though experts are wary of connecting Darfur directly to climate change, they say the rapid desertification of East Africa has played a role – and that this trend is only accelerating.

Decreased food production has set off large-scale migrations across the region. In Somalia, this created "the instability upon which the warlords capitalized," says Sherri Goodman, general counsel for CNA Corp., a nonprofit research organization that issued a report on climate change and US national security. In Darfur, food scarcity is thought to have brought herders and agriculturalists into conflict with one another.

These patterns hold true across East Africa – from Kenya to Uganda to Eritrea, with desertification and rising populations creating enormous pressures on shrinking resources. Food production in some parts of the region is expected to decline by as much as 70 percent in the future, according to a recent UN report. It is the speed of this change, accelerated by global warming, that is of greatest concern to many analysts.

"It's not the absolute scarcity of resources – it's always been dry in Africa – but it is the rate of change," says security analyst Geoffrey Dabelko. "When it changes so rapidly, institutions don't have time to respond."

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