The world cannot help but feel compassion for Pakistan, where 1 in 12 people, or more than 14 million in all, have had their lives disrupted by teeming rain and a flood the size of Lebanon. By these estimates alone, this humanitarian crisis eclipses last year’s Haitian earthquake and the 2004 Asian tsunami combined.
Aid relief to Pakistan’s flood victims has so far been slow and inadequate, despite the best efforts of the country’s military and the $55 million in aid promised by the United States (which includes helicopter deliveries). Now this wave of “climate migrants,” combined with their anger at Pakistan’s shaky civilian government and their embrace of aid from Islamic militants, has set up a classic case of how erratic weather can create a security crisis.
In a report earlier this year, the Pentagon warned that new weather patterns “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict, placing a burden to respond on civilian institutions and militaries around the world.” Whether the cause is global warming or not, more weather-driven disruptions are occurring, such as drought-driven wildfires in Russia and a recent drought in Mexico that drove millions to flee to the US.
For Pakistan, which is already the epicenter of the US war on terrorism, the unusual monsoon rains and massive flooding have created the potential for further weakening of the country’s fragile democracy. Both President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani have been seen as inept in their response, while the head of armed forces, Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, has tried to show the strength of the military in leading the country through this crisis. The armed forces have ruled Pakistan for most of its 63 years as a nation.
In addition, militant Muslim groups in the fragile northwest, where the worst flooding has occurred, are distributing their own aid and using the crisis to turn traumatized refugees against the government and the US. Civilians in that largely lawless region are already resentful of the US for its drone attacks that have killed civilians.
All of this has the potential to bolster the Taliban and Al Qaeda in both Pakistan and neighboring Afghanistan, making it harder for the US to pacify these nations which have been launching pads for global terror attacks.
It helps that the Pentagon has lately acknowledged that climate change “will” have geopolitical impact in coming decades. The US military is now in a contest with Islamic militants in Pakistan to deliver aid. This American response will serve as a valuable lesson in preparing for more weather-caused crises that might bring mass migration and political disaster, whether caused by rain, melting glaciers, drought, or any sort of environmental degradation.
The Pentagon’s 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review, a report which is mandated by Congress to update the military’s priorities, has led to various studies of the potential impacts of global warming. And the Central Intelligence Agency recently set up the Center for the Study of Climate Change to do the same.
At the least, the security establishment needs to be better at picking up warning signals about weather-caused crises. One British think thank, the Royal United Services Institute, warned in 2008 that “climate change will have security implications of similar magnitude to the World Wars, but which will last for centuries.”
And last month, a study from the National Academy of Sciences, predicted that as many as 7 million Mexicans may emigrate to the US over the next 70 years as a result of poor weather reducing crop yields. The estimate was based on a mass migration of illegal border-crossers during a 1990s drought.
In coming weeks, the world must better aid Pakistan to recover from this flood, as well as learn how to better respond to erratic weather that creates security problems. Adapting to global warming is no longer only a civilian concern.