A warmer planet could find itself more often at war.
The Earth’s fast-changing climate has a range of serious thinkers – from military brass to geographers to diplomats – predicting a spate of weather-driven armed conflicts.
Shifting temperatures lead to shifting populations, they say, and that throws together groups with long-standing rivalries and thrusts them into competition for food and water.
“It’s not hard to imagine violent outbursts,” said Julianne Smith, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Smith helped write one of four major studies published in little more than a year by centrist organizations in Europe and the United States warning that climate change threatens to spark wars in a variety of ways.
Each report predicted starkly similar problems: gunfire over land and natural resources as once-bountiful soil turns to desert and coastlines slip below the sea. They also expect violent storms to unsettle weak governments and set up dispirited radicals in revolt.
Security analysts say profound dangers are just years, not decades, away. They already see evidence of societies at odds.
Ethnic groups clash in Sudan’s Darfur region, trading gunfire in a conflict with climatological overtones. The armed thugs who rule Myanmar were exposed, and their regime knocked on its heels, when Cyclone Nargis killed tens of thousands of people in May and the leadership responded so poorly. Likewise, hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 began the fall of President Bush’s approval ratings.
Much more is going on in Darfur than climate change, but crop scarcity has pushed rival ethnic groups onto the same turf.
Even those scientists who are most adamant that the planet is warming in unnatural ways don’t blame single storms on climate change. But even conservative climatologists predict crazier weather that is capable of toppling governments.
“Governments that are already weak will be destabilized much more often and much more easily,” said Jay Gulledge, a senior scientist at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “And if cooperation isn’t enough to stretch resources, then what happens?”
Studies suggest a number of potentially violent scenarios:
•People see their fertile land turn arid and migrate – packing them closer to historical and newfound adversaries.
•Countries already weak or crippled by corruption tip into chaos with even moderate climate change. Crop failures spur violent uprisings and give new energy to ethnic grudges.
•Competition for resources – food, water, oil – grows more tense in times of scarcity.
•Economic collapse in North Africa gives rise to Islamist extremism as blame for climate change focuses on the West. By accident of history and geography, Islamic countries feel the first profound effects of climate change.
•Flooding of coastal areas – particularly in South Asia and the United States – force severe migration and alter regional and even national identities.
•A push to revive the nuclear power industry – as a way to find energy that doesn’t belch more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – masks rogue countries’ efforts to build atomic weapons.
Although still controversial in some circles – Congress has split along partisan lines over whether the military should plan for global warming – the scientific consensus is that the Industrial Revolution increased greenhouse gases that set off an unprecedented rate of climate change.
Growing seasons could lengthen. Frozen seas could thaw to make way for convenient shipping routes. Previously inaccessible spots could be ripe to gush oil.
Meantime, wetlands could dry up. Rivers could disappear. Scientists already think hurricanes, blizzards and droughts are more frequent and severe. Rising sea levels could send tens of millions of people scurrying for higher ground.
“The idea that somehow there are winners in this is wrong,” said Peter Ogden of the Center for American Progress. “Even places that come out ahead” – with a longer growing season, for instance – “will see pressure on them from outside from the losers.”
Last year the Center for Naval Analyses gathered retired generals and admirals to gauge the potential for climate to cause conflict. The former commanders concluded war would be more likely, that the U.S. military needed to plan for the new threats, and that the U.S. had to reduce its carbon emissions.
“We will pay for this one way or another,” wrote retired Marine Gen. Anthony Zinni, the former chief of the U.S. Central Command. “We will pay to reduce greenhouse gas emissions today, and we’ll have to take an economic hit of some kind. Or, we will pay the price later in military terms. And that will involve human lives.”
Developing countries stand most at risk, the studies conclude. Those countries lack the resources to absorb resulting disasters.
Consider Bangladesh. Long riddled by crushing poverty, it lies in a region scientists expect will see more devastating storms and the steady retreat of its coastline. That could send even more Bangladeshi Muslims running to the fence that predominantly Hindu India is building to keep them out.
Likewise, weather patterns that make it harder to grow food in Latin America could increase the rush to cross the U.S. border.