Global warming is increasingly studied as a factor in high profile government-sponsored research on security risks. Two recent studies, one of which was done on behalf of the German government, reveal that climate change-related damage or environmental issues might well serve as future triggers for war and conflict.
Damage to the global ecosystem results in increased competition for natural resources. We’ve already seen what kind of behavior that brings about, but there’s plenty more of it to come if we are to take security risk analysts seriously.
A report in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists authored by Jürgen Scheffran, a research scientist in the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security concludes that
…the impact of climate change on human and global security could extend far beyond the limited scope the world has seen thus far.”
Scheffran, who´s also attached to the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research at the University of Illinois, echoes last year’s report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), yet his research underscores some practical issues that come closer to home; our food and our water. These are our main security issues, he says.
The number of world regions vulnerable to drought will rise, according to Scheffran. At the same time, water levels in glaciers are set to recede. These two resources are of vital importance for the sustenance of human life and it’s increasingly evident that they are sensitive to changing climatic conditions. Throw in a few natural disasters and the cascading effects are going to be lethal.
This is not news. Yet it is new in a security context:
Environmental changes caused by global warming will not only affect human living conditions but may also generate larger societal effects, by threatening the infrastructures of society or by inducing social responses that aggravate the problem,” Scheffran says.
His recommendations to combat the consequences of global warming? Scheffran comes up with a multiple-strategy, prioritized approach. First and foremost governments must incorporate measures for addressing climate change. Scheffran also proposes a cooperative, international approach such as embodied in the Bali 2007 climate negotiations which resulted in a draft climate change roadmap.
Will this be enough to reduce the risks of future armed conflict? Yes and no, says Scheffran. He believes that although climate change bears a significant conflict potential, it can also transform the international system toward more cooperation if it is seen as a common threat that requires joint action. It all boils down to whether governments will begin to understand that protecting the climate is in the best interest of the economy.
Scheffran points out that the action frame is narrow, stressing that historic records show how dependent human survival is on climatic conditions such as a stable average temperature and precipitation. The most poignant example here is the little ice age which occurred in the northern hemisphere a few hundred years back – an average drop in temperature of less than a degree Celsius clearly demarcated make/break conditions which translated in population decline.
Another recent research study underscores this. Published by the German Advisory Council on Global Change, and entitled “Climate Change as a Security Risk”, the research points out the consequences for food security at a temperature increase of just 2 °C (relative to the 1990 baseline).
With global warming of 2–4 °C, a drop in agricultural productivity is anticipated worldwide. This trend will be substantially reinforced by desertification, soil salinization or water scarcity. In South Asia and North Africa, for example, the areas suitable for agriculture are already largely exploited. This may well trigger regional food crises and further undermine the economic performance of weak and unstable states, thereby encouraging or exacerbating destabilization, the collapse of social systems, and violent conflicts,” according to the think tank.
The researchers identified four trends that imply serious future risks. Aside from food insecurity, they include degradation of freshwater resources, natural disasters and environmental migration. The think tank, which serves as an advisory body to the German government, says that climate-induced inter-state wars are unlikely to occur, but it warns that the environment “could well trigger national and international distributional conflicts”.
Other climate change risks include worsening state failure, the erosion of social order and rising violence.
These dynamics threaten to overstretch the established global governance system, thus jeopardizing international stability and security”, according to the report.