TWQ: The Security Implications of Climate Change - Winter 2008
January 1, 2008
In terms of the effects of climate change, the future is becoming increasingly clear. The expected greenhouse gas emissions scenario developed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) portends a world in which people and nations will be threatened by massive food and water shortages, devastating natural disasters, and deadly disease outbreaks. No foreseeable political or technological solution will enable us to avert many of these climatic impacts even if, for instance, the United States were in the near future to enter into an international carbon cap-and-trade system. Meanwhile, a technological breakthrough that would lead to a decisive, near-term reduction in the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere remains far away.
In addition, this scenario assumes that climate change does not trigger any significant positive feedback loops (e.g., the release of CO2 and methane from thawing permafrost). Such feedback loops would multiply and magnify the impacts of climate change, creating an even more hostile environment than the one projected here. Thus, it is not alarmist to say that this scenario may be the best we can hope for over roughly the next 30 years. It is certainly the least we ought to prepare for.
That said, science only tells part of the story. The geopolitical consequences of climate change are determined by local political, social, and economic factors as much as by the magnitude of the climatic shift itself. As a rule, wealthier countries and individuals will be better able to adapt to the impacts of climate change, whereas the disadvantaged will suffer the most. An increase in rainfall, for example, can be a blessing for a country that has the ability to capture, store, and distribute the additional water. It is a deadly source of soil erosion for a country that does not have adequate land management practices or infrastructure.
Consequently, even though the IPCC projects that temperature increases at higher latitudes will be approximately twice the global average, it will be the developing nations in the earth's low latitudinal bands, as well as sub-Saharan African countries, that will be most adversely affected by climate change. In the developing world, even a relatively small climatic shift can trigger or exacerbate food shortages, water scarcity, destructive weather events, the spread of disease, human migration, and natural resource competition. 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.
Once underway, this chain reaction becomes increasingly difficult to stop. It is therefore critical that policymakers do all they can to prevent the domino of the first major climate change consequence, whether it be food scarcity or the outbreak of disease, from toppling. The most threatening first dominos, where they are situated, and their cascading geopolitical implications are identified in this essay.