CLIMATE CHANGE AND IMPACT ON GLOBAL STABILITY
Bottom Line Up Front
• Climate models predict that in coming years, rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and decreased equator-versus-pole temperature differences will cause the number of intense storms to increase, as well as the intensity of drought and flood cycles
• The negative effects of climate change are now creating conflicts rather than just exacerbating them
• The world’s militaries will need to prepare for increased and sustained tension and conflict driven by natural disasters and their aftermath
• Global prosperity depends on stability, which is now directly threatened by the widespread effects of climate change.
Several years ago, the common wisdom among policy officials was that climate change would serve as an exacerbating factor in local and regional conflicts. Given the speed and severity of climate change (with increased sustained droughts and increased periods of devastating flooding), the thinking has shifted: Climate change is now believed to actually cause conflicts. Nations and the militaries that serve them will now have to contend with challenges from the elements. Dry, barren earth, rising tides, and other destructive symptoms of climate change will require proactive and coordinated government and security responses—and will often necessitate high levels of international cooperation.
Militaries can’t fight a drought with a missile. They can’t fight a flood with a rifle. But it will likely be the world’s militaries that will have to confront the effects of accelerating climate change—and increased unrest and conflict—since they alone tend to have the logistical capabilities to address such challenges. Indeed, a recent report sponsored by the CNA Corporation’s Military Advisory Board shows the level of potential harm and stress posed by increased droughts in some locations and floods in others (or both in the same areas, as rain becomes less frequent but is more intense for shorter periods of time) is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the US military. And it’s not just the US military that needs to plan for these challenges.
From the Syrian civil war to the sustained violence in Yemen, drought is creating and fueling conflict. In Eastern Europe to China and East Asia, floods are threatening social cohesion. For parts of Russia, Indonesia, and the Southwest US, massive forest fires are
changing the landscape and stressing local environments. To cut through the polemics and noise surrounding climate change as it relates to global geopolitical stability and security, the numbers are instructive.
Currently, 1.2 billion (1/5 of the planet) live in conditions of chronic water scarcity—meaning demand can’t be satisfied. This number will rise to an incredible 2.8 billion by 2025. More than half of the planet’s population lives in cities; by 2030 more than five billion people will be urban dwellers. These cities, from Sana’a to Atlanta, are vulnerable to both water scarcity and flooding, and their destructive economic, environmental, and social consequences.
Globally, droughts are intensifying in areas poorly suited to deal with the stress, including South Sudan, the Sahel region of Africa, and parts of the Middle East. Not coincidentally, these regions are torn with unrest.
It’s accurate to characterize, in part, the conflict in Yemen as a water shortage-fueled insurgency, just as it’s accurate to say drought and rising prices of food sparked Syria’s civil war. Regardless of social cohesion and safety networks, no society can withstand a sustained lack of water. The combined population of Yemen and Syria is 50 million people. With 2.8 billion people facing water scarcity in 11 years, the potential for instability is staggering.
Three quarters of all megacities (population over 10 million) are located on coasts.
Twenty-five percent of the global population currently live within 100 kilometers of a coast, with 50 percent expected to do so by 2040.
If sea levels rise even at the minimum projected pace, hundreds of millions of people, from Guangzhou, China to Alexandria, Egypt will be displaced.
Militaries are called upon to provide flood relief entails massive and costly operations.
Asia alone has widespread potential coastal flooding: Dhaka, Bangladesh, the eighth largest city on earth and one of its poorest, is extremely vulnerable to flooding from overall sea rise and increased cyclonic activity. Manila, Kolkata, Mumbai, Jakarta, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, and Shanghai are also at great risk for flooding. That’s more than 85 million people currently, and that’s just eight cities in Asia.
Add salt water intrusion into drinking water supplies, and globally this issue presents equally dire challenges as does drought.
Fires & Extreme Storms
Recent Northern Hemisphere forest fires were severe enough to affect the melting of Greenland’s ice caps, threatening the world’s coastal cities. The soot from these fires actually coated the ice and resulted in additionally absorbed heat.
Accidental fires in Russia, Australia, and the US, along with intentional fires in Indonesia and the Amazon River basin, have destroyed millions of acres, causing a negative feedback loop of increased drought that threatens more than the immediately effected areas.
Militaries are often asked to augment fire fighting efforts, adding to challenges as budgets are strained.
More intense and sustained heat waves that lead to larger and more intense fires, along with irresponsible logging, are reshaping the great forests of the planet, with significant geopolitical consequences. Massive forest fires render large areas uninhabitable and prone to flash floods that then render the land unsuitable for cultivation. As arable land is reduced, the stress on the remaining productive areas, and the populations it supports, is greatly increased.
Climate change is also expected to potentially increase the frequency of intense storms as rising temperatures increase the levels of water vapor in the atmosphere. The effects of climate destruction on environments, economies, and societies create the ideal conditions to foster violent protests and terrorism. Instability, infertile land, and the cascade effect of food shortages and widespread unemployment are contributing factors to the spread of extremism. As severe climate conditions have inflamed competition for resources in already unstable environments, violent unrest appears to have become increasingly regular.
As the world’s population expands, and droughts, floods, fires, and severe storms are increasingly persistent, more regions will face the threat of instability. Population movements that will result from the deleterious effects of extreme climate events will further threaten stability across continents. People fleeing the destructive power of natural disasters will overwhelm the existing resources of the regions they traverse and re-locate to, and their movements will exacerbate trans-national border issues, potentially igniting ethnic conflict.
The consequences of sustained and intensifying natural disasters will likely pose the greatest threat over the next century to global security, and militaries and governments will be forced to adapt.