The Tibetan Plateau is enormous — four times the size of Texas. Both the Yellow and Yangtze rivers issue from it, carrying the glacial runoff from the Himalayas to China. This runoff is a primary source of fresh water for China's 1 billion citizens, 800 million of whom live in poverty.
Experts believe that China's continued economic growth depends on its access to the water that traverses the Tibetan Plateau, a view clearly shared by China's rulers. This helps explain why China holds Tibet in an iron grip. So long as its water is one of China's most precious resources, Tibet has little hope of attaining independence.
International power — who holds it, and in what measure — is directly related to the character and disposition of the natural world: where the oil is, where the water is, what the soil's like, what the weather's like, who controls the trading routes. Natural resources are limited, and their allocation has always been the foremost cause of human conflict. China isn't afraid of the Dalai Lama - it's afraid of drought.
And so it's hardly surprising that there is growing concern in Washington about the consequences of climate change on international peace and stability. Although specific projections vary, scientists agree that over the course of the 21st century, climate change will reconfigure the biosphere, with destabilizing consequences for societies, governments and the global economy.
"Global warming has been seen as an environmental issue for a long time," said Sharon Burke, the vice president of the Center for New American Security, a Washington think tank. "But now that there's a broad public acceptance that climate change is a serious problem. It's a natural evolution to start talking about what it means for world stability, and it's clear that it's going to have very serious national security implications."
In 2005, British Prime Minister Tony Blair garnered considerable attention when he declared that climate change is, "probably long term, the single most important issue we face as a global community." He warned that "there will be no genuine security if the planet is ravaged by climate change." Since then, government and diplomatic leaders from India to NATO have acknowledged, in public statements and in security planning, the potential consequences climate change holds for international stability.
Back in the USA
Officials in the Obama administration, including the president himself, now regularly invoke the danger climate change poses to national security when they discuss the need to reduce fossil fuel use.
But perhaps the clearest evidence that the U.S. government is taking climate change seriously as a security threat will come in February, when the Pentagon issues its Quadrennial Defense Review to Congress. The review is considered the most important long-term national security strategy document the military produces, and a significant portion of the upcoming edition will reportedly be devoted to climate change.
Speculation about what the greenhouse effect will mean for international stability has evolved considerably in the last few years. A recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations identified 2007 as the year when debate about climate change "broadened beyond economics" to include national security considerations. But where two years ago most of the discussion seemed to emanate from universities and security-oriented think tanks, today more and more of it is coming from within the government itself, including the military.
In early August, the Strategic Studies Institute of the Army War College issued a particularly notable report, not so much because of what it said - its chief points have been covered elsewhere - as the way in which it was said. The military is not normally associated with visions of environmental apocalypse, so it's remarkable to find, in the paper's introduction, not only a warning that climate change has "profound security implications" for the United States, but this simple declarative sentence: "The life-sustaining capacity of our planet may be in jeopardy."
As dramatic as that sounds, it conforms to the latest climate science, which has been deeply unpleasant. At the current rate of growth of carbon emissions, according to the leading climate laboratories of the American and British governments, the world is on track to warm by an average of 11 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100.
The last time the world was 11 degrees warmer was 55 million years ago; at the time, tropical vegetation grew above the Arctic Circle, and, according to paleoclimatologist Peter Ward, in his book Under a Green Sky, continental centers were vast dust-blown deserts.
But defense experts aren't only worried about environmental cataclysm. Scientists agree that even if carbon emissions are sharply reduced in the near future a significant amount of global warming is now inevitable. The consequences of even a 4-degree warming will be unpredictable and destabilizing, and because climate change spans the entire globe, it poses a uniquely complex menace.
"Unlike most conventional security threats that involve a single entity acting in specific ways and points in time, climate change has the potential to result in multiple chronic conditions, occurring globally within the same time frame," noted a 2007 report by a think tank funded by the U.S. Navy.
Scientists and policymakers have mapped out a series of projections for a 3.6-degree F warming over the course of the century, which is now generally considered the "best-case" scenario. They make for distressing reading.
Under a 3.6 F scenario, parts of the world vulnerable to Islamic extremism are likely to see worsening socioeconomic conditions because of climate change. These include increasing drought in the Middle East and North Africa, reductions in glacial freshwater in Bangladesh and India, coastal storm surges and flooding in Indonesia, and more severe storms and temperature fluctuations in the mountains of Afghanistan and Southwest Pakistan.
China and Russia both are expected to experience severe stress on the subsistence farmers who make up substantial portions of their respective populations. Africa may witness an explosion in the number of failed and failing states, and the revival of long-simmering civil strife. Latin America, North America and Europe will all be subject to increasing competition for energy resources.
All of these scenarios carry with them the potential for massive refugee crises, historically one of the most common causes of war. "One of the biggest problems associated with climate change is the potential for mass migrations," said Oran Young, a professor of International Governance and Environmental Institutions at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
"The projections are that we could be talking about at least tens of millions of people. When you have countries that are relatively poor and/or have political systems that are relatively weak, these kinds of things can be a very threatening development. Governments of various states like Pakistan and Bangladesh may collapse. People now talk about the concept of 'climate chaos'" — energy wars, mass migrations, failed states and political radicalization.
Requiem for Bangladesh
Evidence that governments around the world are beginning to prepare for climate-generated security instability is increasingly plain to see. An especially prominent example concerns Bangladesh. One of the most densely populated nations in the world, Bangladesh is also one of the most low-lying, with an average elevation of less than 30 feet. Eighty percent of the country sits in the Gangetic Plain - a massive, flood-prone delta that just barely rises above sea level.
This puts it at severe risk in a warming world. "The population of Bangladesh - which stands at 142 million today — is anticipated to increase by approximately 100 million people during the next few decades, even as the impact of climate change will steadily render the low-lying regions of the country uninhabitable," found a 2007 report on climate change and international stability jointly published by the Center for New American Security and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
For much of the last decade, the report went on to note, India has been building a giant wall along its 2,500-mile border with Bangladesh. Snaking through jungles, rivers and villages along five different Bangladeshi states, the barrier is meant to prevent Bangladeshis from crossing into India. The report points to the wall as evidence that India believes there will be climate-related mass migration and that action now is necessary.
While members of the military and intelligence communities in Washington are beginning to consider adaptation strategies for climate change, many experts believe that the most effective thing they can do is push for broad policy responses to the problem.
"The military has limited tools for addressing climate change," said Geoffrey Dabelko, director of Environmental Change and Security Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C. "One of the most important things they can do is break through the political logjam by waking up senators: Here's somebody who's not a tree-hugger, and they're telling me they don't have the tools to deal with it, but those of us who in the civilian world do."
Burke echoed Dabelko, noting that the unpredictable nature of climate change makes it difficult for the Pentagon to be able to plan. "The military likes to have 20-year time lines, where they think they know what's going to happen. But it's very hard to plan for something that could happen tomorrow or could happen 10 years from now, especially when you don't know how severe it'll be."
While polls generally show that a majority of Americans see climate change as a pressing concern, movement in Washington toward policies that would limit and then reduce fossil fuel emissions — although quickened by the Obama administration — proceeds slowly. In the fall, Congress is expected to vote on a carbon-trading bill that will, if passed, represent a major step forward in the creation of a clean economy, both in the U.S. and abroad.
But many experts believe change isn't occurring quickly and strongly enough, and that the opportunity to avert the worst consequences of climate change is closing. "There's a sense [in the scientific community] that there's a mounting disconnect between the magnitude and the speed in the development of the problem, and the nature and slowness of the response process," said Young
If the world has not yet progressed past a climate "tipping point," it may not be much longer until it does-five to 10 years are commonly cited figures. Young and others hope that the increasing linkage between climate change and national security coming out of Washington will help drive political will toward major policy movement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
"At the end of the day, we have to do the hardest thing of all, which is to invest in prevention and to do more to cut emissions," said Burke. "A certain amount of climate change is going to happen now no matter what, but the worst-case scenario — we just can't afford that."
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