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Climate Change and Geopolitics: What’s Really at Stake

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June 24, 2016

This post was originally published on February 9, 2016 in The Huffington Post blog.

By most accounts, December’s international climate conference in Paris was an unexpected and landmark success. Virtually every nation on earth now understands what’s at stake and all have reached common understanding about what needs to be done to slow the advance of unmitigated planetary warming.

Still, in spite of overwhelming scientific evidence that dangerous levels of planetary warming and human-induced climate change are real, hard-core resistance to well-established science remains a challenge. Particularly disconcerting is the fact that the ranks of the “climate deniers” include too many influential political and policy leaders.

That is not to say that every question about the impact of climate change is scientifically settled. For instance, how does climate change affect the intensity or frequency of coastal storms? And what is the relationship between climate change and weather patterns? Our sense is that science will soon clarify the storm question, though proving the impact on weather is considerably more difficult. Regardless of the uncertainty in answering these questions, there is a consensus that the changing climate leads can result in unprecedented extreme weather and climate events .

But while these are important issues, it is critical – and timely – to understand how planetary warming with massive sea level rise, and even the possibility of exacerbated periods of drought brought on by climate change, will affect human populations.

The rise of terrorism and civil unrest in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast Asia is attributed to a toxic brew of historical conflicts, cultural and religious tensions and a myriad of complex factors are important drivers of deadly conflict within and across many borders. And then, in 2011, the simultaneous uprisings for political change throughout the Middle East, referred to as the Arab Spring, was thought to be provoked, at least in part, by large-scale population movements due to drought and other climate related conditions. Nations need arable land and clean water to sustain peaceful growth, long-term stability and domestic security.

Forced migration, food insecurity and failure of government to provide for basic population needs make populations far more susceptible to extremism, political uprising and wide-scale destabilization.

Two reports issued by the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) released in 2007 and in 2014 focused on the national security implications of climate change. The CNA’s military advisory board, consisting of numerous military leaders with decades of experience as risk managers and geopolitical security experts warned that “climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States”.

The second report expressed a particular concern about the continued lack of sufficient actions by the United States and the international community to adapt to projected climate change despite the growing body of scientific evidence regarding its likely causes and consequences.

It is not unreasonable to suggest that the chain of events from climate change to geopolitical consequences has a bearing on the rising prevalence of global terrorism. Syria’s recent history of extreme civil unrest is a good example of the dynamics involved.

Nearly five years ago when the first signs of civil unrest manifest in Syria, it was clear that drought was affecting habitability and arability of large swaths of the country. From 2005 to 2010, Syria experienced its most severe drought on instrumental record. Science-based climate models have convincingly implicated anthropogenic forces as contributing to the increased extent and severity of droughts in the region . And droughts of this scale inevitably lead to forced population migration and national anxieties about economic and social stability. Such anxieties, in turn, create a fertile breeding ground for civil unrest internally, as well as attracting external forces intent on disruption.

The current state of civil unrest and the refugee crisis manifesting in the Middle East and elsewhere should serve as an early warning of what the future may hold. Global average temperature on Earth has increased by roughly 1.53°F from 1880 to 2012 but is projected to increase by at least 2.7°F by 2100 for all scenarios except one representing the most extreme mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions . And increasing temperatures melt glaciers and polar ice caps resulting in sea level rise, accompanied by massive loss of habitable coastal land. That’s just science.

The fact is that failing to consider the potential links between climate change and geopolitics and design appropriate adaptation strategies may result in even more instability, more unrest and a greater possibility of crisis-driven population movement and violent extremism.

That said, it is not too late to change the course or at least the velocity of climate change – if the lessons from science and the hopeful possibilities raised in Paris make the control of climate change one of the world’s highest priorities. It can be done.