Although Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, has drawn renewed attention to the global warming issue, commentators on worldwide climate change have not sufficiently addressed its potential international security implications. Thus far, most of the debate has focused on whether climate change is occurring, whether human or natural causes are primarily responsible, how it will affect people’s health and lifestyles, and what we should do about the problem. Whatever the ultimate magnitude and cause of global climate change, prudent contingency planning behooves us to consider how it could affect international conflict and security alignments.
Climate change could easily exacerbate existing conflicts within countries or between neighboring states. Declining agricultural yields or rising sea levels could engender major movements of people, both within and across national frontiers. Such massive population resettlement often causes friction between the existing residents and the newcomers, especially over scarce assets like land and water. Mass migrations due to depleted resources could also worsen border disputes over natural resources.
In all likelihood, certain political, social, and economic conditions such as weak political institutions, tense ethnic group relations, and limited national resource endowments would heighten the intensity of such conflicts. For example, if established political authorities prove unable to manage climate-induced droughts, famines, and population flows, some groups might turn to extralegal movements to secure their basic needs. Alternately, climate-induced crises could lead affected peoples to push for political and economic reforms if they believe that democratic and free market institutions more effectively manage environmental challenges.
The divergent regional effects of climate change (e.g., some areas of the world suffering more than others) could over the long term affect the evolving global distribution of power, with unpredictable consequences for international security. For example, cold-climate countries such as Russia might benefit most from a rise in average global temperatures since their environments would become more temperate. States anticipating declines in their relative power might attempt, as Japan did in the 1940s, to seize foreign resources preemptively to stabilize their competitive positions.
Many of the policies developed by individual national governments to deal with rising temperatures (such as carbon-emissions trading) might not work at the global or regional levels due to the weaker international enforcement measures available to induce sovereign states to adopt or adhere to such arrangements. For this reason, multilateral institutions, nongovernmental organizations, and coalitions of countries have greater opportunities to promote innovative and tailored climate change solutions.
Responding to climate change could lead to tensions between countries that cut-across traditional security alignments. For example, the EU and the United States differ regarding several related issues, including how to improve energy efficiency and expand the use of renewable resources. Although most traditional U.S. security allies strongly support the Kyoto Treaty, the Bush administration has pursued separate, perhaps competing initiatives with other governments. The recently launched Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate involves Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea, and the United States working outside the Kyoto framework to stimulate private-public partnerships to curb global warming. These countries account for about half of the world’s population and more than half of the world’s GDP, energy use, and greenhouse gas emissions.
The effects of such novel international alignments driven by environmental factors are unpredictable. On the one hand, efforts to form environmental “coalitions of the willing,” or even undertake unilateral actions to solve external climate threats, could disrupt existing security ties and alignments formed on the basis of other issues. On the other hand, the mutual threat of climate change could lead countries to cooperate more with their neighbors. Depending on its scope, regional cooperation could either extend globally or produce regional climate blocs reminiscent of the regional military and economic blocs of the 20th century.
Managing the challenge of climate change could enhance U.S. global leadership since only the United States has the military logistical capacity to organize large-scale international responses to major global disasters. Much of the world applauded the United States last year after the American military provided essential humanitarian relief capabilities following the Asian tsunami. In contrast, Chinese government representatives were visibly defensive when asked about their own miserly financial assistance to the disaster regions. On the other hand, worsening climate change could alienate the United States from other countries if foreign nations saw Americans as refusing to bear their share of the costs of an effective international response.
The Asian tsunami experience also highlights the need to enhance information exchange and other collaboration between climate scientists and military planners. At a minimum, the U.S. and foreign militaries should consider the implications of global climate change for their roles and missions. Given NATO’s expanding role in managing security problems in Africa, Eurasia, and the Middle East, its member governments need to develop contingency plans for managing climate-induced humanitarian crises. Besides enhancing the world’s capacity to respond to these emergencies, such collaboration could help sustain transatlantic cooperation despite NATO governments’ differences over the issue.
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Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.