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U.S., U.K. military leaders address climate change’s role as a global threat multiplier

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Climate change, militaryConflict brought on by droughts, famine and unwelcome migration are as old as history itself. Yet a growing number of military analysts think that climate change will exacerbate these problems worldwide and are encouraging countries to prepare to maintain order even as shrinking resources make their citizens more desperate.

Climate change manifests itself in a number of ways, many of which put people at odds with one another as they face a potential scarcity of food and potable water. Physical changes, whether warmer temperatures at the poles melting the ice or rising sea temperatures affecting fish migrations and survival, lead to changes in the availability of resources, says Rear Admiral Neil Morisetti, the U.K.’s climate and energy security envoy and a member of the Royal Navy since 1976. "We see climate change as a threat multiplier, as a catalyst for conflict," he tells Scientific American. "We’re trying to understand this threat, like any other threat that we look at. It’s about trying to reduce risk of the threat of conflict."

A 2007 report by the Center for Naval Analyses’ (CNA) Military Advisory Board determined that "climate change, national security, and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges." The report indicated that America’s energy posture "constitutes a serious and urgent threat to our national security, militarily, diplomatically and economically; further, this threat, this vulnerability, can be used by those who wish to do us harm," Dennis McGinn, retired vice admiral of the U.S. Navy, said last week at a forum on this subject hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

"From a military or national security expertise perspective we questioned ourselves about what we are doing talking about climate science," McGinn said. Still, rather than wait for a consensus on the causes of climate change or on its ultimate outcome, the military has been searching for ways to arrest problems before they surface, he added.

"This is not an attempt by the military to militarize climate change," says Morisetti, who participated in last week’s forum alongside McGinn. "I think we’ve got enough on our plate (both the U.K. and the U.S.) at this time."

Last year, India installed a high-tech fence to along its border with Bangladesh to help deter an influx of illegal immigrants displaced by rising sea levels flooding their low-lying homeland. Greenwire reported in March 2009 that military analysts were warning that "as warming temperatures deplete water supplies and alter land use, military analysts warn, already-vulnerable communities in Asia and Africa could descend into conflicts and even wars as more people clamor for increasingly scarce resources." Although this perspective is far from unanimous, climate change economist Lord Nicholas Stern has cautioned that failing to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could bring "an extended world war."

Other researchers have likewise weighed in on this issue. University of California, Berkeley, agricultural economist Marshall Burke and his colleagues in November analyzed the history of conflict in sub-Saharan Africa between 1980 and 2002, finding that "civil wars were much more likely to happen in warmer-than-average years, with one degree Celsius warmer temperatures in a given year associated with a 50 percent higher likelihood of conflict in that year."

The military’s role in helping people cope with climate change may not necessarily be conflict resolution but also preventing conflict by helping countries grow and protect their resources. To do this, the military must also reconcile its own contribution to climate change, Morisetti says, acknowledging that "in the military, we burn a lot of gas." This might be improved by a move to biofuels or an increase in computer-based (rather than field-based) training, although these options will have to be explored further to determine their feasibility, he adds.

Image © Anthony Ladd

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  1. 1. scientific earthling 9:02 pm 07/1/2010

    What India did to the people of Bangladesh will seem extremely inhumane by most of us. However remember Bangladesh’s representative at the Copenhagen climate summit wanted the rest of the world to take over 25 million of its population to lower its 120+ persons per square kilometre. No offer to lower population growth rates. They want to keep breeding (religion does not permit birth-control) but want others to provide them more space to do so.

    The advanced western block nations accept refugees because of the guilt they feel from having turned back thousands only to have them executed by the Nazis. We are at a different place now, our morals and attitudes are being swamped by medieval morals and attitudes. Religion is the mantra of these people to do as they please and not compromise – never ever.

    We too must make rational decisions and like India build fences. Time to look at the refugee programs too, remember overpopulation creates minority groups within previously homogeneous populations.

    Yes I accept our food aid programs are largely responsible for the population surge, it was done out of kindness (perhaps a bit of greed to help farmers offload surpluses), but was irresponsible because it did not educate.

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  2. 2. jtdwyer 12:22 am 07/2/2010

    Since 1950 global population soared from about 2.5 Billion to nearly 7 Billion today. A greater percentage of the world population now lives in cities which have occupied much of the world’s best croplands. Other arable lands have been damaged by salination resulting from irrigation and ground water contamination. Over-harvesting sea fish has diminished species to non-sustainable levels. As a result, our ability to nourish even the current population may be diminished; much less a continually increasing population.

    Peoples who insist on unsustainable reproduction levels cannot be supported under any circumstances.

    Military support will be necessary to maintain order, as suffering people become desperate adversaries. However, keep in mind that in past times of desperation great armies fed themselves by plundering neighboring lands. Some severe methods of governance must also apply to the military.

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  3. 3. Squish 6:07 pm 07/2/2010

    For all of you interested in improving your long-term investment portfolios: invest in military and oil.

    The article says it right here. Our increasing populations and diminishing resources will make conflict unavoidable, providing a windfall for munitions development and manufacturing. (Some Green Energy may be subsidized due to governments capitulating to the media-controlled masses, but ultimately oil must remain dominant in these likely future outcomes). Oil is simply irreplaceable in most ground combat military maneuvers and the demand for it will increase.

    If you take your investments seriously, and are responsible with your capital, munitions and oil should be a definite consideration. And you may be doing the right thing: most industrial studies point to immediate negative population growth trends in areas where significant amounts of munitions are acquired.

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  4. 4. jtdwyer 7:10 pm 07/2/2010

    Squish – That is one way to assert control over critical resources, but be prepared to suffer and die.

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  5. 5. air.breathing.human 10:10 pm 07/2/2010

    Oil production produces roughly 4 bbls of water for each barrel of oil. At a recent petroleum chemistry conference, a supplier of treatment chemicals reiterated this. "We produce water with oil as a byproduct." Although the technology exists to clean this water to drinking quality standards, treatment is minimized to that required for disposal. Most water from wells on the water, is cleaned to a sheen standard and dumped overboard. Vast quantities of oil is produced in desolate locations. Price clean drinking water above oil, and it will be the preferential product.

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  6. 6. jtdwyer 2:09 am 07/3/2010

    air.breathing.human – If what you say is correct then the water extracted need only be priced to cover its incremental purifying an handling costs to make a profit. The price of oil is irrelevant, except in justifying its own extraction costs.

    If this is correct then oil companies are disposing of a limited resource that has at least some current value to their stockholders – not a good business practice…

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  7. 7. ecoChoices 5:24 pm 07/9/2010

    So what are the "greats" suggesting now? Even more control? That’s their real point, don’t you get it? They’d use whatever is "in" to brainwash the population and get them convinced that living in a prison under their control is the solution to any problem!
    Didn’t you guys see V for Vendetta yet? That’s the type of society they are suggesting, get it already!

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