Conflict 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