May 17 2005
Climate change and global security
By John Ashton and Tom Burke
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Manmade climate change threatens civilisation itself. It can be solved, but only with a vast mobilisation of human knowledge, technology and capital, say John Ashton and Tom Burke of E3G in an article published by Open Democracy.
During the cold war the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists moved the hands of a metaphorical clock towards or away from midnight depending on the state of relations between the superpowers. Today, we face another challenge to our security, potentially as threatening to human well-being as nuclear war but far less dramatic in its imagery. Climate change is a slow burn compared to the light of a thousand suns that Robert Jungk memorably anticipated annihilating civilisation.
But it will be no less devastating even if its slow, sly, shocks take decades rather than days to destroy what it has taken humanity so long to build. Civilisation, the thin film of order that humans cast around the chaos of events, is the product of an unusually benign period in our planet’s climate. It is now clear beyond reasonable doubt that burning coal, oil and gas as carelessly as we do currently will bring this benign period to an end.
There will be no cataclysmic moment to shape and focus our understanding of the rough beast slouching towards us. The day we pass irreversibly from a stable to an unstable climate will go unremarked. Indeed, it may already have passed. But be under no illusions. The climate change that is already melting glaciers and the tundra, rising sea levels, increasing weather extremes and changing the distribution of crops, species and disease vectors, will have economic, social and political consequences that threaten civilisation.
In our global society the consequences of each avalanche, flood, drought, forest fire, hurricane, landslide or epidemic are immediately visible. The stresses of an unstable climate will make each of these diverse kinds of harm more frequent and more severe. They will, over time, displace millions of people, dislocate agriculture, and fuel competing interests within and between nations over access to water, productive land and other resources. They will inhibit investment and unsettle markets. They will spread diseases and disrupt communications. They will create the conditions in which criminals and terrorists thrive and consumers and citizens are demoralised.
An unstable climate will, as the Pentagon pointed out in a widely reported study published in 2003, threaten national security in many parts of the world. Food scarcity and water shortage already fuel conflict both between and within states. Climate change will intensify these conflicts. Massive migrations, particularly in the arid or semi-arid areas in which more than a third of the world’s people live, will turn fragile states into failed states and increase the pressures on regional neighbours – a dynamic that is already apparent in Africa.