Christian Science Monitor Explores Climate Change's Security Risks

Articles Feature Comments by ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko

Dec 26, 2007

Global climate change could further destabilize impoverished, weak states that lack the resources to mitigate or adapt to increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters, rising sea levels, and changing temperatures and precipitation levels, Christian Science Monitor South Asia Bureau Chief Mark Sappenfield reports in his December 6 article Global Warming May Heat Up Conflicts, Too. "Climate change is a threat multiplier," ECSP Director Geoff Dabelko told Sappenfield. "It's not that it creates a whole new set of problems, it's that it will make things that are already a problem worse."

Bangladesh is one country where climate change is arguably already exacerbating pre-existing tensions and contributing to conflict. Bangladesh is densely populated, and most of the country consists of low-lying coastal areas frequently beset by deadly cyclones and likely to be flooded by rising sea levels. Furthermore, the impoverished country is currently embroiled in a political crisis, and Islamic fundamentalist activity is increasing. Flooding of agricultural land has driven many Bangladeshis to migrate to India's northeastern states of Assam and Tripura, where local politicians have helped stir up resentment against the newcomers, who have been met by organized violence.

A companion article highlights six additional places where climate change could aggravate existing tensions and lead to instability:

  • Nepal: Climate change has disrupted the glacial runoff and snowmelt that water Nepal's agriculture. The Nepali government's inability to mitigate these impacts has increased popular support for Maoist rebels.

  • Indonesia: Many developed countries—particularly those in the European Union—are trying to reduce their carbon emissions by using biofuels instead of fossil fuels. This laudable goal, however, has led to unprecedented deforestation in countries like Indonesia, where forests are cleared to make room for palm oil plantations—a primary source of biodiesel. Reportedly, large swaths of indigenous Indonesians' land have been destroyed in a matter of weeks to make way for biofuel feedstocks.

  • Lagos, Nigeria: This coastal city of 17 million people will be threatened by rising sea levels, which could flood large portions of the city. In addition, rural Nigerians whose agricultural livelihoods are destroyed by shifting weather patterns and lower levels of precipitation are likely to migrate to urban areas like Lagos, further stressing the city's ability to provide even basic infrastructure and services for its residents.

  • The United States: 2005's Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that natural disasters can cause catastrophic damage even in the world's most powerful country. Some analysts and policymakers question whether the U.S. military and National Guard are prepared to simultaneously respond to both natural disasters and violent conflicts.

  • The Arctic: The melting of the Arctic ice cap may put previously inaccessible oil and gas reserves within reach. Russia, Canada, the United States, Norway, and Denmark are all angling for control over these resources. The race to gain ownership of these reserves could create tension between friendly nations and further chill already-frosty relationships.

  • East Africa: Climate shifts are turning large areas of fertile East African land into desert, reducing food production and spurring mass migrations of people in search of arable land. Some observers, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, have named this desertification an underlying cause of the current strife in Darfur.

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