The two worst direct impacts to humans from our unsustainable use of energy will, I think, be Dust-Bowlification and sea level rise, Hell and High Water. But another impact — far more difficult to project quantitatively because there is no paleoclimate analog — may well affect far more people both directly and indirectly than either of those: war, conflict, competition for arable and/or habitable land.
We will have to work as hard as possible to make sure we don’t leave a world of wars to our children. That means avoiding centuries of strife and conflict from catastrophic climate change. That also means finally ending our addiction to oil, a source “” if not the source “” of two of our biggest recent wars. I reported in back September:
An intelligence forecast being prepared for the next president on future global risks envisions a steady decline in U.S. dominance in the coming decades, as the world is reshaped by globalization, battered by climate change, and destabilized by regional upheavals over shortages of food, water and energy.
The world beyond 450 ppm atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, the world that crosses carbon cycle tipping points that quickly take us to 1000 ppm, is a world not merely of endless regional resource wars around the globe. It is a world with dozens of Darfurs. It is a world of a hundred Katrinas, of countless environmental refugees “” hundreds of millions by the second half of this century “” all clamoring to occupy the parts of the developed world that aren’t flooded or desertified.
In such a world, everyone will ultimately become a veteran, and Veteran’s Day and Memorial Day will fade into obscurity, as people forget about a time when wars were the exception, a time when soldiers were but a small minority of the population.
So when does this happen?
Thomas Fingar, “the U.S. intelligence community’s top analyst,” sees it happening by the mid-2020s:
By 2025, droughts, food shortages and scarcity of fresh water will plague large swaths of the globe, from northern China to the Horn of Africa.
For poorer countries, climate change “could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Fingar said, while the United States will face “Dust Bowl” conditions in the parched Southwest….
[Glad to see somebody serious understands what is coming (see "Sorry, delayers & enablers, Part 2: Climate change means worse droughts for SW and world")]
He said U.S. intelligence agencies accepted the consensual scientific view of global warming, including the conclusion that it is too late to avert significant disruption over the next two decades. The conclusions are in line with an intelligence assessment produced this summer that characterized global warming as a serious security threat for the coming decades.
Floods and droughts will trigger mass migrations and political upheaval in many parts of the developing world.
Significantly, the UK government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, laid out a similar scenario in a March speech to the government’s Sustainable Development UK conference in Westminster. He warned that by 2030, “A ‘perfect storm’ of food shortages, scarce water and insufficient energy resources threaten to unleash public unrest, cross-border conflicts and mass migration as people flee from the worst-affected regions,” as the UK’s Guardian put it.
We saw the food spike last year; prices going up by something in the order of 300%, rice went up by 400%, we saw food riots, we saw major issues for the poorest in the world, in the sense that the organisations like the World Food Programme did not have sufficient money to buy food on the open market and actually use it to feed the poorest of the poor.
So this is a major problem. You can see the catastrophic decline in those reserves, over the last five years or so, indicates that we actually have a problem; we’re not growing enough food, we’re not able to put stuff into the reserves”¦.
So, what are the drivers? I am going to go through them now very briefly.
First of all, population growth. World population grows by six million every month “” greater than the size of the UK population every year. Between now and”¦ I am going to focus on the year 2030 and the reason I am going to focus on 2030 is that I feel that some of the climate change discussions focusing on 2100 don’t actually grip”¦. I am going to look at 2030 because that’s when a whole series of events come together.
By 2030, looking at population terms, you are looking at the global population increasing from a little over six billion at the moment to about eight billion….
… you are going to see major changes but particularly in the demand for livestock “” meat and dairy….
… By 2030, the demand for food is going to be increased by about 50%. Can we do it? One of the questions. There is a major food security issue by 2030. We’ve got to somehow produce 50% more by that time.The second issue I want to focus on is the availability of fresh water…. The fresh water available per head of the world population is around 25% of what it was in 1960. To give you some idea of this; there are enormous potential shortages in certain parts of the world”¦ China has something like 23% of the world’s population and 11% of the world’s water.
… the massive use of water is in agriculture and particularly in developing world agriculture. Something of the order of 70% of that. One in three people are already facing water shortages and the total world demand for water is predicted to increase by 30% by 2030.
So, we’ve got food “” expectation of demand increase of 50% by 2030, we’ve got water “” expectation of demand increase of 30% by 2030. And in terms of what it looks like, we have real issues of global water security.
…. where there is genuine water stress [in 2025 is] China and also parts of India, but look at parts of southern Europe where by 2025 we are looking at serious issues of water stress”¦.
So, water is really enormously important. I am going to get onto the climate change interactions with it a little bit later but water is the one area that I feel is seriously threatening. It is so important because a shortage of water obviously interacts with a shortage of food, there are real potentials for driving significant international problems “” what do you do if you have no water and you have no food? You migrate. So one can have a reasonable expectation that international migration will occur as these shortages come in.
Now, the third one I want to focus on is energy and, driven by the population increase that I talked about, the urbanisation I talked about and indeed the movement out of poverty…. For the first time, the demand of the rest of the world exceeded the demand of energy of the OECD….. Energy demand is actually increasing and going to hit something of the order of a 50% increase, again by 2030.
Now, if that were not enough”¦ those are three things that are coming together. What will the world be like when that happens? But we also have, of course, the issue of climate change. Now, this is a very familiar slide to you all but we are shooting for a target of two degrees centigrade, a perfectly sensible target. There is enormous uncertainty in the climate change models about that particular target. It is perfectly reasonable to say ‘shouldn’t we be shooting for one degrees centigrade or, oddly enough, it is perfectly reasonable to say ‘shouldn’t we be shooting for three degrees centigrade’, the only information we have is really enormously uncertain in terms of the climate change model.
Shooting for two seems a perfectly sensible and legitimate objective but there are enormous problems. You are talking about serious problems in tropical glaciers “” the Chinese government has recognised this and has actually announced about 10 days ago that it is going to build 59 new reservoirs to take the glacial melt in the Xinjiang province. 59 reservoirs. It is actually contemplating putting many of them underground. This is a recognition that water, which has hitherto been stored in glaciers, is going to be very scarce. We have to think about water in a major way….
The other area that really worries me in terms of climate change and the potential for positive feedbacks and also for interactions with food is ocean acidification”¦.
As I say, it’s as acid today as it has been for 25 million years. When this occurred some 25 million years ago, this level of acidification in the ocean, you had major problems with it, problems of extinctions of large numbers of species in the ocean community. The areas which are going to be hit most severely by this are the coral reefs of the world and that is already starting to show. Coral reefs provide significant protein supplies to about a billion people. So it is not just that you can’t go snorkelling and see lots of pretty fish, it is that there are a billion people dependent on coral reefs for a very substantial portion of their high protein diet.
… we have got to deal with increased demand for energy, increased demand for food, increased demand for water, and we’ve got to do that while mitigating and adapting to climate change. And we have but 21 years to do it”¦.
I will leave you with some key questions. Can nine billion people be fed? Can we cope with the demands in the future on water? Can we provide enough energy? Can we do it, all that, while mitigating and adapting to climate change? And can we do all that in 21 years time? That’s when these things are going to start hitting in a really big way. We need to act now. We need investment in science and technology, and all the other ways of treating very seriously these major problems. 2030 is not very far away.
Some of this can be avoid or minimized if we act now. Some of it can’t. But if we don’t act strongly now, then by Memorial Day 2029, many of the global conflicts will either be resource wars or wars driven by environmental degradation and dislocation (see “Warming Will Worsen Water Wars). Indeed that may already have started to happen (see “Report: Climate Change and Environmental Degradation Trigger Darfur Crisis).
For one discussion of the kind of wars we might be seeing, albeit for the year 2046, here is a three-part radio series on Climate Wars.
Those are memories — and memorials — we must avoid creating at all cost.
- Scientific American asks “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?”
- Must have PPT #1: The narrow temperature window that gave us modern human civilization
- Global Warning: The Security Challenges of Climate Change
- More on Climate Change and National Security
- Steven Chu on climate change: “Wake up,” America, “we’re looking at a scenario where there’s no more agriculture in California”
- “Australia faces collapse as climate change kicks in”: