The worst direct impacts to humans from our unsustainable use of energy — over the next few decades — will, I think, be Dust-Bowlification and extreme weather and food insecurity: Hell and High Water.
But all of the impacts occurring at once will have an even more devastating synergy (see “An Illustrated Guide to the Science of Global Warming Impacts”). This means the rich countries will be far less likely to be offering much assistance to the poorer ones, since there will be ever worsening catastrophes everywhere simultaneously so we’ll be suffering at the same time. Heck, the deep economic downturn and the record-smashing disasters of the past three years have already exacerbated media myopia and compassion fatigue to help those around the world staggered by floods and droughts.
And that suggests another deadly climate impact — far more difficult to project quantitatively because there is no paleoclimate analog — may well affect far more people both directly and indirectly: 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 decades if not 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.
In November 2011, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan “said rising temperatures and rainwater shortages are having a devastating effect on food production. Failing to address the problem will have repercussions on health, security and stability.”
On Sunday, Tom Friedman wrote a column, “Memorial Day 2050,” which begins:
Of the many things being said about climate change lately, none was more eloquent than the point made by Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State in the Showtime series “Years of Living Dangerously,” when he observed: “We’re the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it.”
He concludes that the fight against climate change is our most important “fight for freedom” today, and ends “Let’s act so the next generation will want to honor us with a Memorial Day, the way we honor the sacrifice of previous generations.”
Last year, Friedman described how warming-worsened drought has exacerbated political instability even now in Syria. His piece “Without Water, Revolution” explained:
This Syrian disaster is like a superstorm. It’s what happens when an extreme weather event, the worst drought in Syria’s modern history, combines with a fast-growing population and a repressive and corrupt regime and unleashes extreme sectarian and religious passions, fueled by money from rival outside powers — Iran and Hezbollah on one side, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Qatar on the other, each of which have an extreme interest in its Syrian allies’ defeating the other’s allies — all at a time when America, in its post-Iraq/Afghanistan phase, is extremely wary of getting involved.
I came here to write my column and work on a film for the Showtime series, “Years of Living Dangerously,” about the “Jafaf,” or drought, one of the key drivers of the Syrian war. In an age of climate change, we’re likely to see many more such conflicts.
Warming-worsened drought is causing problems all around the Mediterranean:
NOAA concluded in 2011 that “human-caused climate change [is now] a major factor in more frequent Mediterranean droughts.” Reds and oranges highlight lands around the Mediterranean that experienced significantly drier winters during 1971–2010 than the comparison period of 1902–2010. [Click to enlarge.]
But, obviously, the poorer a country is — and the worse it is governed — the more warming-worsened drought is likely to drive instability:
“The drought did not cause Syria’s civil war,” said the Syrian economist Samir Aita, but, he added, the failure of the government to respond to the drought played a huge role in fueling the uprising. What happened, Aita explained, was that after Assad took over in 2000 he opened up the regulated agricultural sector in Syria for big farmers, many of them government cronies, to buy up land and drill as much water as they wanted, eventually severely diminishing the water table. This began driving small farmers off the land into towns, where they had to scrounge for work….
Then, between 2006 and 2011, some 60 percent of Syria’s land mass was ravaged by the drought and, with the water table already too low and river irrigation shrunken, it wiped out the livelihoods of 800,000 Syrian farmers and herders, the United Nations reported. “Half the population in Syria between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers left the land” for urban areas during the last decade, said Aita. And with Assad doing nothing to help the drought refugees, a lot of very simple farmers and their kids got politicized. “State and government was invented in this part of the world, in ancient Mesopotamia, precisely to manage irrigation and crop growing,” said Aita, “and Assad failed in that basic task.”
Young people and farmers starved for jobs — and land starved for water — were a prescription for revolution.
You can watch Friedman actually enter Syria during the Civil War to learn more about the climate change connection here.
The New York Times reported in 2009, “climate-induced crises could topple governments, feed terrorist movements or destabilize entire regions, say the analysts, experts at the Pentagon and intelligence agencies who for the first time are taking a serious look at the national security implications of climate change.”
That’s a key reason 33 generals and admirals supported the comprehensive climate and clean energy jobs bill in 2010, asserting “Climate change is making the world a more dangerous place” and “threatening America’s security.” The Pentagon itself has made the climate/security link explicit in its Quadrennial Defense Review.
Sadly, the chance that humanity will avert catastrophic climate impacts has dropped sharply in the past few years (see “Obama Must Become A Climate Hawk To Avoid Dust-Bin Of History, Dust Bowl For America”). And that means it is increasingly likely we face a world far beyond 450 ppm atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, which in turn means we likely cross carbon cycle tipping points that threaten to quickly take us to 800 to 1000 ppm — a world of rapid warming and a ruined climate far outside the bounds of any human experience.
It is a world not merely of endless regional resource wars around the globe. It is a world with dozens of Syrias and Darfurs and Pakistani mega-floods, of countless environmental refugees — hundreds of millions in 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 may 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. And if we don’t act swiftlyand strongly to stop it, the worst impacts could last a long, long time (see NOAA stunner: Climate change “largely irreversible for 1000 years,” with permanent Dust Bowls in Southwest and around the globe).
So when does this start to happen on a grand scale?
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“.
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.
For the latest literature review and projections, see my Nature article, “The Next Dust Bowl,” my post “Hansen Is Correct About Catastrophic Projections For U.S. Drought If We Don’t Act Now” as well as the 2011 study, Michael Wehner et al., “Projections of Future Drought in the Continental United States and Mexico.”
The figure below is a rough representation of where one major analysis projects things will be around mid-century — if we are so self-destructive as to let this happen:
The PDSI [Palmer Drought Severity Index] in the Great Plains during the Dust Bowl apparently spiked very briefly to -6, but otherwise rarely exceeded -3 for the decade (see here).
And, of course, we’ve seen that even areas expected to become wetter can experience an extreme heat wave so unprecedented that it forces the entire country to suspend grain exports, as happened in Russia in 2010.
Significantly, the U.K. government’s chief scientist, Professor John Beddington, laid out a scenario similar to Fingar’s in a 2009 speech to the government’s Sustainable Development U.K. 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.
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 2030, many of the global conflicts will either be resource wars or wars driven by environmental degradation and dislocation. Indeed that may already have started to happen in places like Syria and Darfur.
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 by Gwynne Dyer, a Canadian journalist and historian of warfare.
For all of the above reasons, veterans and security experts and politicians of all parties have begun working together to avoid the worst.
Our choice today is clear. We can continue listening to the voices of denial and delay and disinformation, assuring that everyone ultimately becomes a veteran of the growing number of climate-related conflicts.
Or we can launch a WWII-scale effort and a WWII-style effort to address the problem as Hansen and I and many others have called for. That is our most necessary fight today.
This post is an update.