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 few years has 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.
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.” A just-leaked version of the next IPCC report warns for the umpteenth time that climate change could worsen poverty, strain water supplies, make extreme weather more frequent and intense and boost conflict around the globe.
Back in May, Tom Friedman described how warming-worsened drought has exacerbated political instability even now in Syria. His piece “Without Water, Revolution” explains:
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.
The NY 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, thanks in no small part to the fossil-fuel-funded disinformation campaign and the fossil-fuel-funded Tea Party. 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 if we don’t act swiftly and 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, who was “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” and the post “Hansen Is Correct About Catastrophic Projections For U.S. Drought If We Don’t Act Now.”
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:
- Russian Meteorological Center: “There was nothing similar to this on the territory of Russia during the last one thousand years in regard to the heat.”
- NYT: “Russia Bans Grain Exports After Drought Shrivels Crop”
Significantly, Professor John Beddington, then the UK government’s chief scientist, laid out a scenario similar to Fingar’s in a 2009 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, 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 … 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 … 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…
Shooting for two seems a perfectly sensible and legitimate objective but there are enormous problems. You are talking about serious problems in tropical glaciers … [W]ater, 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 … 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 Veteran’s 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 (see “Report: Climate Change and Environmental Degradation Trigger Darfur Crisis and “Arab Summer: Warming-Fueled Drought Helped Spark Syria’s Civil War”).
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. One leader on climate and energy security has been the conservative Virgina Republican, John Warner, who pushed hard to pass the climate bill — because he is a former Navy secretary and former Senate Armed Services Committee chair and because he is a former Forest Service firefighter now “just absolutely heartbroken” because “the old forest, the white pine forest in which I worked, was absolutely gone, devastated, standing there dead from the bark beetle” thanks in large part to global warming.
Warner has been “trying to build grass-roots support for congressional action to limit global warming,” as Politics Daily reported. “He is traveling the country to discuss military research that shows climate change is a threat to U.S. national security.” Here is part of PD’s interview:
PD: Does the responsibility fall to us to respond to the consequences of climate change?
JW: Not exclusively, but we’re often in the forefront of response to these things. We’re the nation with the most sealift. The most airlift. We have more medical teams which are mobile, more storehouses of food and supplies to meet emergencies. And throughout our history, from the beginning of the republic, America’s always had to respond to certain humanitarian disasters.
PD: What are some examples of destabilization due to climate?
JW: One clear case of it is Somalia. [In the early 1990s] the prolonged drought began to tie up the economy, the food supplies. There was a certain amount of political and economic instability. Where you have fragile nations … a serious climactic problem will come along, with a shortage of food or water, and often those governments are toppled. And then they fall to the evils of … terrorism or others who try to exploit these fallen governments. You saw it in Darfur. You saw it in Somalia. This political instability and weakness is given the final tilt by a problem associated with climactic change.
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.
- No-Water-Gate: Scandalous NY Times Piece On Dust-Bowlification Never Mentions Climate Change
- Scientific American asks “Could Food Shortages Bring Down Civilization?”
- Juan Cole: The media’s failure to cover “the great Pakistani deluge” is “itself a security threat” to America