The three worst direct impacts to humans from our unsustainable use of energy will, I think, be Dust-Bowlification and sea level rise and ocean poisoning: 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: 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. As the NYT reported in 2009:
The changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics, military and intelligence analysts say.
Such 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 last year, 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 this year (see “The failed presidency of Barack Obama, Part 2“). And that means it is increasingly likely we face a world 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.
It is a world not merely of endless regional resource wars around the globe. It is a world with dozens of Darfurs and Pakistani mega-floods, 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 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 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 and Nature Geoscience: ocean dead zones “devoid of fish and seafood” are poised to expand and “remain for thousands of years”).
So when does this start to 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….
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 “Must-read NCAR analysis warns we risk multiple, devastating global droughts even on moderate emissions path,” the source of this figure, where “A reading of -4 or below is considered extreme drought”:
The National Center for Atmospheric Research, “Climate change: Drought may threaten much of globe within decades,” explains the implications of such low readings of the Palmer Drought Severity Index [PDSI]:
By the 2030s, the results indicated that some regions in the United States and overseas could experience particularly severe conditions, with average decadal readings potentially dropping to -4 to -6 in much of the central and western United States as well as several regions overseas, and -8 or lower in parts of the Mediterranean. By the end of the century, many populated areas, including parts of the United States, could face readings in the range of -8 to -10, and much of the Mediterranean could fall to -15 to -20. Such readings would be almost unprecedented.
The PDSI 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 in areas expected to become wetter, can experience an extreme heat wave so unprecedented that it forces the entire country to suspend grain exports:
Significantly, the UK 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 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 2030, 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.
For all of the above reasons, veterans and security experts and politicians of all parties have begun working together to avoid the worst. A key leader on climate and energy security has been the conservative Virgina Republican, John Warner, who pushed hard to pass the clean energy 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’s is “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, 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.