In an authoritative report due to be released today, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) panel is for the first time connecting hotter global temperatures to hotter global tempers, with top scientists saying climate change will complicate and worsen global security problems such as civil wars and refugees.
The report by the Nobel Peace Prize-winning body does not say that global warming will cause violence, but that it will be make things even more dangerous. Fights over resources like water and energy, hunger and extreme weather will all go into the mix to destabilize the world a bit more, according to the report, the summary of which was being finalized over the weekend by the panel in Yokohama, Japan.
The stance is a big change from seven years ago, when the panel last addressed how warming affects the Earth, lead author Chris Field of the Carnegie Institution of Science in California said. The summary political leaders read in 2007 did not mention security issues because the relevant advances in research had not occurred yet, he added.
“There’s enough smoke there that we really need to pay attention to this,” said Ohio University security and environment professor Geoff Dabelko, one of the lead authors of the report’s chapter on security and climate change.
For the past seven years, social science research has found more links between climate and conflict, the authors of the IPCC study say, with the full report referencing hundreds of studies on the linkages.
In its quadrennial strategic review, the US Department of Defense earlier this month called climate change a “threat multiplier” to go with poverty, political instability and social tensions worldwide.
Warming will trigger new problems, but also give countries new opportunities to harvest resources and open new shipping routes in places such as the melting Arctic, the Pentagon report says.
“Climate change will not directly cause conflict — but it will exacerbate issues of poor governance, resource inequality and social unrest,” retired US Navy admiral David Titley, now a Pennsylvania State University meteorology professor, wrote in an e-mail. “The Arab Spring and Syria are two recent examples.”
However, Titley, who was not involved in the panel report, said: “If you are already living in a place affected by violent conflict, I suspect climate change becomes the least of your worries.”
Experts say that illustrates the tricky calculus of climate and conflict: It is hard to point at violence and draw a direct climate link to say how much blame goes to warming and how much is from more traditional factors like poverty and ethnic differences — and looking into the future is even more difficult.
“If you think it’s hard to predict rainfall in one spot 100 years from now, it’s even harder to predict social stability,” said Jeff Severinghaus, a climate scientist at the Scripps Institution for Oceanography.
Severinghaus, who was not on this year’s panel, and other scientists say this will be one of the more contentious issues as the UN agency representing more than 100 nations edits a 30-page summary of the multivolume report word-by-word for political leaders. Although there is a 63-page chapter on security problems, most leaders will only read the handful of paragraphs summarizing it and that is where there may be some issues, he added.
The chapter on national security says there is “robust evidence” that “human security will be progressively threatened as [the] climate changes.” It says global warming can destabilize the world by making it harder for people to make a living, increasing mass migrations and making it harder for countries to keep control of their populations.
Migration is key because as refugees flee storms and other climate problems, that adds to security issues, the report and scientists say.
However, other experts emphasize nuances in research.
Social science literature has shown an indirect conflict-climate link that will add to destabilization, but that is not the same as forecasting climate wars, said Neil Adger of the University of Exeter, one of the study’s lead authors, adding that it is not exactly the four horsemen of the apocalypse.