The new geopolitics of global warming
April 2, 2012
Climate change, largely abstract in the United States, is already shaping conflicts around the world – and not for the better.
By Joshua Zaffos
for The Daily Climate
Energy security and climate change present massive threats to global security, military planners say, with connections and consequences spanning the world.
Some scientists have linked the Arab Spring uprisings to high food prices caused by the failed Russian wheat crop in 2010, a result of an unparalleled heat wave. The predicted effects of climate change are also expected to hit developing nations particularly hard, raising the importance of supporting humanitarian response efforts and infrastructure improvements.
Here's a look at several geopolitical hotspots that will likely bear the unpredictable and dangerous consequences of climate change and current energy policies.
Yemen and the Middle East
The Middle East's oil reserves have served as the flashpoint for conflicts, and military leaders are keeping a close eye on Yemen these days, as the country suffers through instability related, in part, to water shortages, which are expected to worsen with climate change.
The region's major energy trade route runs just off the Yemeni shoreline, making it vulnerable to attack or blockade by pirates or other insurgent groups. "It's seven miles from the Yemen coast to the shipping lane. You can row out, and you don't even need an onboard motor," said Neil Morisetti, a rear admiral in Britain's Ministry of Defense and the U.K.'s climate and energy security envoy.
An energy-transport shutdown could cripple the global economy, he added.
Melting sea ice poses several unprecedented challenges to defense missions and the global economy, especially once year-round ice floes disappear – a scenario expected within decades.
"When that happens, the whole ball game changes," said Bob Corell, a lead researcher with the Global Environment & Technology Foundation who has headed the U.S. Office for the Global Energy Assessment and extensively studied the Arctic region.
Corell said Asian countries, including China and South Korea, are already plotting new navigation routes and building cargo ships that can push through seasonal ice. The shift would eliminate some travel that now passes through the Straits of Malacca, between Malaysia and Indonesia, where piracy remains active, but it could also enable Asia to take firm control of global trade.
The U.S. Navy is working on developing instruments that can withstand the harsh weather conditions, and planners anticipate an increased presence in the high Arctic.
Considering the extent of food and water scarcity throughout many parts of Africa, the continent is highly vulnerable to projected droughts associated with climate change, Corell said. Long-term drought in Sudan contributed to the ethnic cleansing in Darfur, he added. The conflict also exposed how poorly prepared the international community is to respond to such scenarios.
Expect this to play out again and again in the future, Corell warned. "There are going to be Darfur's all over the place."
Bangladesh and South Asia
Between increases in coastal flooding and the drying up of Himalayan glaciers, populations in south Asian countries are already facing disasters and a decline in freshwater supplies.
The Navy's Task Force Climate Change fears that floods or food shortages in Bangladesh could trigger mass migrations to India, increasing ethnic conflict and repression in the region as families compete for resources and survival.
Rippling beyond the subcontinent, the region's manufacturing supply chain, which produces electronics and vehicles for the rest of the world, was already disrupted by flooding in Thailand last year, added Morisetti.
© Joshua Zaffos 2012. All rights reserved.
Photos, from top: A U.S. Army Combat Logistics Patrol protects a supply convoy in Afghanistan in 2009; photo courtesy U.S. Army/flickr.
A pair of UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters with external fuel tanks take off from Kaposvar Airfield in Hungary in 2011; photo courtesy Sgt. Larry Aaron/Operation Joint Endeavor.
Joshua Zaffos is an independent journalist based in Fort Collins, Colo. His work has also appeared in High Country, Miller-McCune, and Wired. DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change.
Find more Daily Climate stories in the