Thursday, May 10, 2007

Climate Insecurity

Last Friday NPR's Science Friday featured an interview with Peter Schwartz, Chairman of the Global Business Network (GBN), on a subject he has been examining for several years: the potential for climate change to create new security challenges affecting the government and military. Peter is a genuine polymath, and he always seems to be at the leading edge of the Next Big Thing. His report for the Pentagon three years ago on the possibility of sudden climate change received national attention, and GBN has just issued a new study that provides a novel approach for gauging where and how climate change is likely to cause trouble. Contrary to an op-ed in today's Wall Street Journal, the security implications of climate change deserve much wider attention, and I recommend the GBN reports highly, along with the podcast of Friday's interview.

I have known Peter Schwartz since 1997, when he guided our strategy team in creating Texaco's corporate scenarios on the long-term future of energy. That effort put climate change on my personal radar screen for the first time. I was struck by several of his comments in the Science Friday interview. While dismissing Hurricane Katrina as a direct indicator of climate change, he highlighted what it revealed about the scale of potential future disasters and the challenges those would create for security agencies such as the Coast Guard. He also described how climate change could create more disruptions of the kind we've already seen in Somalia and Darfur. Another interesting take-away from the podcast concerned the effects of climate change on a large country like the US. While they might be offsetting over the long haul, with some regions gaining and others losing, the high rate of change could create a widespread lose/lose scenario over the short term. Anyone watching the bizarre national mix of drought, fire and flood this week can imagine what that could mean.

Generals, admirals and futurists aren't the only ones worried about the security implications of climate change. The UK government recently used its rotating leadership of the UN Security Council to broach the issue there, stirring up a turf battle over whether this matter even belongs within the purview of the Security Council, instead of the General Assembly. This is ironic, considering that the entire Kyoto process is under the aegis of the UN.

Thinking about the potential security challenges of climate change doesn't even require agreement that the process is driven by man-made emissions or that any particular prescription for mitigating its progress would be appropriate or effective. All that's necessary is the recognition that the planet is warming, which now seems irrefutable. And because of the residence times of the greenhouse gases that are already in the atmosphere, along with the enormous inertia of the agricultural, industrial and energy systems involved, we will inevitably be dealing with the economic and geopolitical consequences, no matter how quickly or decisively we reduce our emissions. The Presidential candidates of both parties would do well to pay attention to this, given the ways it could affect the world in which they will govern.

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