Environmental Security 5

In this section and the next one we will examine more closely how environmental factors, including climate, can provide drivers that have the potential to become “the last straw” on top of others factors that may lead to conflict. In worst cases, environmental stresses may turn out to be an even more instrumental factor in conflict. The illustration above depicts some of the potential effects of climate change and how they directly or indirectly might produce some of those stresses on societies.

We have already mentioned one example from antiquity where those in an isolated community so devastated their environment that it led to the demise of their society. This was the mystery of Easter Island and what may have happened there to its early inhabitants have been summarized as:

“…without trees, and so without canoes, the Islanders were trapped in their remote home, unable to escape the consequences of their self inflicted, environmental collapse… there were increasing conflicts over diminishing resources resulting in a state of almost permanent warfare.”[1]

While some might argue that this was a self-imposed environmental disaster, there have been natural changes in the environment that may provide lessons for future anthropomorphic climate-induced changes. For instance Dr. Michael Wysession, Professor of Geophysics at Washington University recounts how aerosols ejected into the atmosphere by volcanoes can lead to severe temperature decreases…and conflict. He notes:

…[volcanic eruptions] can and have been the most catastrophic of these climate changes that can significantly alter the course of human history instantaneously….For instance, why did the French Revolution occur in 1789? If you’ve taken courses in modern European History you probably have a whole bunch of reasons having to do with a variety of socio-economic problems developing in Europe. Well, it’s much simpler than that, it’s volcanoes. In 1783 Hekla Volcano in Iceland and Asama Volcano in Japan erupted violently. These spewed out a tremendous amount of ash and aerosols that decreased the temperatures all across the globe. In fact, the year before the Storming of the Bastille was the coldest winter of the century. Crops failed everywhere; massive starvation occurred … It was only one of about a dozen governments that collapsed… [2]

Professor Wysession also goes on to make the point that even the Western Expansion in the US was, at one period, largely due to the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. A year later they experienced the “Year Without a Summer” which also brought with it a lack of food and ensuing starvation. This presents one example of how climate change can quickly spur massive migrations which, under some circumstances, can destabilize governments.

Fast forward 190 years later to 2006 when UN General Secretary Kofi Annan said:

Climate change has profound implications for virtually all aspects of human well-being, from jobs and health to food security and peace within and among nations…until we acknowledge the all encompassing nature of the threat, our response will fall short. [3]

In that short statement he identified at least two drivers, health and food, related to climate change that could imperil national and global stability. Many may not immediately recognize “health” as a climate-driven issue but a number of studies have been performed by Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard and others on how transition to a warmer and wetter world could lead to increased vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue fever. In many still developing-countries any increase in levels of disease could add yet another burden leading to destabilization even to the point of some nations becoming what are termed “failed states.” Looking at the 2009 Failed States Index [4], deterioration of public services (such as health) is one indicator that could lead to a higher ranking for potential failure and possibly aggravate yet another factor– delegitimization of the state. Such states as Somalia, that in the past have become failed states, offer fertile ground for extremists groups fomenting conflict.

While agricultural crops might be enhanced via longer growing seasons from global warming, for the most part food security may be compromised in a number of ways by climate change and usually in those countries that can least afford it. These include:

Lack of water (or too much at the wrong time)

  • Increased heat leading to the inability of some crops to germinate
  • Migration of some crops northward
  • Increase in pests
  • Degradation of agricultural land

Ironically, one unintended consequence of climate change mitigation has also included the cutting of natural forests and conversion of crop lands to produce biofuels to replace fossil fuels driving climate change. This often causes more harm than good particularly if the fuels also require heavy fossil fuel inputs for their production.

Thee are additional examples of where environmental degradation has had some effect on the promotion of conflicts around the world and unfortunately, we can expect more.

Environmental Security Part I: The Basics

Environmental Security Part II: Enter the Pentagon

Environmental Security Part III: Old Soldier Never Die, But They Can Change

Environmental Security Part IV: The Pentagon is My Friend?

Environmental Security Part V: Climate of Conflict

All Rights Reserved