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Climate change could be impetus for wars, other conflicts, expert says

Hurricane season has arrived, sparking renewed debate regarding possible links between global warming and the frequency and severity of hurricanes, heat waves and other extreme weather events.

Meanwhile, a related discussion has ensued among international-security experts who believe climate-change-related damage to global ecosystems and the resulting competition for natural resources may increasingly serve as triggers for wars and other conflicts in the future.

Jrgen Scheffran, a research scientist in the Program in Arms Control, Disarmament and International Security and the Center for Advanced BioEnergy Research at the University of Illinois, is among those raising concerns. In a survey of recent research published earlier this summer in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Scheffran concluded that "the impact of climate change on human and global security could extend far beyond the limited scope the world has seen thus far."

Scheffran's review included a critical analysis of four trends identified in a report by the German Advisory Council on Global Change as among those most possibly destabilizing populations and governments: degradation of freshwater resources, food insecurity, natural disasters and environmental migration.

He also cited last year's report by a working group of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicating that climate change would affect species and ecosystems worldwide, from rainforests to coral reefs.

In his analysis, Scheffran noted that the number of world regions vulnerable to drought was expected to rise.

Water supplies stored in glaciers and snow cover in major mountain ranges such as the Andes and Himalayas also are expected to decrease, he said.

"Most critical for human survival are water and food, which are sensitive to changing climatic conditions," Scheffran said.

The degradation of these critical resources, combined with threats to populations caused by natural disasters, disease and crumbling economic and ecosystems, he said, could ultimately have "cascading effects."

"Environmental changes caused by global warming will not only affect human living conditions but may also generate larger societal effects, by threatening the infrastructures of society or by inducing social responses that aggravate the problem," he wrote. "The associated socio-economic and political stress can undermine the functioning of communities, the effectiveness of institutions, and the stability of societal structures. These degraded conditions could contribute to civil strife, and, worse, armed conflict."

In fact, Scheffran said, there's evidence that such dramas are already playing out on the world stage whether already affected by climate change or not.

"Large areas of Africa are suffering from scarcity of food and fresh water resources, making them more vulnerable to conflict. An example is Sudan's Darfur province where an ongoing conflict was aggravated since droughts forced Arab herders to move into areas of African farmers."

Other regions of the world including the Middle East, Central Asia and South America also are being affected, he said.

With so much at stake, Scheffran recommends multiple strategies for forestalling otherwise insurmountable consequences. Among the most critical, he said, is for governments to incorporate measures for addressing climate change within national policy. Beyond that, he advocates a cooperative, international approach to addressing concerns.

"Although climate change bears a significant conflict potential, it can also transform the international system toward more cooperation if it is seen as a common threat that requires joint action," he said.

One of the more hopeful, recent signs on that front, he said, was the 2007 Bali climate summit that brought together more than 10,000 representatives from throughout the world to draft a climate plan.

"The Bali Roadmap has many good ideas, but was criticized as being too vague to induce a major policy shift," Scheffran said. "Nevertheless, the seeming conflict between environment and the economy will be best overcome with the recognition that protecting the climate in the best interest of the economy."

In addition to global cooperation, Scheffran believes that those occupying Earth now can learn a lot about the future by studying the past.

"History has shown how dependent our culture is on a narrow window of climatic conditions for average temperature and precipitation," he said. "The great human civilizations began to flourish after the last ice age, and some disappeared due to droughts and other adverse shifts in the climate. The so-called 'Little Ice Age' in the northern hemisphere a few hundred years ago was caused by an average drop in temperature of less than a degree Celsius.

"The consequences were quite severe in parts of Europe, associated with loss of harvest and population decline," Scheffran said. "Riots and military conflicts became more likely, as a recent empirical study has suggested."

However, as history has demonstrated, humans are quite capable of adapting to changing climate conditions as long as those changes are moderate.

"The challenge is to slow down the dynamics and stabilize the climate system at levels which are not dangerous," Scheffran said.

He remains optimistic that this is still possible in large part, because public awareness and educational efforts taking place today are making concerns about climate change a priority.

"Global warming receives now more public and political attention than a few years ago," Scheffran said.

"Grass-roots movements are emerging in the United States for protecting the climate and developing energy alternatives, involving not only many local communities and companies but also influential states such as California, led by Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger."

Further evidence that the issue is being taken seriously at last, Scheffran said, is coming from the campaign trail.

"Congressional and presidential candidates now acknowledge that something has to be done to play a leading role on energy and climate change to not fall behind the rest of the world," he said.


Contact: Melissa Mitchell
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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