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The coming resource wars

It's official: the era of resource wars is upon us. In a major London address, British Defense Secretary John Reid warned that global climate change and dwindling natural resources are combining to increase the likelihood of violent conflict over land, water and energy. Climate change, he indicated, “will make scarce resources, clean water, viable agricultural land even scarcer”—and this will “make the emergence of violent conflict more rather than less likely.”

Although not unprecedented, Reid’s prediction of an upsurge in resource conflict is significant both because of his senior rank and the vehemence of his remarks. “The blunt truth is that the lack of water and agricultural land is a significant contributory factor to the tragic conflict we see unfolding in Darfur,” he declared. “We should see this as a warning sign.”

Resource conflicts of this type are most likely to arise in the developing world, Reid indicated, but the more advanced and affluent countries are not likely to be spared the damaging and destabilizing effects of global climate change. With sea levels rising, water and energy becoming increasingly scarce and prime agricultural lands turning into deserts, internecine warfare over access to vital resources will become a global phenomenon.

Reid’s speech, delivered at the prestigious Chatham House in London (Britain’s equivalent of the Council on Foreign Relations), is but the most recent expression of a growing trend in strategic circles to view environmental and resource effects—rather than political orientation and ideology—as the most potent source of armed conflict in the decades to come. With the world population rising, global consumption rates soaring, energy supplies rapidly disappearing and climate change eradicating valuable farmland, the stage is being set for persistent and worldwide struggles over vital resources. Religious and political strife will not disappear in this scenario, but rather will be channeled into contests over valuable sources of water, food and energy.

Prior to Reid’s address, the most significant expression of this outlook was a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Defense by a California-based consulting firm in October 2003. Entitled “An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security,” the report warned that global climate change is more likely to result in sudden, cataclysmic environmental events than a gradual (and therefore manageable) rise in average temperatures. Such events could include a substantial increase in global sea levels, intense storms and hurricanes and continent-wide “dust bowl” effects. This would trigger pitched battles between the survivors of these effects for access to food, water, habitable land and energy supplies.

“Violence and disruption stemming from the stresses created by abrupt changes in the climate pose a different type of threat to national security than we are accustomed to today,” the 2003 report noted. “Military confrontation may be triggered by a desperate need for natural resources such as energy, food and water rather than by conflicts over ideology, religion or national honor.”

Until now, this mode of analysis has failed to command the attention of top American and British policymakers. For the most part, they insist that ideological and religious differences—notably, the clash between values of tolerance and democracy on one hand and extremist forms of Islam on the other—remain the main drivers of international conflict. But Reid’s speech at Chatham House suggests that a major shift in strategic thinking may be under way. Environmental perils may soon dominate the world security agenda.

This shift is due in part to the growing weight of evidence pointing to a significant human role in altering the planet’s basic climate systems. Recent studies showing the rapid shrinkage of the polar ice caps, the accelerated melting of North American glaciers, the increased frequency of severe hurricanes and a number of other such effects all suggest that dramatic and potentially harmful changes to the global climate have begun to occur. More importantly, they conclude that human behavior—most importantly, the burning of fossil fuels in factories, power plants, and motor vehicles—is the most likely cause of these changes. This assessment may not have yet penetrated the White House and other bastions of head-in-the-sand thinking, but it is clearly gaining ground among scientists and thoughtful analysts around the world.

For the most part, public discussion of global climate change has tended to describe its effects as an environmental problem—as a threat to safe water, arable soil, temperate forests, certain species and so on. And, of course, climate change is a potent threat to the environment; in fact, the greatest threat imaginable. But viewing climate change as an environmental problem fails to do justice to the magnitude of the peril it poses. As Reid’s speech and the 2003 Pentagon study make clear, the greatest danger posed by global climate change is not the degradation of ecosystems per se, but rather the disintegration of entire human societies, producing wholesale starvation, mass migrations and recurring conflict over resources.

“As famine, disease, and weather-related disasters strike due to abrupt climate change,” the Pentagon report notes, “many countries’ needs will exceed their carrying capacity”—that is, their ability to provide the minimum requirements for human survival. This “will create a sense of desperation, which is likely to lead to offensive aggression” against countries with a greater stock of vital resources. “Imagine eastern European countries, struggling to feed their populations with a falling supply of food, water, and energy, eyeing Russia, whose population is already in decline, for access to its grain, minerals, and energy supply.”

Similar scenarios will be replicated all across the planet, as those without the means to survival invade or migrate to those with greater abundance—producing endless struggles between resource “haves” and “have-nots.”

It is this prospect, more than anything, that worries John Reid. In particular, he expressed concern over the inadequate capacity of poor and unstable countries to cope with the effects of climate change, and the resulting risk of state collapse, civil war and mass migration. “More than 300 million people in Africa currently lack access to safe water,” he observed, and “climate change will worsen this dire situation”—provoking more wars like Darfur. And even if these social disasters will occur primarily in the developing world, the wealthier countries will also be caught up in them, whether by participating in peacekeeping and humanitarian aid operations, by fending off unwanted migrants or by fighting for access to overseas supplies of food, oil, and minerals.

When reading of these nightmarish scenarios, it is easy to conjure up images of desperate, starving people killing one another with knives, staves and clubs—as was certainly often the case in the past, and could easily prove to be so again. But these scenarios also envision the use of more deadly weapons. “In this world of warring states,” the 2003 Pentagon report predicted, “nuclear arms proliferation is inevitable.” As oil and natural gas disappears, more and more countries will rely on nuclear power to meet their energy needs—and this “will accelerate nuclear proliferation as countries develop enrichment and reprocessing capabilities to ensure their national security.”

Although speculative, these reports make one thing clear: when thinking about the calamitous effects of global climate change, we must emphasize its social and political consequences as much as its purely environmental effects. Drought, flooding and storms can kill us, and surely will—but so will wars among the survivors of these catastrophes over what remains of food, water and shelter. As Reid’s comments indicate, no society, however affluent, will escape involvement in these forms of conflict.

We can respond to these predictions in one of two ways: by relying on fortifications and military force to provide some degree of advantage in the global struggle over resources, or by taking meaningful steps to reduce the risk of cataclysmic climate change.

No doubt there will be many politicians and pundits—especially in this country—who will tout the superiority of the military option, emphasizing America’s preponderance of strength. By fortifying our borders and sea-shores to keep out unwanted migrants and by fighting around the world for needed oil supplies, it will be argued, we can maintain our privileged standard of living for longer than other countries that are less well endowed with instruments of power. Maybe so. But the grueling, inconclusive war in Iraq and the failed national response to Hurricane Katrina show just how ineffectual such instruments can be when confronted with the harsh realities of an unforgiving world. And as the 2003 Pentagon report reminds us, “constant battles over diminishing resources” will “further reduce [resources] even beyond the climatic effects.”

Military superiority may provide an illusion of advantage in the coming struggles over vital resources, but it cannot protect us against the ravages of global climate change. Although we may be somewhat better off than the people in Haiti and Mexico, we, too, will suffer from storms, drought and flooding. As our overseas trading partners descend into chaos, our vital imports of food, raw materials and energy will disappear as well. True, we could establish military outposts in some of these places to ensure the continued flow of critical materials—but the ever-increasing price in blood and treasure required to pay for this will eventually exceed our means and destroy us. Ultimately, our only hope of a safe and secure future lies in substantially reducing our emissions of greenhouse gases and working with the rest of the world to slow the pace of global climate change.

Michael T. Klare is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author of Resource Wars and Blood and Oil, both available in paperback from Owl Books.

Editorial Notes: Related article from Tom Paine: Newt Gingrich v. John Reid:
Meanwhile in our News Worthy section, we have Reid's opposite number in the Pentagon, Don Rumsfeld, pushing a recent strategy paper by Newt Gingrich in which the arch-conservative assumes that it is ideology that is driving threats. Reid's analysis is the new element here, of course. Reid and his prime minister, Tony Blair, have placed climate change on their list of long-term strategic threats, and this speech was Reid's first foray into the issue. It was a dark tale: water shortages, wars over arable land, widespread famine. Of course, Klare points out is that the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessement came to the same conclusions two years ago. The difference is that the U.K. is listening. What is perhaps more concerning, though, is that if I had to locate Democratic candidates for president on a continuum between the U.K's John Reid and Newt Gingrich, many have taken positions that resonate more with Newt Gingrich. Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, John Kerry and Joe Biden have all staked out positions that resonate more with Newt in a short-sighted attempt to look "tough" on defense.
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