On the agenda at the upcoming G8 meeting in Hokkaido are some of the most serious challenges that the world faces today: oil prices, food prices, and climate change. Fortunately, there is broad recognition that these three challenges are tightly interwoven and require a comprehensive solution—a solution that must include moving toward a low-carbon global economy and the implementation of agricultural, trade, and development policies that ensure no one has to choose between food and fuel.
While these challenges will be vigorously debated in Hokkaido by everyone from politicians to economists and from trade ministers to scientists, one critical dimension of the oil, food, and climate change crisis is in danger of being overlooked: its enormous and unrelenting impact on global security.
In one sense, of course, the dangers of relying on imported energy and the resulting dependence on hostile regimes are well-known and well-documented. With the exception of Russia, all members of the G8 have been struggling with little to no success to reduce their dependence on imported energy for years.
What came as a surprise to many, however, was that an oil price shock can threaten the political stability of the many countries whose people depend on government fuel subsidies to survive. Last week, supporters of Malaysia’s opposition party took to the streets to protest soaring fuel prices after Malaysia’s government raised the price of fuel by 40 percent.
Likewise, in Indian-administered Kashmir, traders and private vehicle owners went on strike for more than three days to protest rising fuel prices, forcing shops to close and bringing transportation and commerce to a halt. Yet, the Indian government is already expected to spend over $57 billion on fuel subsidies this year, and has had to raise fuel prices another 10 percent in order to manage skyrocketing costs. More political turmoil is inevitable.
Meanwhile, skyrocketing food prices—driven by dangerous weather patterns (of precisely the type that climate change will make ever more frequent) and soaring oil prices—have sparked protests around the globe. Angry protestors burned buildings in Burkina Faso and riots in Haiti left six people dead. The panic even prompted rice-exporting countries, including Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar, to even broach the idea of forming a rice cartel, similar to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Had they gone forward, it would have provoked global food hoarding on a scale never seen before.
Given all of this, the fact that the security implications of climate change are not on the agenda at the G8 is a significant oversight, although not a surprising one. While there have been some flickers of recognition—most notably in Europe—about the destabilizing effects of global warming, the national security community sees this as a slow-moving problem. In spite of the evidence to the contrary, it still thinks global warming’s effects will take place in a very gradual way over a very long period of time. But that’s simply not true.
Already, the world is facing threats of increased political tension and conflict stemming from climate change, and more is on the horizon. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change succeeded in building a scientific consensus around the facts of human-induced climate change, and in its Fourth Assessment Report did a remarkable job of forecasting how the effects of climate change would manifest themselves in specific climatic zones and regions around the world.
But the scientists were only taking the first step, and now it is the responsibility of the foreign policy and national security communities to superimpose their political maps on the IPCC’s climatic ones in order to plan for what is ahead. This will require careful assessments of which countries are likely to be most hurt by global warming, who will (or won’t) respond to deteriorating environmental conditions, and what this means for the international community. When viewed through this lens, it becomes apparent that climate change will bring with it not only enormous humanitarian challenges, but international security ones as well.
For instance, in Bangladesh, the effects of devastating floods, monsoons, and tropical cyclones have been and will continue to be deadly and destabilizing. With a population that is projected to grow from approximately 140 million to some 240 million people in just a few decades, the risks of mass human migration are extremely high. This political turbulence comes at a time when there are emerging signs of Islamic extremism in Bangladesh: Hundreds of jihadists found safe haven there after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and intelligence analysts have identified it as a potential new base of operations for regional or global terrorists. The international community cannot afford to turn a blind eye to the extreme risk that climate change will have on this country’s future.
The effect of climate change-induced migration will also be acute throughout Africa, where migration will be both internal and international. The first domestic wave will likely be from agricultural regions to urban centers where more social services are available, which will impose a heavy burden on central governments. Simultaneously, the risk of state failure will increase as these migration patterns challenge the capacity of central governments to control stretches of their territory and their borders. The threat of state collapse is highest in East Africa because of the concentration of weak or failing states, the numerous unresolved political disputes, and the severe effects of climate change.
In addition, while most African and South Asian migration will be internal or regional, the expected decline in food production and fresh drinking water, combined with the increased conflict sparked by resource scarcity, will force more Africans and South Asians to migrate further abroad. This will likely result in a surge in the number of Muslim immigrants to the European Union, which could exacerbate existing tensions and increase the likelihood of radicalization among members of Europe’s growing—and often poorly assimilated—Islamic communities.
We should also begin to plan for the implications of increased water scarcity due to climate change in the Middle East. The water politics of the region are enormously complex and volatile: The Jordan River physically links the water interests of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority; the Tigris and Euphrates links Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Iraq. While we are not likely to see “water wars” per se, these countries will have no choice but to pursue more aggressively the kinds of technological and political arrangements that will enable them to survive in this water-stressed region.
China, too, will increasingly find that climate change is accelerating and exacerbating many of its most urgent environmental crises, from desertification to the deterioration of air quality in urban areas. In addition to the domestic pressure to address these environmental challenges—pressure which has taken the form of large public protests on several occasions—there will also be enormous international pressure for China to curb its carbon emissions if the United States takes the critical step of passing its own carbon control legislation. How China responds to these challenges will have a large effect on its political trajectory and whether it can become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community.
After the oil crises of the 1970s, the idea of oil costing $135 per barrel was a nightmare scenario that we thought would be the outcome of an embargo during a time of direct conflict. The United States spearheaded efforts to establish the International Energy Agency, Strategic Petroleum Reserves around the globe, and other measures in order to guard against an embargo that never came, while not doing enough to address the underlying oil dependency of our economy. When considering the security implications of climate change, we must be certain not to make the same mistake: We must not only prepare for how to cope with its effects, but move as quickly as possible to reduce dramatically the global carbon emissions that are driving global warming. This year’s G8 meeting is a good place to start doing both.