March 24, 2009

Contrasting Ideas about Climate Change and War

Filed under: Climate Politics

Back in February, the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing emitted “The Climate Crisis: National Security, Economic, and Public Health Threats.” World Climate Report’s Pat Michaels testified that we should be careful when assessing future threats from climate change because our understanding of what climate change the future may bring is grossly uncertain. Dr. Michaels backed up his contention by a demonstration that climate models are having a tough time getting the present and recent past right—which casts a pall on their future forecasts.

Also testifying at that hearing was General Gordon Sullivan (Ret.), President and Chief Operating Officer, Association of the United States Army who discussed potential national security threats from global warming—primarily from “unrest” in other parts of the world as food and water supplies grow scarce in some regions.

In the current issue of Nature magazine is an essay which seeks to counter this “myth.”

General Sullivan, apparently undaunted by the idea that our understanding of the details of future climate changes are quite uncertain, expressed this sentiment to the Subcommittee members on February 12, 2009:

Two years ago, I appeared at the first meeting of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming in my capacity as Chairman of the Military Advisory Board to the CNA report on “National Security and the Threat of Climate Change”…

In summary, what I reported then was that:

• First, climate change is a serious threat to our national security.

• Second, climate change will be what we called a “threat multiplier.” Many areas of the world that will be the hardest hit by climate change impacts are already being stressed by lack of water, lack of food, and political and social unrest. Adding climate change to this mix will only serve to exacerbate the existing instabilities.

• Third, projected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world.

• And fourth, that climate change, national security and energy dependence are a related set of global challenges.

In the two years since I appeared before the Committee, we’ve seen no evidence to contradict those findings. In fact, we’ve only seen them reinforced.

Not so fast, according to Wendy Barnaby, editor of People & Science, the magazine published by the British Science Association.

Ms. Barnaby set out to write a book detailing the history of “water wars”—wars fought over water scarcity—with special interest on how climate change may impact such conflicts in the future. Since all sorts of entities, including the United Nations, the World Bank, and General Sullivan, have made grave prognostications about conflicts developing from global warming’s impact on water supply, Ms. Barnaby surely reckoned that a book detailing the history of the subject would be a popular read.

But then she encountered a major roadblock—the more she looked for “water wars” the more it became obvious that there just weren’t any. Instead, she found that nations with water deficits “solve their water shortages through trade and international agreements.”

Ms. Barnaby detailed her investigations which ultimately led to her not writing the book (since there was nothing to write about) in an essay titled “Do nations go to war over water?”

Here is what she concluded:

[I]t is still important that the popular myth of water wars somehow be dispelled once and for all. This will not only stop unsettling and incorrect predictions of international conflict over water. It will also discourage a certain public resignation that climate change will bring war, and focus attention instead on what politicians can do to avoid it: most importantly, improve the conditions of trade for developing countries to strengthen their economies. And it would help to convince water engineers and managers, who still tend to see water shortages in terms of local supply and demand, that the solutions to water scarcity and security lie outside the water sector in the water/food/trade/economic development nexus. It would be great if we could unclog our stream of thought about the misleading notions of ‘water wars’.

Maybe the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment will invite Ms. Barnaby to their next hearing on climate change and national security for that they can get a more rounded briefing on the topic. But, probably they won’t, after all Ms. Barnaby includes this pearl of wisdom, “There is something other than water for which shortages, or even the perceived threat of future shortages, does cause war — oil,” which is decidedly not what those in control of the Subcommittee want to hear, after all, this is precisely the type of action (perceived threat of oil shortages) which they are promoting!

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