Overselling "Climate Conflict"?

04/30/2009 05:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Will global warming turn into global warring?

It's a hot question in need of cool-headed analysis.

The nexus of national security and climate change is a burgeoning field, and one that's coming under some scrutiny at a time when increasingly bigger claims are being made on its behalf.

To understand why, it's worth going through the chronology of the climate debate in America.

We all know that advocates of addressing climate change are now no longer of a single stripe: it's not just blue vs. red. Greens now shade all sides.

How did that happen? Part of it has to do with concerns over "security" - energy and otherwise.

The last few years have seen the rise of Republicans and business-types who are active on the issue - generals and CIA directors and energy company CEO's who are, for a variety of reasons, worried about our carbon future.

To have the green hawks on the side of global warming action has certainly not hurt the cause's profile, formerly the territory of "soft-headed" idealists. Global warming activism has become a club for tough guys and gals, too.

A major study by the Center for Naval Analyses in 2007 and the Pentagon's National Intelligence Assessment about climate change impacts in 2008 gave muscle to the movement. Another CNA report is due out soon.

Last year, the Pentagon's Assessment saw the potential for "domestic instability in a number of key states...," as well as "increases of storms in the Gulf ... disruptions in U.S. and Arctic infrastructure, and increases in immigration from resource-scarce regions of the world."

(It's a field spawning its own vocabulary in the popular media. For example, "climate refugees" or "environmental migrants" - persons displaced by changing conditions. Or "greenocons" - the conservatives who are worried about American dependence on foreign oil and stand ready for carbon caps.)

Of course, the Obama team talks a lot about the security dimensions of climate change. And they should. Governments are supposed to look at over-the-horizon threats.

Liberals have been happy to embrace such stark concerns over potential "climate conflicts." And many have labeled the genocide in Darfur as Exhibit A in what can happen as climate change happens, drought occurs, and resource wars ensue.

Which is all to say: the "security" packaging seems a safe way for all sides to accept the need for action on climate change to Americans.

But some veteran watchers of the environmental security field are expressing a note of caution amid the flurry of new threat-focused reports. They welcome the attention to climate concerns, and they don't doubt that there's real risk down the road. Yet, they are worried about exaggeration and lack of clear analysis.

"Our challenge now is to utilize this attention wisely and avoid overplaying our hand by fueling false fears," Geoffrey Dabelko, director for the Environmental Change and Security Program at the non-partisan Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, writes in a new report.

Dabelko, who has watched the environmental security field evolve over almost two decades, is in effect pleading for calm: "We can view climate change as an existential threat to our security and trace its impacts on local conflicts or community vulnerability. Yet we must avoid a range of pitfalls that could undermine our progress."

He issues three admonitions for those serious about climate change and concerned about environmental threats to vulnerable populations:

1) Don't "oversell" connections between global warming and violent conflict or terrorism.

2) Beware "knock on" effects of proposed remedies (such as the biofuels debacle, where the rush to fund non-petroleum based fuels led to food shortages and deforestation.)

3) Don't focus on global warming to the exclusion of existing problems such as poverty, lack of clean water, and infectious disease.

On the Darfur question, Dabelko says that simplistically labeling it a "climate conflict" is "both wrong and counterproductive." He asserts that such a claim ignores the political causes and actually lets the regime in Khartoum "off the hook."

His bottom line? "I am saying climate is a threat multiplier in terms of conflict, just not the one and only cause that eclipses the other connected variables," he said in a recent email exchange.

Included in the Wilson Center report is also a paper by two scholars, Clionadh Raleigh and Henrik Urdal, warning against a "disproportionate focus on environmental factors - including climate change - in causing conflict and instability in the developing world."

The authors concede that climate change "may bring about more severe and more abrupt forms of environmental change..."

But they emphasize the following caveat:

"While this argument is frequently invoked to support dire claims about climate change and conflict, major changes are likely to be the result of smaller changes compounding over a considerable period of time."

The Wilson Center report doesn't claim that this is a closed debate. It's subject to new data and changing conditions. Simply put, we don't know enough, and it's a field that demands further study.

But if there's a useful recent history lesson to be recalled here, it might just be the unintended consequences of "hyping the threat" before the evidence is in. That's not to suggest putting our heads in the shifting sands right now. But it's the least we've learned from the past eight years.