Climate Change and Conflict

09/20/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How will the changing climate affect global security? The New York Times recently took a look at this question, sparking some debate about whether the two issues ought to be linked. According to the NYT:

The National Intelligence Council, which produces government-wide intelligence analyses, finished the first assessment of the national security implications of climate change just last year.

It concluded that climate change by itself would have significant geopolitical impacts around the world and would contribute to a host of problems, including poverty, environmental degradation and the weakening of national governments.

The assessment warned that the storms, droughts and food shortages that might result from a warming planet in coming decades would create numerous relief emergencies.

The Center for Naval Analyses, a think tank with close ties to the Pentagon, recently completed a similar analysis (.pdf). CNA convened a group of eleven high-ranking, retired military officers who concluded that "[c]limate change acts as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world" and also that "[p]rojected climate change will add to tensions even in stable regions of the world."

Such conclusions are often based on the potential that severe storms and droughts, coupled with temperature fluctuations, are likely to trigger food shortages, disease outbreaks, mass migration, and other changes with adverse security consequences. Both the NYT article and CNA report raise the prospect of increased support for terrorism, state collapse, and civil conflict.

While climate change may create new security problems in the future, the climate has also affected the kinds of conflict that we are all too familiar with today. So the relationship between climate change and conflict doesn't just concern new challenges that might arise, but also affects how climate has shaped other types of conflict that are unlikely to simply disappear.

Take the case of India and Pakistan. The two countries have a troubled and often violent bilateral relationship. South Asia is also projected to be high on the list of regions adversely affected by climate change.

While India and Pakistan haven't fought a large-scale war in several decades, they have come close to conflict on a number of occasions. In the past 25 years, Indian and Pakistan troops have stared each other down in the disputed province of Kashmir and across the international border on at least four occasions. However, in at least one of these instances, the climate actually helped to pull these two sides back from the brink.

In 1990, large military exercises held by Pakistan, coupled with increasing violence in Kashmir, led to a tense border stand-off: India had feared that the exercises were actually a prelude to a sneak attack and it subsequently deployed forces to its borders with Pakistan. However, this move in turn caused Pakistan to fear an Indian attack and tensions quickly spiraled as both sides rushed more and more troops to the borders.

As an American military attaché based in India at the time recalled later (.pdf), "all of us who have been to South Asia and particularly India recognize that the temperature hits about 100 degrees Fahrenheit sometime between the 1st and 15th of April each year, and it...becomes extremely difficult to fight at such temperatures." This extreme heat is followed by the monsoon season, which lasts from June until September. The torrential rains brought by the monsoon turn the deserts and swamps that make up much of the southern part of the India-Pakistan border into an impassable morass. With the window of opportunity for an attack closed by the extreme heat and the impending monsoon cut short the window of opportunity for attack, both sides took steps to reduce tensions (aided by a trip to the region by then-Deputy National Security Advisor Robert Gates.)

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has assessed (.pdf) that in South Asia, "The temperature projections for the 21st century...suggest a significant acceleration of warming over that observed in the 20th century." When combined with other anticipated changes, South Asia is likely to experience warmer, drier winters and monsoons with more sporadic but heavier rainfall. These changes seem likely to solidify the climactic window for conflict: the winters will seem even more appealing for holding military exercises like the ones that have triggered crises in the past, while also reinforcing the de-escalatory effects of the spring heat and summer monsoon.

On the other hand the current problem has been the lack of rain. The month of June was the driest India has seen in 80 years. If the IPCC's projections is incorrect, and the expected sporadic rains give way to draughts, the monsoon could create food shortages while simultaneously reducing the effect of one restraint on interstate war. This would be an especially dangerous combination: the fact that the populations of India and Pakistan are expected to grow by 750 million people over the next 50 years will make food shortages an especially difficult problem.

The New York Times reports that John Kerry is hoping that stressing the national security implications of climate change will help persuade skeptics to support strong climate legislation. Less abstract and more focused studies of the relationship between climate change and conflict would help.